The sudden escalation on Israel’s northern front this week added a disturbing complication to the three-week-old crisis in Gaza, but it also served, in the curious way of the Middle East, as a clarifying development. It was a reminder that there is, in the final analysis, no such thing as unilateral action. One may act as one pleases, but others are certain to react. It’s best to consider the likely reactions carefully before making one’s move. In that sense, unilateral action is merely — to paraphrase Clausewitz — a continuation of diplomacy by other means.
Israel decided two years ago — correctly, in our view — that it had to withdraw from Gaza, unilaterally if necessary. It did so because it knew it could not continue to rule over the densely populated Palestinian territory, but it could not negotiate a mutually agreed withdrawal with the Palestinian leadership under Yasser Arafat’s Fatah. Fatah was bent on reaching a wildly unrealistic final-status agreement with Israel, including a return to the 1967 borders and a Palestinian right of return. Israel concluded that it had no partner for negotiation, and it decided to act unilaterally.
But Israel took its own words too literally. It had no partner for peace negotiations, true, but it did have an adversary that was prepared to permit an orderly Israeli withdrawal and to maintain a cease-fire, leaving the way open for further improvement. And there was an alternative leadership waiting in the wings on the other side that was much, much worse. Israel ignored that fact. By failing to encourage its de facto partner, Fatah, it ended up facing the worse alternative, Hamas.
Even then, Israel had better and worse options. Faced with a Hamas-led Palestinian government, Israel could either encourage the Islamic movement’s incipient pragmatic wing, however distasteful, or push for maximum quarantine of Hamas and its administration. The pragmatists were talking of an extended cease-fire, a unity government with Fatah and eventually the adoption of the so-called Prisoners’ Document, with its implicit acceptance of a two-state solution. Given the inadequacy of all these gestures, full-scale quarantine remained morally and politically defensible. But as this newspaper warned more than once, full quarantine carried the risk of driving Hamas willy-nilly into the arms of its ideological and theological foe, Shi’ite Iran.
This week, Iran showed its hand. A successful cross-border raid by Iran’s Lebanese client militia, Hezbollah, left seven Israeli soldiers dead and two more abducted. The crisis that began three weeks ago on the Gaza border, with a nearly identical cross-border raid led by Hamas, has now spread to a second front. Three Israeli soldiers are held hostage in places unknown. Israeli ground troops have been dragged back into combat on two hostile fronts that they had thought themselves well rid of.
As Marc Perelman reports on Page 1, Iran is believed to have been working for months, in concert with its Syrian ally, to insert itself as a spoiler on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Iran’s dual aim is to wreck any prospect of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence by keeping tensions at a boil, and along the way to divert attention from its own troubles with the West. Syria is along for the ride. Their strategy is to gain control of Palestinian militias and direct them to keep up attacks. In classic guerrilla fashion, they hope to provoke Israel into clumsy overreactions that leave it militarily exposed and diplomatically isolated.
When Corporal Gilad Shalit was abducted in June, Israel launched a series of actions aimed at pressuring Hamas to release him. In so doing, Jerusalem bluntly rejected the proposition that it might usefully distinguish between the movement’s Damascus-based militant wing, which directed the attack, and the Gaza-based political wing, which appeared surprised and helpless. It said it would keep up pressure on Gaza until Shalit was freed and Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel were ended. Three weeks later, Shalit is one of three captive soldiers. At least 50 Palestinians have been killed, including a half-dozen children, amid mounting fears of a humanitarian crisis. And the rocket attacks continue unabated (as they did, incidentally, when Israeli ground troops were in full control of Gaza a year ago, before the withdrawal). Iran has planned well.
Israel still has better and worse choices. It is currently engaged in a relatively controlled military confrontation against an identifiable foe. This week’s headlines from India and Iraq — 183 dead in coordinated terrorist attacks in Mumbai, more than 120 dead in four days of frenzied sectarian attacks across Iraq — are a reminder of what can happen when events are permitted to spin out of control.