Just asking

NATO began its war against Milosevic and the United States began its war against the Taliban with extended bombing campaigns. What do we know about the numbers of civilians killed, wounded or displaced and the monetary damage that both bombing campaigns cost?

And did the Europeans or the Arab League condemn the US or NATO for a “barbarous attack” against civilians?

These questions are not simply rhetorical: it is important to know. Ha’aretz quoted Ehud Olmert last week as saying that the Europeans were in no position to criticize Israel when NATO bombing killed 10,000 civilians in Serbia and Kosovo. I don’t know whether his numbers are right, but they are plausible.

Is there any principled justification for thinking Israel barbaric in Lebanon and NATO not so in Kosovo and the US not so in Afghanistan?

I suspect that there may be some sharp comments. In the words of Mr. Black, try not to shoot anybody in the face.

For It Before They Were Against It

So for two weeks Arab governments and Iran demanded an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon. Now, France and the United States draft a security council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire, and both the Arab League and Iran reject it.

It’s pretty easy to see why, of course. No one would call the IDF’s ground campaign a raging success, but Israeli forces hold chunks of Lebanese territory. Since the Franco-US draft does not call for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Israeli forces, the Arab League and Iran reject it.

Put another way: the Arab League and Iran wanted an immediate cease-fire when the facts on the ground would have meant a clear Israeli defeat (no return of Israeli soldiers, no military defeat of Hizbullah–essentially the status quo before Israeli responded). Now that that is no longer the case, they reject a cease-fire. In fact, ending the war now might give anti-Hizbullah forces some propaganda value: all you’ve brought us is more Israeli occupation.

All of this is in keeping with traditional diplomacy. But spare us the wailing from Arab governments about civilian casualties. Suddenly, all those people who were demanding an immediate end to fighting because of civilian casualties seem a lot less interested in them. European governments have also been very quiet about the Franco-American draft: when forced to choose between undermining Israel or saving civilians, they’ll sacrifice the civilians any day.

If hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, there’s an awful lot of tribute being paid now.

UPDATE: Billmon has a post saying the same thing, but with a very different spin. Worth reading.

Middle East War: A Quneitra Option?

The New York Times features an insightful op-ed today by Michael Young, a veteran reporter in Lebanon, about the current Israeli-Hezbollah war (I don’t agree with its conclusion, but that’s for another post). Young points to a central problem: Syria is the real power behind Hezbollah, but Israel is attacking Lebanon, which has no control over it.

That’s not totally right: Israel may very well be blockading Lebanon and knocking out the Beirut airport in preparation for a ground campaign, which is the only way to destroy Hezbollah’s military capability on its northern frontier. But this is taking a severe toll in civilian casualties. Consider me skeptical of the idea that harming Beirut will get enough Lebanese to gather up the strength to evict Hezbollah from south Lebanon.

There is, however, another possible way for Israel to approach the problem, which we might call the “Quneitra Option.”

Quneitra is a Syrian town on the Golan Heights just over the border from Israel; Israel occupied it from 1967 to 1973, and withdrew as part of the post-Yom Kippur War disengagement. It is now abandoned, and part of the DMZ between Syria and Israel. It stands as an important symbol for Syria as a first step toward regaining the Golan, and Damascus regularly accuses Israel of destroying the town as it left (Israel says that it was destroyed in fighting).

Perhaps a better way for Israel to approach the problem is to re-occupy Quneitra. Naysayers will say that this is madness, as it opens up a Syrian front. But I am doubtful. The Syrian military is incredibly weak: it lacks spare parts for its Cold War-vintage Soviet equipment, and remember that we are talking about a country that was literally hours away from complete defeat in 1973, when Soviet nuclear threats got it a cease-fire. The Syrians are no match for Israel and they know it: that is why they use Hezbollah’s asymmetric warfare as a strategy.

And that is also why Israel should use traditional warfare against Syria as a response. Were Israel to reoccupy Quneitra, it would send the Syrians a very powerful signal: we are prepared to start taking your territory. And unlike densely populated south Lebanon, this would require neither risk to nor occupation of civilians. Perhaps Israel should just keep moving two miles at a time into the lightly populated area east of the Golan any time that either Hamas or Hezbollah engages in any acts of war or terror. That would send a stronger signal than bombing Beirut and save civilians to boot.

It would be a dangerous game, but far less so than another invasion of Lebanon itself.

