Winners and Losers in the Gaza Conflict

As befits the son of a historian, Benjamin Netanyahu loads his speeches with references to the past. He talks about 3,000 years of Jewish history in Jerusalem; he conjures up the Holocaust when he discusses Iran's nuclear program; he recalls the Arab rejection of partitioning Palestine in 1947 to show who's at fault in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yet the prime minister's short-term memory seems to be vanishing. Otherwise, it's hard to understand his comments to a Knesset panel this week, explaining his decision to ease the Israeli siege on Gaza. The new policy of allowing free import of civilian goods, he said, was entirely in Israel's interest. It would "eliminate Hamas' main propaganda claim" and allow Israel to focus on its real security problems.

In itself, this is really quite sensible. Much more sensible than refusing to allow chocolate and coriander, not to mention building supplies, into war-ravaged Gaza. But from Netanyahu's words, one might think he had just taken office, reviewed the previous government's failed strategy for undermining the Hamas regime in Gaza, and dumped it. He doesn't seem to remember that he avidly maintained that inherited strategy for over a year. Nor does he recall that just three weeks ago, after the disastrous Israeli commando raid on a ship trying to reach Gaza with a civilian cargo, he defended the siege, describing it as an effort purely intended to keep Iranian arms from reaching Gaza by "air, sea, or the ground." Judging from published accounts of Netanyahu's remarks in the Knesset committee, Netanyahu has entirely forgotten the flotilla.

In a way, that also shows more sense than senility. So far, Netanyahu is the biggest loser in the flotilla affair. While the full effects are still playing out, here's the rest of the halftime scorecard:

The Cabinet OK'd Netanyahu's new blockade policy on Sunday. Instead of a "white list" of products that are allowed through the border crossings to Gaza, Israel will publicize a blacklist of weapons and war materiel that can't go through. Building supplies were banned till now to keep Hamas from using them for fortifications. Under the new rules, they'll be allowed into Gaza for public projects approved by the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and for U.N.-supervised housing.

By dropping the old policy, Netanyahu has admitted that the blockade wasn't aimed only at keeping out Iranian missiles. It was economic warfare, intended to squeeze Gaza's people so that they'd overthrow Hamas or, at the least, force their government to release Israeli captive Gilad Shalit. Instead, the siege provided the world with an image of Gaza's victims. The siege invited pro-Palestinian groups to try to run the naval blockade. Israelis know Netanyahu didn't change direction because of a policy review. He did so because the raid on the Mavi Marmara drew international condemnation and because Israel's remaining allies, led by the United States, demanded a change. Domestically, Netanyahu has reminded nervous right-wingers that they can't depend on him. He hasn't bought any respect from the center or left.

The Flotilla Coalition
For the moment, the international, pro-Palestinian Free Gaza movement and the Turkish Islamic group Insani Yardim Vakfi are the winners. Their goal wasn't to get a few ships through to Gaza. It was to call international attention to the siege and force Israel to alter its policy. They succeeded. Their methods, I should note, were not nonviolent. However, they used only those means -- civilian ships and cargo, media equipment, blunt instruments -- that could be acquired by openly operating, unarmed organizations.

When the commandos landed, at least some people on board were quite ready to attack them. To be coldly, necessarily cynical, the operation succeeded politically because the activists did not manage to kill any of the Israelis or take any hostages and because the outnumbered commandos killed nine people. It also succeeded because the organizers prepared for a media event, while Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, prepared for a sequel to the commando raids of their army days. Their training in Israel's top commando unit did not teach them that in an international political dispute, seizing the target may be less important than seizing world sympathy.

Ismail Haniye's rejectionist government in Gaza could turn out to be a net loser. Yes, it may gain some public support if economic conditions improve. But the Hamas regime exacts taxes on the rampant smuggling via tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border. If goods can be imported aboveground, that income will dry up. And with no civilian goods coming through the tunnels, Israel may find it politically easier to attack arms smugglers.

Besides, the flotilla undermines Hamas' dogmatic attachment to the machismo of armed struggle. Firing rockets into Israel didn't end the siege; it provoked Israel's Gaza offensive in December 2008. Without rockets, the flotilla organizers accomplished more.

The Gaza Public
No score yet. The increased traffic at the border crossings is still only a poorly defined promise. Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman of the Israeli human-rights group B'Tselem, points out that Gaza needs much more than humanitarian aid. The imports have to include raw materials for factories, replacement parts for machinery, supplies for agriculture. The border crossings must be open for exports from Gaza, to create jobs and give people money to spend. The Israeli Cabinet decision also promises more efficient procedures for people to leave and enter Gaza "for medical and humanitarian reasons." That's far short of letting Gazans travel freely to the West Bank -- the other part of Palestinian territory -- or go abroad.

Ehud Barak
In a just world, the defense minister would finally retire to playing piano and watching old war movies. He bears ministerial responsibility for all the mistakes that went into the raid. As a holdover from the previous government, he's the strutting, talking symbol of maintaining the siege strategy against Hamas. (Officials who worked under Ehud Olmert claimed this week that the former prime minister had wanted to loosen the siege but that Barak wouldn't listen. If that's not an excuse, it's an accusation of a semi-coup.)

But Barak's political specialty is evading responsibility. He was the chief opponent of a state inquiry into the war in Gaza. State inquiries into previous wars have cost defense ministers their jobs. He didn't want an inquiry into the raid, either. Under American pressure, Netanyahu set up a panel with limited powers. Its mandate includes checking the legality of the naval blockade -- but not the preparations to stop the Mavi Marmara. Before being picked to head the committee, ex-Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel said that he didn't like reaching conclusions about individuals -- that is, he doesn't expect to recommend that anyone resign. Again, it seems, Ehud Barak's name won't even be on the scorecard.

Barack Obama
This week, at least, the president looks like a net winner. Daniel Shapiro, Middle East director on the National Security Council, reportedly spent several days in Israel to arrange the change in the siege policy. Netanyahu's shift is quite obviously a response to intense American involvement. American acceptance of the toothless inquiry takes some of the shine off the deal. Nonetheless, it's clear that Netanyahu moves toward moderation when, and only when, Obama pushes. The big question is whether the president will keep up the pressure toward the strategic goal of a two-state solution or hug Netanyahu at the White House early next month and act is if the crisis is over. Netanyahu will want to forget the last few weeks. Obama should not.

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