In assessing events in distant places, it is often helpful to ask a simple question: what would we have done in a similar situation? Had India, for example, been confronted by a constant barrage of unprovoked rocket attacks from across the border aimed at our cities, would we have gone crying to the international community? Maybe we would have alerted our diplomatic missions and even presented a full picture of the happenings to the United Nations security council. But our first priority would have been self-defence. In concrete terms that would have meant military retaliation aimed at both damaging and neutralizing the adversary. Having demonstrated our determination to not take attacks on civilian targets lying down, we would have been receptive to international concern over a possible escalation of the conflict. But without foreclosing the military option altogether.
The above scenario isn’t entirely hypothetical. Those who recall the short-lived Kargil conflict in the summer of 1999 when India was confronted by an audacious Pakistani offensive will know that this is precisely how the Indian government of the day reacted. Of course, the mountains where the battles raged were largely uninhabited and there was no real danger of large-scale civilian casualties that would have excited the Western media. At the same time, let us not forget that the Kargil conflict wasn’t seen as just another India-Pakistan brawl because both countries possessed nuclear weapons. There were grave international concerns over the Indian subcontinent being transformed into the “most dangerous” region on earth, and it finally took direct American pressure for Pakistan to realize it was in a no-win situation. Yet, it is important to remember that the pressure from the president at the time, Bill Clinton, on Pakistan to behave would not have happened had India not responded robustly to the aggression.
Arguably, international relations are not always governed by templates, and long-standing conflicts such as the ones affecting West Asia are often governed by the principles of exceptionalism. This is particularly true of the unique problems and challenges that confront Israel, a state that has witnessed unending conflict since its formation in 1948. Yet, in spite of the strong feelings the mere mention of the ‘Jewish homeland’ arouses, it is a measure of some reassurance that the latest conflict occasioned by Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza has, by and large, produced relatively ‘normal’ responses.
President Barack Obama epitomizes the trend. Unlike most occupants of the White House, Obama does not have a reputation for being a natural friend of Israel. On the contrary, his relationship with the doughty Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been so awkward that commentators have even speculated over the likely end to the special relationship between the United States of America and Israel. Yet, his first reaction to the rocket war launched by the Hamas was unequivocal and based entirely on common sense: “The first job of any nation state is to protect its citizens. And so I can assure you that if… somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect the Israelis to do the same thing.”
Unlike in the past when almost every Israeli move aimed at strengthening its national defences have been viewed as expressions of ‘Zionist imperialism’, the latest tension has not been blamed on Israel. Indeed, the only criticisms of Israel are that its retaliatory attacks have been ‘disproportionate’, and have been accompanied by some rhetorical flourishes of its minister of strategic affairs, Moshe Yaalon, to “blow Gaza back to the Middle Ages” and its threat to undertake a ground campaign if the attacks persist. The rush of dignitaries to Israel has not been accompanied by expressions of righteous indignation over Israeli recklessness but a concern that a ground war would be tactically imprudent and result in the Hamas painting itself as the underdog. The principle of Israel’s right to self-defence hasn’t been seriously contested particularly when, as in this case, it is faced with an adversary that openly proclaims that “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it”.
These developments mark a significant departure from 2010, when the Israeli raid on a ship allegedly carrying humanitarian relief to Gaza resulted in an onrush of anti-Israel sentiments in the Muslim world and in the campuses of the US and Europe, and contributed immeasurably to Turkey disengaging from its measured relationship with Tel Aviv. But thanks to its knee-jerk reversal of its earlier policy, Turkey also finds itself reduced to the role of a passive bystander in the region.
It is also noteworthy that the election of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, with deep ties to the Hamas, in Egypt’s first democratic election has not succeeded in making Israel more vulnerable. On paper, Egypt has kept faith with its new ideological proclivities by withdrawing its ambassador from Tel Aviv and charging Israel of aggressive intent. However, behind the scenes it is fully engaged in trying to cobble together a working cease-fire and not responding emotionally to the Hamas’s appeal to join the good fight against Israel. The fragility of the Egyptian economy, its dependence on the US for both development and military assistance, and the delicate balance between the army and the civilian government have made it wary of rushing to the assistance of the Hamas.
Overall, there appears to be a creeping realization in the world’s capitals that, far from emerging as a slightly more rooted alternative to the largely discredited Fatah leadership of the Palestinians, the Hamas has shed very little of its fanatical determination to destroy Israel and drive out the Jewish people from the region. The Hamas may have broken from Iran on the issue of support to the anti-Assad rebels in Syria, but along with the theocracy in Iran and the splinter jihadi groups in Gaza, it poses an abiding threat to a peaceful resolution of the problems that cropped up since the war of 1967. Like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which was destroyed by the Sri Lankan military at a terrible cost, the Hamas has absolutely no hesitation in using civilians as human shields. It actively seeks more civilian deaths from Israeli strikes (and ‘friendly fire’) on the ghoulish belief that greater the number of ‘martyrs’ the more the resolve to fight Israel to the bitter end.
For the past decade, thanks to some misplaced humanitarianism, there has been a tendency to question Israel’s credentials on all counts. This has seen many countries wilfully turn a blind eye to the real nature of fanatical anti-Zionism. The latest spat in Gaza may not radically alter this gratuitous hostility to the only country in the region that combines a vibrant democracy with economic development. But even if it forces international opinion (including in India) to look a little more carefully at the larger agenda of groups such as the Hamas and Hezbollah, not to mention the regime in Iran, it will be a step in the right direction. In the coming years, as many more authoritarian regimes struggle to cope with angry upheavals, the democratic world will be forced to acknowledge that Israel epitomizes the values it is comfortable with. The alternatives presented by those who seek an Israel-free West Asia are too hideous to contemplate.
Incorrect as it may sound, the alternative to another organized ethnic cleansing of Israel’s Jews is the progressive Israel-ization — in terms of values and enterprise — of the region. Having demonstrated its hard face, Israel should now look to also marketing its soft power.