Gaza Update

The initial IDF report will conclude tentatively that the cause of the Gaza explosion was a Hamas bomb planted on the beach in order to deter Israel Navy commandos:

Some of the findings have already been reported: that five of the shells definitely landed some

250 meters from the beach, and that the explosion occurred at least eight minutes after the missing sixth shell was fired. However, this evidence has now been bolstered by three new findings:

* The shrapnel. Three people wounded in the blast are now hospitalized in Israel. Shrapnel was apparently removed from their bodies, and this is likely to reinforce the conclusion that the explosion was caused by a bomb

rather than a shell.

* The crater. Based on photographs, the crater left on the beach by the blast seems to have been made by an explosion from below (a mine), not a hit from above (a shell).

* Intelligence. Israel has amassed considerable information indicating that over the past few weeks, ever since Israeli commandos infiltrated Gaza and killed a rocket-launching cell, Hamas has been systematically mining the northern Gaza beach in an attempt to keep Israeli commandos from landing there again.

The main hole in the army’s evidence is the missing sixth shell actually, the first to be fired whose landing site has not been determined. From an examination of the cannon, the army is convinced that the shell could not have fallen on the beach, almost half a kilometer from its intended target. But there is no firm proof of this, only an educated guess.

We’ll see. This could be a study not only of how different propaganda machines are fighting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also how the blogosphere is doing it.

UPDATE: The Palestinians have retained an expert who sharply disputes the Israeli story, arguing that the wounds sustained by the victims could not have been caused by a mine. There is also a claim that a fragment of a shell was found on the beach. We know little about the expert, except that he used to work at the Department of Defense, and I confess to being a little skeptical about finding a shell fragment. Evidence concerning the wounds, however, could be objectively considered.

UPDATE TWO: The expert is Marc Garlasco of Human Rights Watch. Doing a few minutes of research on Garlasco reveals that he is a serious analyst, whose conclusions need to be seriously dealt with. It is good to see that HRW, whose credibility in my view was injured by its very biased report on Jenin, has hired someone with Gerlasco’s credentials. If HRW comes up with an interim report (which Garlasco no doubt will write), and the IDF releases its report, then we can compare and contrast. I will update the story as it proceeds in new posts.

The Gaza “Massacre”: Hold Your Fire

The death of seven Palestinians on a Gaza beach two days ago was clearly a tragedy. But at this point we don’t know who caused it. The Israeli Air Force initially apologized for a “mistake,” leading to worldwide condemnation led by (unsurprisingly) the French.

But let’s not move too fast.

Ha’aretz reports today that the IDF is launching an internal investigation of the matter, because some evidence indicates that the “internal Palestinian causes” may be responsible for the deaths.

“We still do not have an exact analysis of what happened there,” military sources told Haaretz on Saturday. “The most reasonable explanation that has been heard is that it was a firing of a shell which veered off its path, however all data relating to the pinpoint location of the shells’ landing are not consistent with this [theory].”

As James Fallows brilliantly documented three years ago in the Atlantic, the death of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura, which instantly became an iconic event in the Arab world, was most likely caused by Palestinian fire and even might have been intentionally caused for Arab propaganda purposes. In 2002, Palestinians accused the IDF of a “massacre” in Jenin–until it was discovered that only 26 civilians died there, and there was absolutely no evidence of any massacre. In fact the Israelis risked their own casualities rather than inflict too much civilian damage (no doubt in part because of the international condemnation that would have resulted if they had used bombing raids such as the US did in Afghanistan and Iraq.).

I am not saying that this possibility is correct. We just don’t know. And of course, even if the IDF investigation concludes that “internal Palestinian causes” were responsible, this conclusion itself may be propaganda. If as it turns out, this all resulted from an IDF screw-up, major operational changes are called for.

But we should not jump to conclusions here. The Hamas military wing has already announced that it will target Israeli civilians inside the Green Line in “response” to the killings, and Hamas is calling on Palestinians to boycott the PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ referendum (which I predicted a couple of days ago, before the killings). Meanwhile, the PA has refused Israeli requests for specific information concerning the Gaza killings. All of these very quick responses seem a little too convenient for me to trust any initial reports.

In other assassination news….

Israel has killed Hamas’ security chief, Jamal Abu Samhadana. Abu Sanhadana, who headed the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza, was responsible for several terrorist attacks–especially Qassam missile attacks on southern Israeli cities. But he was also director-general of the Hamas government’s interior ministry: PA President Abu Mazen vehemently objected to his appointment (as did Israel, who had Abu Sanhadana on its most wanted list), and his governmental authority was unclear for that reason.

