In Gaza war, lions led by donkeys?

By Bernd Debusmann
January 15, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate- Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -

It’s not often that a senior member of Washington’s usually staid and cautious foreign policy establishment likens Israeli political leaders to donkeys and questions their competence. But the fighting in Gaza prompted Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies to do just that.

“Will Israel end in empowering an enemy in political terms that it defeated in tactical terms? Will Israel’s action seriously damage the U.S. position in the region, and hope of peace, as well as moderate Arab regimes and voices in the process? To be blunt, the answer so far seems to be yes.

“To paraphrase a comment about the British government’s management of the British Army in World War I, lions seem to be led by donkeys…The question is not whether the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) learned the tactical lessons of fighting in 2006 (in Lebanon). It is whether Israel’s top political leadership has even minimal competence to lead them,” he writes in an analysis on Gaza.

In Cordesman’s view, the leadership lacks a grand strategic purpose. Are the tactical gains the IDF is making in its assault on Hamas to stop it from firing rockets into Israel worth the political and strategic costs to the Jewish state?

Strong words from a respected authority on the Middle East, a member of an influential network of scholars who migrate from senior government jobs (his included director of intelligence assessment for the Secretary of Defense) to think tanks and from there often move back to government in Washington’s revolving door scene.

With the prospect of fighting in Gaza dragging on past next week’s inauguration of Barack Obama as the next U.S. president, analyses and advice have flowed freely on how the new administration should deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a problem that has plagued a string of presidents and shaped Arab perceptions that the U.S. backs Israel, no matter what.

Will the U.S. shift course under Obama? In her confirmation hearing this week, his nominee for Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, ruled out negotiating with Hamas, the group Israel is fighting in Gaza, unless it renounces violence and recognizes Israel. “That is just for me an absolute,” she said. No change on that front from George W. Bush.

No word either on Israeli settlements on the West Bank. They will remain standing once the guns fall silent in Gaza. Their continued growth – in violation of international law – bodes ill for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, the so-called two state solution. In the past 15 years, the number of Israelis living on the West Bank rose from 116,000 to almost 300,000. In addition, another 190,000 Israelis live in the formerly Arab part of Jerusalem, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.


If Obama is serious about making peace between Israelis and Palestinians, says Aaron David Miller, a scholar at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Institute, he will need to tackle the settlement question. In the past, U.S. involvement has been largely rhetorical. Miller, a former adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations to six secretaries of state, said he could not recall one strategic meeting with an Israeli Prime Minister to discuss the damage the settlements did to peace negotiations.

“But it is a fact that settlements are incompatible with creating confidence, let alone creating an atmosphere of serious negotiations.” Why didn’t the U.S. press harder? “For one, we didn’t want a confrontation.”

If future American attempts to help negotiate peace are to be successful, Miller says, the U.S. must be equally firm in dissuading actions on either side that wreck chances of an agreement – rockets fired from Gaza, or Israelis settling on the West Bank. Agreeing to every idea proposed by an Israeli Prime Minister, as happened in the past, is not the right way to go.

The cause of even-handedness would also benefit if American politicians (and pundits) took statements from Israeli leaders with a grain of salt. Such as the analogy Defense Minister Ehud Barak provided to explain why the IDF launched the war on Hamas in Gaza, opening with a bombardment reminiscent of the shock-and-awe assault with which the U.S. tried to decapitate Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.

“Contemplate what would happen if Kassem rockets were fired for years from Tijuana in Mexico to San Diego.”

There is no excuse for targeting civilians but Barak’s Tijuana-San Diego analogy is severely flawed. Tijuana has not been occupied by a foreign power, its citizens do not belong to families that were dislodged by a war in 1948, and the flow of goods into and out of Tijuana has not been subject to blockades. Unlike Gaza.

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Destroying Hamas would just lead to new, more violent, extremists. After Munich, I may have opted for same policy of finding those responsible and assassinating them. But the ultimate effect was that the power vaccuums left were filled by more extreme people. I know it’s easy for me to criticize Israelis for giving into fear, but Amos Gilad is not thinking beyond his fear. Israelis and Palestinians have both used “terrorist” tactics. It’s been that way since the bombing of the King David Hotel. The term is just an excuse to postpone real negotiations. This is a war, an ugly war that has gone on for a long time, but it can end.

