Changing the equation--Maybe for the worse

From Eyal Press

Greetings to Ta-Nehisi's fans and readers.  As my friend and fellow Chimay-lover warned you, I'm here as a guest-blogger to comment on the "all-out war" that Israel has launched against Hamas, which has now stretched into a second week and may drag on for a good while longer.

And so, we begin...

Rebuffing diplomatic efforts to broker a ceasefire, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni insisted yesterday that the goal of the operation was to "change the equation" in the region.  Since few Israelis openly endorse a permanent reoccupation of the Gaza Strip, her assumption is presumably that a truce will eventually be reached on terms more favorable to Israel, putting a stop to Hamas' missile attacks, and that Palestinians will conclude from the latest round of carnage that they should throw their support behind new, more moderate leaders.

The first assumption is debatable, the second illogical and perverse. The 1.5 million residents of Gaza have spent the past eleven days scrambling for cover.  Mosques, universities and government buildings have been destroyed. The death toll has climbed above 550 Palestinians.  Unless Hamas' supporters have lost the capacity to feel enraged and insulted, feelings never in short supply among them in the past, it's hard to see how witnessing this will lead them to choose more moderate leaders.  Or for that matter how it will weaken Hamas, which had seen its popularity among Palestinians decline before Israel's invasion was launched.  As the Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab noted in the Washington Post, a survey conducted in November found that a mere 16.6 percent of Palestinians backed Hamas, due largely to the group's intransigence and unwillingness to forge a national-unity government.  But that was before Israel's onslaught. To quote Kattub:

The disproportionate and heavy-handed Israeli attacks on Gaza have been a bonanza for Hamas. The movement renewed its standing in the Arab world, secured international favor further afield and succeeded in scuttling indirect Israeli-Syrian talks and direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. It has also greatly embarrassed Israel's strongest Arab neighbors, Egypt and Jordan.

We have, of course, been here before.  In July 2006, Israel launched an aerial assault on Lebanon to destroy the arsenal of Hezbollah and put a stop to its cross-border rocket attacks. As we all know, the mission failed, with Hezbollah emerging, if anything, stronger (and Israel more widely hated). This time, the usual coterie of pro-war pundits insist, it will be different.  The Israeli military is better prepared, the circumstances have altered... Yet the same flawed premise is at work.

Like Hezbollah, Hamas is a religious-nationalist movement that cannot simply be expunged by force - and that did, lest we forget, win an election back in 2006. Like Hezbollah, it thrives on the very sort of conflict Israel's leaders somehow imagine will destroy it.  Other than boosting the short-term political prospects of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and deepening the anger and misery of the Gazans, it's hard to see what this war will accomplish.