July 13, 2006
Is U.S. Silence on Gaza Sign of Friendship or Weakness?
Is U.S. silence in the face of Israel's massive counterattack on the Gaza Strip a function of friendship or weakness?
The United States largely has refrained from criticizing the Israeli strikes on Gaza that began June 28, days after gunmen affiliated with Hamas, the terrorist group governing the Palestinian Authority, attacked a base in Israel, killing two soldiers and kidnapping a third, Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
One spin on the U.S. restraint is that the Bush administration is hard-pressed to criticize Israel for retaliating against a Palestinian government that seems to recognize no red lines. Another spin says the silence is a signal of U.S. impotence after years of relative inaction in the region -- provoking some to wonder whether a more involved Bush administration might have been able to bring about Shalit's release.
U.S. reticence to rebuke Israel "is disguised as a kind of supreme cooperation and friendship,"said Yossi Beilin, a leading dove and former Israeli Cabinet minister. "But what do you need friends for if they can't help you at the moment of truth?"
Israel has inexorably upped the pressure on Hamas to release Shalit, destroying a Gaza power plant and several P.A. government offices and establishing footholds in the area for the first time since Israel withdrew from Gaza last summer.
After days of intense Israeli military action, P.A. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh proposed a cease-fire Saturday. "To solve this crisis, we must return to the starting point, to calm, including an end to military actions on both sides," he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected the overture, saying, "We will not negotiate with terrorists. We will not negotiate with Hamas. To do so would encourage more abductions."
At the same time, Palestinian rocket fire continued over the weekend, with more than 20 Qassam rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. One of these attacks wounded three Israelis in Sderot.
The U.S. response has been to call on both sides to show restraint -- and to make clear that, in U.S. eyes, the party failing to do so is the Palestinians. "Let's remember that this began with the tunneling into Israeli territory, the abduction of an Israeli soldier,"U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said July 5.
In an interview with a Turkish newspaper, an assistant to Rice accused the media of misrepresenting Israel, an opinion once almost unthinkable among State Department functionaries who deal with the Middle East. Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told Zaman that Israel's incursions were conducted with a high regard for civilian life.
"I don't think many Europeans or Turks understand this, but do you know the number of Palestinians who have been killed in the current Israeli operation as of this morning? Zero. None,"Fried said July 3. "When I was watching CNN or BBC, I had the impression the casualties must have been enormous."
The comments were made before at least 20 Palestinians, mostly combatants, were killed in clashes on July 6. And on Sunday, a Palestinian civilian was killed in an Israeli strike.
Another sign of U.S. support came July 6, when John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, signaled he would veto any Security Council resolution ordering Israel to retreat. Bolton said a resolution drafted by Qatar blasting Israel was not only unacceptable as written, it was probably irredeemable.
More significant than such advocacy is what Rice and others are not saying, according to David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Makovsky said the United States has persuaded much of the West to keep quiet about the raids and Israel's arrests of P.A. Cabinet members from Hamas.
"It's like the dog that didn't bark,"Makovsky said. "It's especially intriguing that international opinion has been muted when it comes to holding the Hamas lawmakers and Cabinet. The international community is grasping that with power comes responsibility"for Hamas. "If you're a government and not a revolutionary movement, you rein in militants that are striking cross-border."
Makovsky said the United States believes Israel is not simply trying to retrieve Shalit but may be trying to bring down the Hamas government. But Beilin, who heads the left-wing Meretz list in the Knesset, said U.S. solidarity did little to advance peace or create the conditions that could lead to Shalit's release. After years of Bush's relative disengagement compared to the intense shuttle diplomacy that marked previous administrations, the United States is considered impotent in the region, Beilin said. That's why Israel turned to Egypt, not the United States, to try to broker Shalit's release, he claimed.
The United States has virtually cut off Syria, one of the few nations able to influence Hamas, because of Syria's support for terrorism. Rice revealed this week that she had asked Turkey to ask Syria to intervene with Hamas in the Shalit affair, but the remove only seemed to underscore how distant the United States is from some players in the region.
Another nation with sway over Hamas is Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, but there is no sign that the United States has approached the Saudis on the issue. Some see Israel's actions in Gaza as another sign of decreased U.S. influence. Larry Garber, a former West Bank and Gaza administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, noted that during his years in the region, from 1999-2004, Israeli officials were careful to ask for the coordinates of U.S.-funded institutions in order to protect them during military actions. The destroyed Gaza power plant, however, could end up costing U.S. taxpayers as much as $50 million, because it's insured by the U.S. government-run Overseas Private Investment Corp.
"This is taking down the major U.S. investment in Gaza in the last five years,"said Garber, who is now executive director of the New Israel Fund.
Palestinians still hope for U.S. involvement, if only to influence Israel while Egypt and Jordan attempt to broker Shalit's release, said Samar Assad, executive director of the Palestine Center, a Washington think tank.
"Air strikes and other actions only escalate the situation and do not leave room for the Arab countries to negotiate an end to the crisis,"she said. "If the United States can't deal with Hamas because of its position on dealing with terrorists, it should allow others enough time to engage in these talks.''