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Supporting Israel Means Seeking a Ceasefire, Now

Israel's military leaders know that while short-term tactical gains can be achieved, the Israeli military cannot destroy popular support for Hamas, stop all rockets from falling, or force the release of Gilad Shalit.

1/2/09

We enter this new year in the midst of a new crisis in the Middle East.

Israel is again at war in Gaza.  This tragic turn of events should surprise no one.  Over the past few weeks and days, Israelis, Palestinians, and the world have been witnessing the unfolding of a serious and dangerous military escalation between Israel and Hamas, bringing ever-increasing casualties and ever-growing fear and trauma to innocent people on both sides - people who want nothing more than to live normal lives with peace and dignity.  

The government of Israel has the right - indeed, the obligation - to take measures to bring to a halt the terror of incoming fire from the Gaza Strip into communities of southern Israel, as well as to seek to free its captured soldier, Gilad Shalit. 

This right and obligation poses tremendous challenges for Israel, given the nature of Hamas and its rule in Gaza.  The decision to try to pressure Hamas through boycotts and the imposition of a near total siege on Gaza has clearly failed, while bringing the people of Gaza to the brink of an entirely man-made humanitarian disaster. 

The decision earlier this year to establish a ceasefire was a right one.  Unfortunately, that decision alone was insufficient to achieve long-term stability, since it was not part of a broader, realistic strategy to deal with the fundamental issues at stake.  The breakdown of that ceasefire reflects this failure.

Now, in the face of the current crisis, simply escalating the violence is not going to resolve the situation. 

Israel's military leaders know that while the IDF can achieve short-term tactical gains in Gaza, the Israeli military cannot destroy popular support for Hamas, stop all rockets from falling, or force the release of Gilad Shalit. 

Indeed, this escalation risks playing into the hands of extremists, while increasing dangers to both soldiers and civilians - Israeli and Palestinian - and getting Israel bogged down in an open-ended mission in Gaza. 

It also raises the specter of a two-front war, should Hizballah decide to renew conflict on Israel's northern border, with all the challenges to the IDF and danger to Israeli civilians that this would entail. 

Many argue that this is precisely what Hamas wants. 

We argue that these are important reasons to seek to avoid further escalation and move quickly to a ceasefire.

We are not na‹ve.  We recognize the extraordinary difficulty Israel faces in achieving any sustainable ceasefire agreement, formal or informal, with an extremist, ideologically-motivated organization like Hamas.

We also know that the breakdown of the recent ceasefire does not prove that ceasefires are futile.  Rather, it demonstrates the danger of treating a ceasefire as an end unto itself. 

As we have warned repeatedly in the past - indeed, every time we have called for a ceasefire - a ceasefire is useful and desirable only as a means to halt violence and chaos in the immediate term, creating the space to facilitate improvements in the humanitarian situation, stabilize the political situation, and get the process back on track to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Absent improvements in the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the re-emergence of a serious, productive political process, any ceasefire risks becoming merely an intermission to allow those attacking Israel to re-arm, re-trench, and enhance their military capability. 

Sadly, this is exactly what happened under the ceasefire that just ended.

Looking ahead, the only way out of the current crisis is to re-establish a ceasefire, but this time not as a short-term fix but rather as part of a serious, longer-term strategy to deal with the core issues at play in Gaza.

In this way, and only in this way, a ceasefire can allow the sides to avoid the re-emergence of violence in the longer term.   The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, at its heart, a political conflict. Palestinian terrorism against Israel - including Hamas-fired rockets from Gaza - is a horrendous aspect of this conflict that cannot be brought to an end simply by increasing the harshness of the Israeli response.

Finally, the painful lessons of the 2006 Israel-Hizballah War should not be lost here.  Any realistic, sustainable resolution to this crisis will require Israel and Hamas to engage eventually, directly or indirectly, to achieve a ceasefire. 

The only real questions thus are:

  • How many more Israelis and Palestinians will die or be wounded in the interim?
  • How much less international sympathy Israel will have when the ceasefire is being negotiated?
  • How much bigger will the disaster on the ground be, both in Israel and Gaza, once a ceasefire is achieved? How much damage will have been done to the credibility and viability of the peace process and the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps?  
  • And perhaps most importantly, will a ceasefire this time be accompanied by both the kind of changes on the ground and the establishment of some sort of political process necessary for it to succeed?