01/17/2009 04:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Worse than a crime, a mistake?

It appears that we are close to a ceasfire in Gaza. So there are two questions to be asked at this juncture. Looking back, are the terms of the proposed ceasefire different from the ones that could have been obtained after the first two or three days of the campaign, and in particular without the ground invasion? If not, was the invasion of Gaza worth it? The second question, of course, is what comes next?

Concerning the terms of the ceasefire, the two key elements from the Israeli perspective appear to be the role of the U.S. and non-American international monitors to stop the smuggling of weapons across the Egyptian border. Early on, Hamas signaled its willingness to accept international monitors early on if Israel would lift its blockade. So if the Israel goal was to stop the smuggling of weapons, it is not at all clear that the 1,000+ deaths and the destruction of Gaza's infrastructure can be justified; alternatively, since the new element is U.S. involvement, one might be left with the disquieting feeling that death and destruction on a massive scale was what it took to get the Bush administration to agree to be actively involved. Something on this order seems to be what is implied in Ehud Barak's statement that Israel is willing to consider a cease-fire because the country is "very close to achieving its goals and securing them through diplomatic agreements."

But of course, there were other military justifications. One might simply be the destruction of the stores of weapons that were already in place along with Hamas command and control in order to diminish Hamas' capacity to launch future attacks if the smuggling system is shut down. Or there is an entirely different order of "justification"; Israel's complete abandonment of the norm of proportionality in favor of a whole new level of overreaction. In many people's minds the purpose of the invasion was simply reprisal. People in Gaza shoot missiles at Israel, Israel will flatten Gaza. Or there is the deterrence theory. It's rather an Israeli of Nixon's Madman Theory, the idea being that from here on Israel must not be messed with because it can be absolutely counted upon to react with massive destruction, a proposition for which we now have demonstrations in both Lebanon and Gaza. Livni came within a hair of articulating this very proposition when she declared that "Israel embarked on the campaign in order to change the equation and restore its deterrent capacity. We did that a few days ago, in my opinion. It has to be put to the test. If Hamas shoots, we'll have to continue. And if it shoots later on, we'll have to embark on another campaign." (The phrase "a few days ago" might be thought to raise questions about the actions since that time, but let us not quibble.)

Finally there is the theory that the rocket fire was just a pretext, that what Israel was really trying to do was to send an object lesson to Iran after having been rebuffed by the Bush administration in its attempt to launch a military strike at Iran directly. (In a moment that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, it appears that support for the idea among civilians in the administration was overcome by military doubts.) This one seems a bit of a stretch; the Israeli public was quite genuinely angry about the rocket attacks in December, after all (just as the people of Gaza were enraged by Israel's continuation of its blockade), and it is difficult to see how Iran will look at the invasion of Gaza as a model for an hypothetical Israeli military strike against Iran. But if that was an element of the military strategy, Iran may be feeling emboldened rather than frightened, as may have likewise been the case after the Lebanon invasion: Iran's offensive and defensive arsenal, after all, are a far cry from those of Hamas.

On the other hand, there are other theories about a non-military purpose of the invasion that suggest a far less successful outcome. One idea is that the goal was to weaken Hamas politically as well as militarily relative to the PA and thus push toward a unified Palestinian leadership without Hamas. In the first days of the air campaign, that goal seemed to be close; most remarkably, at an emergency meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo, government officials from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Secretary-General of the Arab League all issue statements blaming Hamas for provoking the violence. Their position was understandable; these (and other) Arab governments were fearful of Iran and radical Islamist movements generally -- even Syria seemed to be moving toward looking elsewhere for support, particularly after radical Islamists launched bomb attacks in Damascus last year -- and to be completely cynical about it, the so-called "moderate" regimes have long since tired of the Palestinian cause as a device for unifying or distracting their own people.

But that was two weeks ago, before the ground invasion. Today the situation is completely different. No Arab government is going to attack Hamas now. Abbas cannot take over Gaza or take control of the reconstruction effort without losing all credibility, and any joint Palestinian government now is going to include Hamas. Like Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Hamas will be in charge of distributing reconstruction aid, thus further cementing its ties to the populace. If the goal was to weaken Hamas politically, it appears to have been a massive miscalculation. In the famous words of Talleyrand, it was worse than a crime, it was a mistake.

So was the operation worth its costs? It is difficult to say since no one can explain the purpose and goals of the operation in the first place. Meanwhile, what comes next? Particularly, what does the Obama administration do now?

Before Operation Cast Lead, the smart approach was fairly clear: containment, isolation with respect to Iran and its clients, engagement and development among moderate Arab states and the PA. Build on distrust of Iran, take an active role in creating progress in the West Bank by putting pressure on Israel to take concrete steps - including removal of settlements and checkpoints and opening roads as well as investment in the economy, and a willingness to negotiate in good faith over the Golan and Shabaa Farms areas - and wean Syria away from Iranian influence. There were positive signs, particularly from Arab governments; Syria was edging toward formal talks (again), while the 2002 Saudi peace proposal represented a huge shift for the Arab League.

But that was all before the Gaza invasion. The choices available to Obama - and Secretary of State Clinton - now are few. The governments in Egypt and Jordan and Lebanon - and even Saudi Arabia - are going to need to see something tangible, starting with a major reconstruction effort in Gaza and above all - above all - and end to the siege.