I have no moral objection to Israel’s targeted killings: it is simply unproblematic morally to fire at the leadership and soldiers of someone who says that they are at war with you. Moreover, I think that the targeted killings have often been effective in driving Hamas and Islamic Jihad underground and disrupting their command network. They were at partially instrumental in Hamas’ reduction in terrorist attack against Israeli civilians

But I wonder whether this particular move was politically wise. Hamas was politically in a box: ineffective and increasingly unpopular in government, unable to get out, and finding it very difficult to deliver on its promises. This might unravel the political dynamic. It won’t necessarily do so: the Palestinian public has not shown itself to be enamored of figures like Abu Samhadana, whose actions invite Israeli retaliations in Gaza. That’s especially true after the Israeli pullout: “we finally got rid of them, and now you are practically inviting them back?” Perhaps getting Abu Samhadana was operationally so important that it didn’t matter. But this could really roil things.

Darfur, the Arab League, and the Jews

Just when you thought Darfur couldn’t get more grotesque, it does: the invaluable Eric Reeves points out that both the Arab League and the African Union have decided to hold their summit meetings in Khartoum, the capital of the genocidal Sudanese regime. No doubt these meetings will be quite a feather in the regime’s cap, and show potential other mass killers how little retribution they will face. This is one of those events when words almost fail you.

Almost. In fact, the Arab League has unwittingly given critical support to the Zionist idea.

One of the most seductive ideas going around in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that of the “one-state solution”. Never mind all the talk about where the borders of a Palestinian state will be, say its advocates: why don’t we just have one binational state? Anytime you see the phrase “Israel/Palestine,” that’s a pretty good indication that the author is headed in this direction.

While some supporters of this idea may have the best motives at heart, it’s hardly surprising that the idea took off in Palestinian circles as soon as it became clear that if the descendants of the 1948 Palestinian refugees actually came back to live inside Israel proper, Israel would then have an Arab majority. No matter, they insist: what we want is a state free of “racism”, where all peoples can live in harmony.

They might want to tell that to the residents of Darfur, who are being slaughtered essentially because they are not Arab. If an Arab government will do this to Muslims–and receive the support of every other Arab country while doing so–what would an Arab government do to the Jews? We don’t need to look very far. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades are in fact the incipient Palestinian janjahweed.

No less an authority than Edward Said knew as much. He told Ha’aretz in a 2000 interview that the fate of the Jews in a post-Zionist Palestine “worries me a great deal. The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don’t know. It worries me.” That didn’t stop him from advocating a one-state “solution” to the conflict. It’s funny how such “solutions” tend to replicate themselves.

Sharon’s stroke and Israeli politics

Josh Marshall shudders to think what the final story will be in light of Ariel Sharon’s “significant” stroke earlier today. No one knows, of course, but let’s assume that Sharon is incapacitated for an extended period of time, a reasonable assumption for a stroke victim who is 77 years old, 5’7″, and weighs well over 250 pounds.

It seems to me pretty clear what Kadima needs to do: immediately declare Ehud Olmert the leader of the party, and have him conduct a press conference flanked by Shimon Peres and Shaul Mofaz. Olmert is currently deputy prime minister, a Sharon loyalist, someone with strong right-wing credentials but who isn’t crazy. Kadima’s charter lists him as second-in-command. But Peres is critical, too: his presence, and vocal support for Olmert as interim party leader, demonstrates that Kadima is more than just a Likud breakway faction. A few weeks ago, Peres’ jumping from Labor seemed little more than window-dressing: now, it is crucial for Kadima’s image as a centrist party. It would also help Peres’ image, which now is that of a political opportunist, to very publicly not attempt to use this opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Mofaz is important because he is a former IDF chief of staff, a former Likudnik, and–perhaps most importantly–a Mizrachi (Israeli Jew of Middle Eastern descent, in this case, Iranian). The question is whether they can do this: Peres and Olmert are not fond of each other, and Olmert and Mofaz are rivals for the hawkish side of the Kadima coalition. Another key player could be Dan Meridor, a former Likud politician who jumped ship several years ago out of disgust with the right’s rejectionism and has come back to politics to be in Kadima: Meridor is my favorite Israeli politicial figure, someone of great judgment and centrist credentials. He could provide ballast to the increasingly rickety Kadima ship.

