While both sides claimed victory in last summer’s Operation Protection Edge, said Daniel Kurtzer, a case can be made that “nobody won.”
Speaking Nov. 9 at the Jewish Center in Princeton, America’s former ambassador to Israel said there are clashing perceptions and narratives by which Israel and Hamas both declare victory in Gaza.
In Israel’s view, said Kurtzer, “‘We restored deterrence; for the Arabs to attack Israel is a losing proposition. Through the Iron Dome and the destruction of the tunnels, we were able to sustain the war with very few casualties and little damage to Israeli infrastructure.’”
Israeli forces killed, by some estimates, 2,000 Palestinians, including combatants and civilians, and “a large portion of Gaza’s infrastructure was destroyed.”
However, in Hamas’s view: “‘We are a resistance movement; at the end, we were still standing. On the last day [of the war] there were more rockets, which means Israel was unable to destroy resistance.”
Both cases are weakened, said Kurtzer, if war is viewed from the presumption that countries engage in battle in order to achieve security and some political outcome.
From that perspective, “nobody won,” he said. “Neither side had a political platform achieved during the fighting, and neither side’s security improved to any degree.”
After the war ended, the situation returned to “status quo ante,” similar to what happened after earlier cease-fires.
“The issues of trying to live together in this land were left aside entirely,” he added.
Leaving those issues unaddressed means “a continued debilitation of both societies,” Kurtzer said. “To make peace, it has to be decided on the Palestinian and the Israeli side that you can’t have it all. The Palestinians have to give up the dream that the Zionist state will disappear, that they can turn the calendar back to the partition plan.”
And Israel “will have to give up the idea that it can hold the territories and also achieve peace.”
Kurtzer, professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, was part of peace negotiations as ambassador to Israel under George W. Bush and as a member of the Clinton administration’s peace team.
Kurtzer reviewed several tactics that can still be tried. One is for the United States to do nothing, forcing more responsibility on the Israelis and Palestinians. Unfortunately, such a non-move “fosters the idea that the status quo can remain static. But a status quo normally gets worse unless you work on it and do something to make it better.”
Israel could make a unilateral move, but its two previous unilateral efforts — withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza — were failures.
“No one took ownership of the territories from which Israel withdrew; when violence emanated from the territories, there was no partner that Israel could demand to take action to stop the violence,” he said.
Israel’s negotiated treaties, by contrast, have been successful, including the peace treaty with Egypt.
Kurtzer emphasized that before attempting to restart negotiations, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry needs to put in place a “context” for peace. This could include, for example, a plan developed by U.S. Gen. John Allen covering how the IDF could resolve many of the security dilemmas that would follow from an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.
“The hardest issue in the peace process is security,” and with such a plan, “you have what can be called an implicit breakthrough,” said Kurtzer. “It makes it possible for Israel to take security risks in withdrawals and know that there are ways to respond to those risks.”
In response to an audience question about whether President Obama is not supportive of Israel, Kurtzer noted that rude language by both Israeli and U.S. officials is “quite severe and unprecedented” and has affected the senior leadership on both sides.
However, the day-to-day cooperation between the two countries is “not only continuing to work but working better than in the past,” said Kurtzer. “If you assess the degree of American concrete, material support for Israel in the last six years, it is better and higher than ever before, whether R and D, advanced military equipment, or social and humanitarian issues.”