Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.The Wall Street Journal reports the result of a press conference held on Air Force One by Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, who works as one of Obama’s main (foreign policy) speechwriters who helped the President draft his spring 2012 AIPAC address. Rhodes expressed hope that mediation efforts by the Egyptians — who had been brokering a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel the day before Operation Pillar of Cloud began — will succeed, but the meat of his remarks comes in the form of a very clear public declaration the US will have Israel’s back no matter what the government decides.
Pressed as to whether a ground invasion would escalate tensions, Mr. Rhodes said, “We believe Israel has a right to defend itself, and they’ll make their own decisions about the tactics that they use in that regard.”
He said that the precipitating factor for the conflict was the rocket fire coming out of Gaza, dismissing those who blame an Israeli airstrike that killed a top Hamas military commander.
“Just to be clear on the precipitating factor: These rockets had been fired into Israeli civilian areas and territory for some time now. So Israelis have endured far too much of a threat from these rocket for far too long, and that is what led the Israelis to take the action that they did in Gaza.”
He declined to comment on Israel’s targeting of government buildings, including the prime minister’s headquarters. “We wouldn’t comment on specific targeting choices by the Israelis other than to say that we of course always underscore the importance of avoiding civilian casualties. But the Israelis again will make judgments about their military operations.”
Rhodes’s words offered a much stronger declaration of support for the Israeli effort than those delivered by White House spokesman Jay Carney on Friday:
We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, and we regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence. There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel. We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately in order to allow the situation to de-escalate.
In … conversations [with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi], the president reiterated the United States’ support for Israel’s right to self-defense. President Obama also urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties.
Newsweek and USA Today report that Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have been speaking directing to the President — currently in transit to Asia along with most of his top foreign policy staffers (including Rhodes) — to communicate that “[t]he Israeli leadership at this point is leaning against a ground invasion.” Though Haaretz reports that there was a concerted Israeli effort to “lull” Hamas into a false sense of security before restarting assassinations of its leadership, it is very likely that this whole effort was not intended to “escalate.” Though it was of course expected, planned for and deemed acceptable to risk more civilian casualties in Israel and Gaza when the IAF began the operation — the toll as it stands now is at least 90 Palestinians and 3 Israelis killed, with more wounded on both sides, especially in Gaza where casualties have already reached 700 — it is not likely that a protracted operation was or is desired by any of those who have rallied round Netanyahu’s flag.
But, now that Hamas has hit the suburbs of both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the stakes for Israel backing down have risen tremendously — the kitchen cabinet of PM Netanyahu has reportedly met several times Saturday day alone, unable to reach a consensus on accepting a ceasefire or going all in into Gaza as a result of the longer-range fire. The call up of 75,000 reservists — a number greater than those summoned for the 2006 and 2008 wars — and multiple reports of massed Israeli armor on the northern borders of Gaza loom large in people’s calculations. Israeli officials, keeping everyone guessing, may be bluffing on the incursion: the divisions are meant only as a message to Hamas, or Hezbollah, or even Egypt, or to Syria and Iran. Or perhaps cover for Iran in the near future.
As Phil Weiss and David Sheen report from on the ground, the mood is very much one of “finishing the fight.” Many Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza are, according to the Huffington Post, also expressing strong support for the rulers’ actions – though the rhetorical denunciations of Hamas officials (and by the Israeli government) belie the actual mediated efforts to end this operation before it turns into a political liability for either side due to rising civilian casualties.
Indeed, only the most zealous nationalists in Israel today are for re-establishing direct Israeli control over Gaza. And a ground incursion is being blasted as unworkable in the news, from The Atlantic and The New York Times to Haaretz and even the Jerusalem Post. More common is the view that this operation, with or without an incursion, has been a long-time coming, a necessary action to ensure “deterrence” is maintained in the hopes — to paraphrase the words of a tsarist general — that the harder Israel hits them, the longer they will stay quiet afterwards. The Interior Minister said that all of Gaza’s infrastructure should be “destroyed” by the IDF “in order to realize calm for a long period.” Israeli officers hinted at conducting a Gazan “incursion” in the summer of 2011 when terrorists from the Sinai killed several Israelis that incorporated most of the language used today to argue for Operation Pillar of Cloud, including a report issued by a right-wing Jerusalem think tank that argued for a crippling assault on Hamas and the Gaza Strip’s infrastructure under the title “The Opportunity in Gaza,” views which Truthout notes have entrenched counterparts in the Beltway think tank-verse.
Lamentably, Pillar of Cloud was only a matter of time after Cast Lead concluded in 2009. The dynamics in Israel and Gaza that led to it, dissected here by Juan Cole, have not changed since then: no hudna or Arab Spring or Obama second term will alter this in the near term. And the next one, whatever name is applied to it, won’t be many years off either.
And in all such instances, past, present and future, I think we can expect the US to offer the same sort of green lighting the White House has delivered this day. Obama was still in transition in 2008 when Cast Lead took place, and “only” received intelligence briefings and Israeli missives on Cast Lead. This week, he has made his views clearer still.