Michael Oren: Mideast crisis presents opportunity for creative diplomacy
He says model for a solution should be the removal of chemical weapons from Syria
Oren: U.S. inspectors could oversee removal of Hamas rocket stockpiles
He says international aid could repair Gaza's economy, and Israel could ease blockade
Editor’s Note: Michael B. Oren is the Abba Eban chair in international diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, and an ambassador-in-residence at the Atlantic Council. He was formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Great baseball players know every pitch is an opportunity. As with fastballs, international crises also present opportunities. And the current clash between Israel and Gaza offers several potential game-changers.
Over the course of the past six days, Hamas gunmen, along with other militant groups, have fired nearly 800 rockets at Israeli cities and towns. The Israeli air force, in response, has conducted some 1,200 sorties against Hamas targets and – despite warning civilians of impending attacks – inflicted civilian casualties.
Now, the Israeli army is poised to enter Gaza and uproot Hamas by force. Destruction is expected to be at least as extensive as in the previous rounds of fighting between Hamas and Israel. Thousands are liable to be displaced; civilian casualties will mount. Still, with nearly its entire population under rocket fire, Israel will have no choice but to invade.
The obvious solution is a cease-fire similar to ones mediated by Egypt in 2008 and 2012 and co-sponsored by the United States. Such a cease-fire would end the shooting but would not hold for long. An unconditional cease-fire would enable Hamas to rearm and reignite the conflict at a time of its choosing.
Egypt, moreover, is now focused on its domestic challenges and reluctant to become embroiled in regional conflicts. And American foreign policy has been weakened by its failure in the peace process and its resistance to intervening in the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars.
What’s the endgame?
Worsening matters, the Egyptian government of Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has had a strained relationship with the U.S. government that frowned on his undemocratic rise to power. In baseball terms, the crisis in Gaza seems to be a fastball too blistering to hit.
Yet, the very threat of full-scale fighting can serve to motivate the combatants to seek a way out. Promised a new beginning in their relations with Washington, the Egyptians can be induced to once again mediate between Hamas and Israel. And America can reclaim its traditional leadership. A simultaneous cease-fire can be achieved, but that would only be the first in a multistaged diplomatic process.
The next stage would apply the formula with which the United States and Russia successfully removed chemical weapons from Syria. American inspectors can locate Hamas’ rocket stockpiles and ship them abroad for destruction.
At the same time, the people of Gaza would receive the international aid needed to repair the war damage and energize their economy, which has been failing for years. Finally, once the rockets are eliminated, Israel can ease the maritime blockade of Gaza. The Palestinians will be spared further hardship and Hamas deprived of one of its chief pretexts for attacking Israel.
The crisis also presents an opportunity to strengthen Palestinian moderates. American and Canadian-trained police officers loyal to the West Bank Palestinian Authority can be stationed at the border crossings from Israel into Gaza. Similarly, these security personnel can be deployed at the Gaza border crossings that Egypt formerly closed but would now reopen.
Ideally, the Palestinian Authority would replace Hamas rule over Gaza. It is doubtful whether that goal could be achieved swiftly and without prolonged violence. Yet a new status quo can be created that is more stable and less prone to breakdown.
Effectively demilitarized, with a stimulated economy and an expanded role for Palestinians committed to the peace process, Gaza can cease being the cause of repeated conflict. The Obama administration could point to a significant diplomatic victory, Egypt could reassert its regional leadership and Israel and the Palestinian Authority could create a context for restarting the peace process.
Israelis and Palestinians are indeed confronting a complex and dangerous situation. But as every slugger knows, the faster the pitch, the further the ball will fly off the bat. For all of the pain and trauma it has caused so far, the crisis in Gaza offers all the parties a chance to hit deep, perhaps even a diplomatic home run.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Oren.