Posted by Winchester73 | Report as abusive

Almost forgot my advice: let the Hamas leaders mellow a little with the years. Killing them off won’t bring about a more level-headed batch. The British didn’t opt to kill Menachem Begin after the King David Hotel bombing. If you think that was wise, you should see some utility in talking to Hamas.

Posted by Winchester73 | Report as abusive

Mr. Muller seems to be close to the mark. If Hamas refuses to accept Israel, this conflict will go on forever. Some of your commentators should be reminded that this war started because Hamas extremists had been shelling Israel for months. The Media had (has) a very biased view of what’s going on. And after 8 years of Bush we are to respect the Government’s Expert on the situation? One other media comment: Television news kept showing what I suspect is a BBC feed of children injured and dying during the conflict, as if to say that was the intent. Children and women have died in every war from the beginning of time. If Reuters had a TV Channel they would blow everybody else out of the market.

Posted by Andrew Franks | Report as abusive

The Israeli response to Hamas’ ineffective rockets was excessive and immoral. Why do the US and the EU continue to give unconditional support to Israel while it ignores international laws and basic human rights to the Palestinian people such as settlements in the West Bank and the fence built on Palestinians’ lands? The US can not negotiate peace in the Middle East if its uneven treatment continues. The UN should take the lead with full support of the EU and diplomacy persuasion with the US is the only hope. “Full support” means the implementation of UN resolutions is a MUST.

Posted by Nina Ruby | Report as abusive

The theory that Israel would disintegrate if peace is declared with the Arabs due to political and ethnic in-fighting might prove to be true soon.

The only unifying power in Israeli politics so far has been the war on the “enemy”. Once that is removed what possible unity could there be inside Israel.

Already serious rifts and cracks, quickly hushed up, have appeared between saphardi, Ashkenazi Israelis on one side and African/Indian and other ethnic “second class” Israeli citizens. These rift are bound to widen in the absence of a stronger survival threat were a peace treaty is signed.

The majority of critics of this theory are Israelis of course. But it provides the only logical deduction to forgotten internal religious and ethnic struggles threatening the very fabric of what is called Israel.

Posted by Ms Ada Bsiz | Report as abusive

going back to the tijuana vs. california statement, i believe he was purely using the idea of a border between the two countries rather than comparing gaza directly to tijuana. however, if you do want to compare them it is very possible. california is basically mexico’s version of israel. even though we bought california peacefully from mexico, we had to fight a whole war with them first (they were under spanish rule at the time). but for a while before that, there were many american’s living in california (occupation maybe?), granted, this isn’t the same as a military force, but it is similar. also, mexican families were displaced when california entered the union. i’m pretty sure there were a bunch of mexicans who didn’t want to live under US rule.

so basically, the comparison was pretty accurate, but again, i don’t belive he was going that far. he was just using a comparison that dealt with subjects close to home. he could have just as easily used a comparison between a city in canada firing rockets into michigan. there was some territorial disputes up there back in the day too.

anyways, israel is retaliating legitimately. just look at the ceasefire. a couple days in, hamas starts shooting more rockets into israel, and you expect them not to retaliate? ha. this war is never going to end. saying the phrase “peace in the middle east” is like saying “there’s a giant ice cube in the middle of the sun” it just doesn’t work.

Posted by L. Coleman | Report as abusive

Dave get YOUR fact straight, please, before regurgitating Zionist propaganda; the Zionists who make up the Israeli population have taken over the debate by framing it in their terms. Not all Jews agree with their agenda or their means remember Rabin (fyi a bonafide Israeli war hero assassinated by a Jew because he proposed a peace for land deal).
To put people in enclaves with no access; building walls around them and restricting all flow of goods and people through force; to invade and abuse the civil and human rights of a people because of their ethnicity guess whereof I speak sir.That is what the Germans did to the Jews and those European Jews have learned well but not well enough. Just as they were not crushed but were re borne so it shall be with the Palestinians. Mid East oil is not going to last for ever…

Posted by aqilmund | Report as abusive

There has been lots of talk about Hamas refusing to accept Israel’s right to… something. But Hamas does have a legitimate reason for refusing to register Israel as a state. Its because Israel has never restricted itself with known borders. This is a very peculiar situation and all known countries of the world has defined their boarders and yet Israel has not done this. So Hamas is right in saying no to an unknown sized country which has not brought nothing except misery and war to the region.

Posted by idrees from maldives | Report as abusive

Come on people wake up now… We have created this terrorist state of Israel by our tax money. So stop paying your tax money to Israel and this so called middle east problem will be solved. Simple as that.