Gaza: The Lessons We Should Have Learned

The horrors that are unfolding in Gaza are but a tragic replay of past confrontations: the same bluster and threats, the same miscalculations by all sides, the same massive and overwhelming use of Israeli force designed to "stop once and for all…," and same absence of any constructive U.S. role – with no one learning lessons from the past.

This is tragedy in the classic sense: two pathologies playing out with predictable consequences, and with neither party appearing able or willing to restrain itself or recognize the futility of its actions. What’s so desperately needed, and yet missing, is what I’ve termed "adult supervision;" i.e., external restraint that can hold back or limit the damage these pathetic players continue to inflict upon themselves. That is a role that the U.S. could have played over the years, but has not. Not only the Bush Administration, but previous administrations as well, have failed to provide effective leadership – too often reducing themselves to coat-holders and, more often than not, justifying repeated Israeli onslaughts.

Because we’ve seen all this play out before, we can easily predict the outcome. There will be many Palestinians who die, leaving grieving and angry families behind. There will be widespread destruction of property and damage to infrastructure, and many more who will be burdened with the scars of war. There will be increased Palestinian and Arab anger spreading throughout the region, reinforcing extremist trends, threatening not only Israel and the United States, but the U.S.’ Arab allies as well.

And because this drama has played out before, there are lessons that ought to have been learned from the past – but, sadly, have not.

Let me share two instructive stories from an earlier instance of Israel’s "decisive use of force" – this one from 1996. In that year, Shimon Peres, who had become Prime Minister following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, was facing a stiff electoral challenge from Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Peres was considered generally supportive of establishing peace with the Palestinians; while Netanyahu, on the other hand, ran on a platform that specifically called for ending the peace process.

In the midst of the election, both Hamas and Hizbullah inserted themselves into the process, engaging in lethal provocations. Netanyahu accused Peres of being weak, and Peres – in an effort to demonstrate that he was not – launched a massive bombing campaign (40,000 bombs in all) against Lebanon, designed (as he claimed) to "send a message." Despite 400,000 refugees, 10,000 homes destroyed and scores of lives lost, for days the Clinton Administration said nothing other than to affirm "Israel’s right to defend itself." This continued until the now-infamous Qana massacre, in which 106 Lebanese civilians were killed and another 116 wounded when the UN compound in which they had sought refuge was shelled by Israeli artillery.

It was in the midst of this horror that I debated an Israeli Minister on CNN’s "Crossfire." Because he had been a forceful champion for peace, at one point in the exchange I said that I was finding it difficult to debate him, watching him defend what I believed he knew was an immoral war. He said nothing on air, but afterwards noted that it was hard. Given the provocation, he said, and the tightness of the election, they [the Labor government in Israel] felt they had no choice but to act. They had hoped, however, that the U.S. would step in early to provide them with a cover for restraint. They could not have confronted their own right wing, he said, unless the U.S. had provided justification for doing so!

In the end, Peres lost the election because tens of thousands of Israeli Arab voters, so angered by the actions of his government, refused to cast their ballots for him. Israel stood embarrassed in the eyes of the world. Anger against Israel in Lebanon further intensified. And with Netanyahu as Prime Minister, Israel began to take a series of steps that inevitably led – as he had intended all along – to dealing fatal blows to the peace process.

Months later, at a meeting of Arab American leaders at the White House, I challenged President Clinton to explain his silence in the face of the Israeli air war on Lebanon. He went to great lengths to explain his position, concluding that he had merely been trying to help Peres win the election and thereby save the peace process. He had thought the best way to do that was to provide Peres with public support. He acknowledged that it had not worked, and said he would not make the same mistake again (although he did much the same in 2000-2001 when Ehud Barak was facing Ariel Sharon).

One could shudder at the tragic irony of these foolish miscalculations if it were not for the fact that the same lethal drama is playing out yet again, with the same justifications being offered and – one fears, with the same consequences.

At this point, given what has been a pathetic performance, the Bush Administration cannot make a difference. And, in any case, real damage is being done. The Palestinian dead will not come back, their families will not stop mourning, nor will their anger easily subside. Hamas will emerge stronger, building off the anger and the loss of hope in peace.

On January 20th, Barack Obama will inherit all this – with a choice to make. He can either repeat the failed patterns of the past, or learn its lessons and provide the needed leadership that can pull Israelis and Palestinians back from the precipice, and provide them a way forward.