Labor needs to smoothly upgrade the presence on its ticket of Ami Ayalon, the former Israel Navy and Shin Bet chief, who is the architect of the best Israeli-Palestinian framework peace deal, and now Labor’s best spokesperson on security. Labor leader Amir Peretz, the former leader of the Histadrut (Israel’s mainlabor organization) and a Mizrachi himself, has driven Labor to a full-throated advocacy of social democracy. This makes sense long-term, and also in an election where Sharon is participating: voters can vote Labor knowing that it won’t really be running the security apparatus and would most like be a junior partner in Sharon’s coalition. Now, Labor needs to establish its security bonafides. The trick is to maintain the focus on domestic social democracy while demonstrating its strength on defense issues. Another good tack would be to give a higher profile role to Fuad Ben-Eliezer, the former Labor chief and Defence Minister, but he and Peretz loath each other (notice a pattern here?), so this is not likely.

Over in the rump Likud Party, Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy is essentially to try to make the Likud defectors forget what a duplicitous politician he is. His obvious goal is to attract back Likud voters and former Likud politicians, but he cannot do so on substantive grounds: his entire claim to leadership is that he is the pure embodiment of traditional right-wing values. Moreover, he cannot attempt to woo back Likud’s traditional, working-class, mostly Mizrachi constituency on economic grounds because as Finance Minister he presided over the Thatcherite policies that they abhor. So he must do so on personal grounds, assuring people that he is not vindictive or petty and will welcome all former Likudniks back in the party. This will be difficult because everyone knows him to be vindictive and petty.

Over the next few weeks, we will see the Israeli political class’ pettiness and childishness at its worst; the question is whether this childishness will obstruct what are fairly straightforward strategies for the three major parties. Something in me suspects that the big winners in all of this will be the religious parties, because–well–they always seem to be the big winners.

“Developing”….

Velvet Divorce, Israeli-Style

Surprising exactly no one, Shimon Peres has left the Labor Party to join forces with Ariel Sharon and the new Kadima Party. As is typical with much Israeli politics, the move is generating more heat than light: Labor is accusing Peres of betrayal, Likud is saying that this proves Kadima is a left-wing party, etc. etc. But this is a good divorce: it helps both Labor and Peres.

I doubt that it will change much in this election. Since Sharon faced down the Gaza settlers and broke with Likud, he is pretty credible as a peace candidate at least for the Israeli electorate. Few will vote Kadima now simply because Peres is high on its list. But Peres will help marginally, and if (as seems likely) Kadima wins, then he will get another coveted high ministerial post.

In the long run, I believe that this move helps the Labor Party: it can now more aggressively market itself as a social democratic force. Peres’ absence will make it easier for its Moroccan-born leader, Amir Peretz, to appeal to working-class Sephardi voters who despise Peres as a symbol of the old, Ashkenazi-elite based Mapai Party, Labor’s predecessor. (And not without justification: Peres was part of the Mapai crowd that stuck Sephardim into dreary development towns, and his brother recently issued a series of horrific anti-Sephardi ethnic slurs that Peres himself has not disavowed).

This is really the New Labor Party. Its leadership might well be Peretz, who just recently was in another party; Ben-Gurion University President Avishai Braverman, a former deputy director of the World Bank who has never been in the Knesset; Ophir Pines-Paz, the young Interior Minister who shocked everyone in the last Labor primary by coming from nowhere to a position of prominence; and Ami Ayalon, the former Israel Navy and Shin Bet chief who will also be a new member. (Ayalon developed the most promising extra-government peace initiative, the People’s Voice accord: go check out the website for it). For the first time, Labor can credibly say it has done its housecleaning.

If the polls are right, Kadima will gain about 33-34 seats; Labor about 25-26; and the rump Likud about 12-14. Peretz vowed a couple of months ago that he would never join a Likud government, and now he can say that he will join a Kadima government. I wouldn’t be surprised if, when he does so, Labor will insist on Cabinet portfolios that are very focused on Israeli domestic issues: Finance, Health, Education, Housing, and most importantly, Interior (a very powerful ministry in Israel). Kadima will have the Prime Minister, Foreign Affairs, Defense, Public Security. That will allow Labor to build a domestic constituency among working-class voters together with its traditional Ashkenazi elite base.

Israelis have never really appreciated Peres. He was a very good Prime Minister in the 1980’s, when someone needed to make the tough choices to crush the country’s galloping inflation. He is the father of the nation’s nuclear deterrent: as deputy defense minister in the 1960’s, he pulled the right strings to get the technology to Israel. But he is also an incorrigible wheeler-dealer whose word can never quite be trusted and is now addicted to ministerial positions. He’ll get what he wants. Labor will be freed from him. For once in Israel, there is something of a happy ending.

—Jonathan Zasloff