And even if we could get back to the relatively rosy days before Operation Cast Lead (we can't, see below), there was already one huge fly in the ointment. All the Arab positions were based on Israel returning to its pre-June 1967 borders and sharing Jerusalem. Amazingly, I frequently hear American supporters of Israel proclaim that they believe that Israel is open to such a solution. In fact, that is not going to happen - at least, it is not going to happen without a profound and basic shift in Israeli attitudes.

It's all about the settlements. It has been all about the settlements since the 1970s. In reaching a peace treaty with Egypt, Israel embraced the formulation of land for peace. But Israel has spent the past two decades establishing "facts on the ground" to prevent the return of the West Bank: initially by the construction of settlement and the checkpoints and settler-only roads and military installations that follow them, and most recently by the creation of the Wall. Please look at a map here or here; look at the wall, but look also at the settlements East of the wall stretching out toward Jericho. These settlements cut the West Bank in half. Now consider the trend in the settler population in the West Bank, not including Jerusalem:
2007 276,045
2006 263,837
2005 249,477
2004 237,987
2003 225,957
2002 214,722
2001 198,535
2000 192,976
1999 177,411
Various Israeli Prime Ministers promise American governments that they will stop settlement expansion - according to the 2002 roadmap, all settlements constructed after March 2001 were supposed to be removed - but those assurances mean nothing. In November 2007 Peace Now identified 88 current government-approved settlement construction projects, along with large numbers of unauthorized settlement and outpost building efforts that the government was making no effort to stop. (Here is another is a recent example.) By the end of 2007 the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank had reached 280,000. Recently, some settlers in Hebron have gone too far and incurred the anger of the authorities. But the line of the Wall makes the reality clear: even if, through the application of relentless American pressure, Israel could be persuaded to get rid of a few of the most extreme, most blatantly illegal settlements, Israel has no intention of returning to anything like the 1967 borders or even complying with the terms of the roadmap.

Nor is this an issue of Right and Left. The Israeli Right led by Benyamin Netanyahu has no interest in any kind of compromise with respect to Jerusalem, but look at the map again; the Wall makes it clear that Israel has no interest in permitting Jerusalem to be connected to the remainder of the West Bank regardless of its status. Facts on the ground in this case involve a chain of settlement heading East that cut halfway across the Jordan River Valley; those are the borders that Israel is willing to discuss. And one should not underestimate the extent the reality of the situation; to uproot the settlements that run East from Jerusalem, or the Ariel bloc in the North, would likely cause something close to a civil war.

So what does the future hold? Here's the optimistic view. Almost certainly, when a Palestinian state is finally established it will not include the territory inside the Wall (although there have been some discussions of swaps of territory further North). Conversely, after the events of the past weeks it is hard to imagine how Abbas can assume control in Gaza except - at best - as part of a governing coalition that includes Hamas. Far from driving Hamas from the political stage, Operation Cast Lead may have made them a permanent fixture. As a result, looking forward it is no long reasonable to ask "what will it take to destroy Hamas and Hezbollah"; Hamas and Hezbollah are not going anywyere. Now Israel has to think about living next to them in some version of "peace." That is a possibility with Hamas (and let us not hear the usual outcry about Hamas' Charter -- charters are lagging indicators, they are changed when the parties decide that peace is in their interest, as happened with the PNC); it is likely that Hezbollah can only be contained. But those outcomes probably require first reaching peace with Syria, to cut supply lines from Iran as well as Syria itself into Lebanon, to give Syria an incentive to work toward rather than against stability in Lebanon, and to give Syria a good reason to abandon Hamas. Syria is a secular state whose population is less than 10% Shiite and secular; separating Syria from Iran should not be an impossible task, just expensive. But it requires a deal on the Golan. To isolate Iran within the Arab League requires serious progress on the West Bank; if the 1967 borders are not on the table - as I believe they are not - it will take a very special effort indeed to sell peace terms, and that effort will have to begin with concrete and immediate steps and end with a serious discussion about Jerusalem, none of which will happen without the U.S. holding Israel's feet to the fire, on the one hand, even as it monitors the border between Egypt and Gaza and deals with Syria, on the other.

The pessimistic view does not bear contemplation. Hamas remains in control of Gaza and in control of the reconstruction effort, while Abbas is discredited in the West Bank because he has no good answer to the question "what did you do in the war?" There is no fondness for Hamas on the West Bank, but that does not mean that Abbas is wildly popular, nor that it is unimaginable that a more radical group could take control, particularly if recent improvements in the local economy were to fail. The stakes seem to go up with each round of conflict; could we next see coordinated attacks from both Lebanon and Gaza and the West Bank, simultaneously? Meanwhile, are we really sure we have seen the last Arab-Israeli war? If the Syria-Iran axis is strengthened rather than weakened and key Arab League states turn back to their earlier, anti-Israel ways -- whether through changes in attitude or changes in regime - then Hamas may not need to rely on tunnels to re-arm. And the demographic time bomb goes tick, tick, tick.

What an appropriately ironic epitaph for all concerned: "it was worse than a crime, it was a mistake."