Israel and Gaza Aftermath: Interview with Dr. Bruce Maddy-Weitzman

Dr. Bruce Maddy-Weitzman is an Associate Scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is also the Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and editor of its Tel Aviv Notes. He is an author and editor who has specialized in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Dan Shvartsman: What are the big themes you take out of the Gaza conflict, and the initial days of the aftermath?

Dr. Bruce Maddy-Weitzman: This latest round is over. Just the way the (2nd) Lebanon War ended in summer of 2006, and since then the ceasefire has held almost perfectly, so too in this case I think that it’s fairly likely that we won’t see another round like we just saw any time soon.

What did each side achieve from this? Israel went into this determined not only to end the rocket fire, but to also change the “rules of the game”. That “Hamas shoots rockets, we shoot back,” and this tit-for-tat doesn’t change Hamas’s behavior. Beyond that, I think there was also a general desire for Israel to strengthen its deterrent posture. There was a feeling here that Israel’s deterrent posture over the last years has weakened.

I think a central goal of this operation was to send a clear message to the rest of the region and the world that it wasn’t going to allow an Iranian client-state to develop on its borders.

Hamas turned out to be far weaker than anticipated. In that regard, Israel has significantly improved its deterrent posture. It’s not just that they hit them hard, but also the incorporation of the diplomatic elements. At least on paper, the support for a change in the strategic parameters governing the Gaza area, the support for Israel’s desires is considerable. The French are patrolling off the shores of Gaza, the Americans signed a memorandum of understanding, they’re training Egyptian troops dealing with smuggling, they’re talking about interdicting Iranian ships in the Gulf of Aden.

The Egyptian participation in this sort of Western framework is a gain for Israel as well. It remains to be seen whether this framework will have real teeth and do what it’s supposed to do. So from that regard, one can say that Israel’s achievements in this operation were considerable.

They came at costs, obviously. Israel’s image has been damaged to a considerable extent among public opinion. There’s no question that more hate towards Israel will have been generated by this operation, which doesn’t bode well if you talk about the need for a long-term reconciliation.

You can even suggest the possibility that radical forces might become even stronger, particularly among Palestinians; there’s a possibility of splintering off from Hamas to represent even more Islamist, jihadi, Bin Laden-type radical views, which would make Hamas look like a positively moderate force in comparison.

Dan: How does Hamas come out of this?

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: Hamas has always had a number of different viewpoints within it. Not in ideological terms, on that they’re united. In terms of how one achieves their goals, there have been different trends. One can point to pragmatic kinds of thinking, adapting to particular circumstances.

It’s clear that there were sharp differences of opinion within Hamas over the decision to tear up the ceasefire and goad Israel into an attack, which Hamas believed was going to be beneficial – that an improved set of arrangements would be established. Clearly, that wasn’t the case; they paid a horrific price.

Hamas is likely to demonstrate a greater degree of pragmatism, to seek accommodations, to present some kind of common front with Mahmoud Abbas, so that they can then move on and say, “this is how we’re going to deal with the opening of the crossing points, the passages to ease the siege.” This is an immediate issue for Hamas, so they can engage in reconstruction, and get legitimized as an interlocutor by the international community.

It is possible that they will achieve that over time, that more and more we’ll hear voices in the West: “You need to engage in dialogue. They’re an important force. You can’t just ignore them. You have to find ways.” And that’s a double-edged sword. By Hamas engaging, they may have to modify their behavior in ways which eventually threaten to clash with their principles. On the other hand, it means that they may be getting legitimized in a way that’s to their benefit, without them giving things up.

Dan: In the whole region, a lot of interesting things came up. What’s the significance of Syria’s statements in light of the indirect negotiations with Israel before the war?

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: I was thinking about that too. On the face of it, a Syrian-Israeli agreement is much easier to achieve than a Palestinian-Israeli agreement. It’s straightforward, you deal with sovereign countries; it’s not an existential matter, per se. It’s not an inter-communal conflict on core ideological matters.

But Bashar Assad, I think, is going to be reluctant to pay the price that he has to pay for a peace treaty, which is shifting his alliance orientation: moving out of the Iranian radical camp and moving into the Western camp. I don’t think he wants to do that, I think he wants to have both: to maintain his connections with Palestinian and Lebanese forces, to maintain his connections with Iran, and to have better ties with the West, and he was trying to work through Turkey to get that.

But his militancy on these matters is very off-putting. I think it’s probably less likely also that the new Israeli government will want to pick up where the Olmert government left off. So I think we’ll probably again see a hiatus in the Israeli-Syrian track. Especially since the Turkish President has gone and alienated the Israeli political class with his behavior.

Dan: And that’s another country interesting effect of the war, Turkey’s sudden change of heart on Israel. Do you view that as a serious blow to the relationship?

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: It’s problematic. The Israeli-Turkish relationship is based on common strategic interests. The forces in Turkey that are the guardians of those strategic interests are still there.

Politically, of course, the elected leadership is an Islamist party and an Islamist government, which has a different set of considerations. And certainly a significant segment of public opinion in Turkey identified strongly with the Palestinians and is very hostile towards Israel, and we saw that during the war. This is a cause for concern. Turkey’s stance is going to be watched very, very closely.

