Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Sound of Silence

I've read quite a few commentaries declaring that Obama has some form of moral duty to speak out on Israel's invasion of Gaza, ranging from the cautionary, to the cynical, to the hostile. This criticism comes in two forms: The first assumes that Obama secretly supports the invasion, and the second assumes that Obama has secret criticisms or concerns but is blind to "obvious" benefits of stating them now rather than keeping them to himself.

The former assumption, to me, seems silly. There is no political downside in this country for Democratic leaders who take a 100% pro-Israel stance on any aspect of the conflict, devoid of any framework in historic fact. Just ask Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid. Or Senator Clinton, as opposed to the tight-lipped Secretary of State-Designate Clinton. Obama's silence may not indicate disagreement, but given how easily he could express unreserved support it should not be assumed to indicate agreement.

The idea that Obama loses credibility on the Arab street by not speaking out? Quite interesting, really, but last I checked he didn't stand for election as President of the Arab street. More to the point, what comments would satisfy the Arab street? Even if we assume for the moment that some of the more bizarre anti-Obama allegations made during the election are true - he's a secret Muslim, out to destroy Israel. Let's imagine his throwing aside this (imagined) life-long cloak of deception, and calling for "Death to Israel". Whatever the reaction of the Arab street, that would be the last moment he had any chance of affecting or resolving the conflict. If we return to reality, what type of statement do the critics anticipate? Something ranging between, "I support Israel's right to defend itself, but I disagree with their tactics," to "I support Israel's right to defend itself, but this military action against Gaza is wrong."

Further, it ignores Israel's position in Gaza, prior to this invasion:
Israel has given up any claim to Gaza. It has pulled out its settlers. It isn't trying to win hearts and minds, or create democracy. And it's in an ugly position - it knows that by the time its missiles strike the civilian neighborhoods where Hamas "militants" were launching rockets, the "militants" will almost certainly be gone. So they're striking civilian infrastructure (and perhaps civilians) because the alternatives are to either do nothing or send in ground forces, either of which probably worsens things for Israel and the latter of which generally kills and injures even greater numbers of civilians.
Sure, we could reiterate the ugly history of mistakes, bad acts, and missed opportunities that led to the now-former status quo, but finger-pointing won't change the fact that it was the status quo. Even with new Palestinian elections, there was no realistic chance of Fatah being able to assert control over Gaza and, even overlooking that reality, no realistic chance that a Fatah-governed Gaza would be able to stop Hamas rockets. So what advice should Obama have given? "Stop the invasion, ignore the rockets, wait until I'm President, then we'll work on this"? And when Israel ignored that advice, how much credibility would Obama have on either the Arab or the Israeli streets?

There's a reason that there's near universal support within Israel for "doing something" in Gaza, and it's understandable why the government is choosing a military option that it hopes will work as opposed to one that results in a quick return to the status quo. But unless you're willing to tell Israel, "That status quo, with rockets coming into Israel from Gaza, is one we expect you to live with," there is no other viable short-term option. The tragedy is, this one probably won't work, and stands a good chance of making things worse for everybody.

The most cynical interpretation I might offer of Obama's silence is that he's waiting to see what happens. If this "works" to the point that Hamas is crushed, the rockets stop, new Palestinian elections can be held, Fatah wins and successfully reasserts control over Gaza, and everybody happily returns to the negotiating table, well, great. If it doesn't work, it's difficult to say what comes next. But Obama's going to inherit what he inherits, and nothing he says is going to have any impact on Israel's actions. (As Moshe Dayan once quipped about U.S.-Israeli relations, "We take the money, we take the arms, and we decline the advice.") So why not take a "wait and see" approach?

Further, what's the benefit of attacking Israel's current leadership? If you were hoping that the next election would bring to mind Israel's apparent succession of incompetent, corrupt leaders, how do I break this to you. One way or another, Olmert's going to be gone, taken down by his ineptitude and criminality. But who's waiting in the wings to take over? Bibi Netanyahu. Somebody who is apt to condemn any military action taken against Arabs or Palestinians (other than his own) as being far too restrained. What statements can Obama make that reinforce his credibility on the Arab street, without simultaneously helping Netanyahu win the election? After which time the odds of any meaningful resumption of peace talks drop to about zero.

The Clinton-Obama silence on this incursion, to me, doesn't suggest either support or condemnation. It suggests that they don't want to say or do anything that may poison their planned efforts to bring the parties back into negotiation and, ideally, negotiate a resolution that brings this conflict to something reasonably approximating an end. Right now, realistically, what could Obama say that would help him achieve positive long-term goals for this multi-generational conflict?

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