Oddly enough, Obama may be weighing in at an opportune time – although critics are likely to see his call this morning for a “cessation of hostilities,” in a phone conversation with Benjamin Netanyahu, in an unpleasant light.
The statement from Obama is copied here from the Algemeiner’s Operation Protective Edge timeline (emphasis in original):
2:11 pm – The White House released a readout from a call earlier today between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. During the call, Obama strongly pushed for an immediate ceasefire:
President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke again this morning by phone, their second call in three days to discuss the situation in Gaza. The President discussed Israel’s ongoing military operation, reiterated the United States’ condemnation of attacks by Hamas against Israel, and reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself. The President also raised serious concern about the growing number of casualties, including increasing Palestinian civilian deaths in Gaza and the loss of Israeli soldiers.
“President Obama informed the Prime Minister that Secretary of State John Kerry will soon travel to Cairo to seek an immediate cessation of hostilities based on a return to the November 2012 ceasefire agreement. The President underscored that the United States will work closely with Israel and regional partners on implementing an immediate ceasefire, and stressed the need to protect civilians—in Gaza and in Israel.
The timing, as always with this administration, is somewhat unpropitious. John Kerry was caught on a hot microphone this morning as he waited for his interview on Fox News Sunday to start, apparently criticizing Israel’s “pinpoint operation” in a phone call with an aide. Reaction to that little interlude will color the perception of Obama’s tone in urging a cessation of hostilities on Netanyahu.
So, of course, will the casualties Israel took earlier on Sunday. The IDF has gone in force into the Shujaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, which has served in recent weeks as a major launch point for the rockets rained down on Israel by Hamas. According to the IDF brief, 140 rockets were launched from Shujaiya since 8 July. (As I go to post this, I see that the IDF blog link is unavailable, probably temporarily. The same brief is located here.)
Hamas has installed a considerable infrastructure there – in a largely residential neighborhood. (Reportedly, 10 tunnel openings have already been found by IDF troops. See this excellent MEMRI report on the importance of the tunnel infrastructure. The Israel Project has an audio recording of a conference call with a retired IDF officer who gave a good briefing on this last week.)
The largest single concentration of casualties the IDF has taken since 2006 occurred in the early hours Sunday morning as Israeli troops fanned out through Shujaiya. A total of 13 soldiers were killed (reportedly including two American citizens). Seven were killed when their armored personnel carrier hit an explosive device (described in some reports as a mine). Small arms fire killed three soldiers in two separate incidents, and three more were killed inside a building. The first reporting on that attack suggested that a missile was fired at them, but the latest update from the IDF indicates only that the three were trapped in a burning building.
Five other soldiers have been killed elsewhere since the ground invasion began, bringing the total of IDF fatalities to 18 so far. As expected, with the ground invasion, the price Israel is paying in lives to root out the threat from Hamas is going up.
The IDF is making progress, having at least found a number of tunnels, and preparing to support operations in Gaza until the bulk of Hamas’s infrastructure for terror attacks on civilians can be eliminated.
The Hamas rocket attacks on Israel continued on Sunday, however, with 26 reportedly being launched in the last 24 hours. Hamas isn’t giving up this time: isn’t retreating behind a strategic ceasefire agreement with one eye on the future. As I wrote 10 days ago, Hamas is going for broke. The Hamas leadership knows it has lost importance in the post-Arab Spring environment. Too many alternatives are possible now: scenarios in which there will be other ways for radical Islamists to come at Israel besides supporting Hamas, Fatah, Hezbollah, or some combination of them. Hamas needs to get something started now, if the terrorist group is to remain relevant.
So as ceasefire after ceasefire is proposed, Israel agrees to consider them and Hamas does not. Critics of the Obama administration will justifiably ask if the president also urged Hamas’s leaders to cease hostilities today – or if his appeal was only to Israel. The critics would point out that Israel has started a job that needs to be finished, if there is to be a basis for a lasting truce of some kind.
And none of these criticisms is unfair. But there’s a bigger picture to consider: one that may actually cause Netanyahu to seek a negotiated ceasefire earlier, and after accomplishing less, than Israel’s well-wishers might prefer.
That bigger picture can be outlined very simply. The whole reality of the Middle East has changed in the last three years, and no one knows what comes next. Hamas can’t just be destroyed. That would create a vacuum in Gaza, and there’s no one who is ready with a plan to fill it.
Each interested party knows two things: first, that there is no plan ready to be implemented for any follow-on arrangement; and second, that any obvious proposal would be unacceptable to other important parties. Now isn’t the time to hash this out: to try to implement a sustainable alternative to the rule of Hamas.
Or, if this is the time, the process hasn’t begun. There will have to be some kind of interim arrangement made. And just doing that implies cutting the cord with the Hamas era – and thereby opening Pandora’s box anyway. No one will accept being a bystander in that emerging dynamic. However you slice it, moving on from “Hamas in Gaza” has the potential to create more problems for the region than it would solve right now.
It’s possible that Pandora’s box is about to be opened. My gut feeling, however, is that almost everyone would rather than it weren’t. Not today. No one is prepared to launch a campaign for his interests in the new, all-bets-off conditions – and no one wants anyone else to. If Israel will cripple Hamas just enough to restore a livable status quo for a while longer, without creating that destabilizing vacuum in Gaza, Egypt and Jordan will sign on, and the more distant parties won’t really stand in the way. (They will, of course, rail in a perfunctory manner against whatever Israel does.)
The obvious potential partners in such an outcome are Egypt and Fatah. And the basic outline of the deal, which Israel should have some latitude to set the timing for, could be what Obama’s negotiators will reportedly propose in Cairo this week: the November 2012 ceasefire agreement.
That agreement does not give Hamas what it has asked for as the conditions for a truce. Making a mere return to the status quo ante satisfactory to Israelis, moreover, who have had to supply the manpower and the casualties for the current campaign, will probably require at least another week of destroying Hamas infrastructure in Gaza. (Such an outcome will be unsatisfactory, of course, to a significant portion of the Israeli population. But Israel would need to be more unified behind a new national strategy to actually change the posture she has maintained for the last 20-odd years, and I think most Israelis recognize that, viscerally if not from explicit intellectual evaluation.)
My sense, in any case, is that Netanyahu has no intention of letting this conflict turn into a complete game-changer for the region – if he can help it. Letting things spiral out that way would do Israel no good. I think he has allies, however temporary, in al-Sisi in Egypt and King Abdullah in Jordan. The political leaders of Europe would quietly support a restoration of the status quo, and there would be little that the other leading Muslim nations – Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia – could do about it, for the time being. Russia would have no reason to weigh in if the status quo ante was to be the proposed end state.
So it may well be that Obama is moving now to – in effect – make the proposal that everyone except Hamas is prepared to accept anyway. It remains to be seen whether Hamas can be roped and tied. That will be up to the IDF. Hamas has seen a need to change its game. But for the very same reasons, no one else wants to change the game right now. With U.S. power gone, there’s suddenly no firm base to stand on – no center that can be expected to hold – and all contexts for decision-making look different.