But in any case, it’s not at all clear that the new Israeli government will give the Syrian-Israeli track a priority. I’m not so sure the Americans are going to be so keen on renewing that track either, even though there’s been a lot of advice in Washington that’s said, “go for the Syrian-Israeli track right away, because it’s more doable.” Well, I’m not sure it is.

Dan: Are you not sure because of the new Gaza conflict and the issues that were raised now? Or do you think it was the same before?

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: I was skeptical before. I’m more skeptical now. And I think because the Israeli government is about to change, that also is going to play a role here.

Now, if the Americans do get clear signals from the Syrians that they want to play, that they want this to go forward, which is very possible…everybody’s waiting for Obama. Bashar Assad’s going to want to find out where does Obama stand on this. And if he does send the appropriate signals, that will get America’s attention. And that in turn will get Israel’s attention.

Dan: What’s the significance on a broader scale that Israel, even before the war, was leaning towards Netanyahu? What does it say about the broader future prospects of Israel and peace if they’re swinging to the right?

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: You’re right about Israeli public opinion becoming more right wing, and it’s something that’s been true over the last eight years. And yet, when you ask people how they outline a settlement, you’ll find a solid majority of public opinion is in favor of a two-state solution, in favor of a centrist kind of solution, not a right wing solution. There is a consensus on that.

There’s less consensus in Israel about the kind of hard steps that Israel would have to take to help the dynamics of a diplomatic effort, particularly on settlement matters. Israelis underestimate the symbolic effect that settlement expansion has on public opinion on the other side, and also on the opinion of leadership on the other side. Continuous settlement building is seen as an example of massive Israeli bad faith. And Israelis don’t appreciate that to a sufficient degree.

With regard to the likely Netanyahu government, that also depends on the nature of his coalition. It seems very likely to me that Ehud Barak will be his Defense Minister, which means the Labor party is in the coalition.

Which means you’re talking about a center-right government, but not a right wing government. That’s a big difference. It means you have a government that can engage and will engage with Washington. Netanyahu clearly will not want to be in open confrontation with Washington. He will try to balance off the competing domestic political forces and the need to be a statesman. And that’s why Barak will be very important for him to have, and Labor.

Dan: What do you view as the likely shifts on Iran’s status? It almost seems unrelated to what just happened, but obviously it’s the elephant in the room.

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: It’s very related. I don’t know. Clearly, the U.S. administration is going to see if it can critically, and constructively, and robustly engage Iran on this matter. I think the fact that Dennis Ross has been appointed to be the point man on that, I think that’s an interesting choice, actually.

I know that Ross is a proponent of this sort of approach, robust engagement. Which means, find out what the Iranians are thinking, see what you can do, but also make sure that you have sticks as well as carrots. I think the fact that he knows the Israelis well, and the Israeli thinking well, will be an asset perhaps, to make sure the Americans understand where the Israelis are, and the Israelis understand where the Americans are.

But I don’t know where it’s going to go, and a lot of it depends on internal Iranian things, which I don’t have a good enough sense of. There’s always been a broad consensus in Iran that Iran should be a nuclear power. But that doesn’t mean that everybody’s in agreement on the path to get there, the timing, and how to respond to particular international pressures or incentives. It remains to be seen.

Dan: Would you say the same thing about the new Obama administration’s effect on the region, that it remains to be seen?

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: I think everybody expects the Americans to take a higher profile on the Israeli-Palestinian, or Arab-Israeli tracks. Nobody doubted that they would be intimately involved with the Iranian matter, and how much continuity and how much change there will be remains to be seen.

There’s a lot of expectation out there for Obama. And undoubtedly it’s exaggerated, which can lead to disappointment. But it seems to me that a lot of people in this region understand that, and want America to play a positive role here.

Dan: On both sides.

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: Yes, absolutely. The trick for the Obama Administration will be translating that desire and good will into something that makes sense for the regional actors, and makes sense for America’s interests. Big concepts, but then you have to have incremental steps. This is how things are done.

Then maybe you can look around in 2-3 years and say, “Wow, things have really moved.” As opposed to a sudden breakthrough on these issues, which are close to being intractable – but they need attention. And one hopes that they’ll receive the right kind of attention.

Dan: What do you think the overall trend in the region is, among all the different issues? Is it a positive one with incremental steps? Or will it be mostly disappointment?

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: I think that there are some opportunities there for incremental improvement. As I said, I think that Hamas has been humbled by what happened, and that’s to the good. They’ve been taken off their high horse, even if they haven’t been crushed.

Obviously, peace isn’t around the corner. The Palestinian state-building project of the 1990s was a failure, and that’s one of the reasons why the peace process failed. What we have now are two de facto Palestinian entities, and they’re going to have to work mightily to bring a semblance of unity to their own camp. It’s essential if there’s going to be any progress on the big political issues.

Peace isn’t breaking out, that’s for sure. Let’s hope that we can start taking some positive steps, some incremental steps, and start repairing the damage that’s been caused over the last eight years.

The unabridged version of this interview is on Dan Shvartsman’s blog.

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