by Scott Weiner
As the conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories rages on, the discussion in Washington has often been highly prejudicial, unfair, and without regard for the most basic human compassion. The mudslinging between supporters of one side or the other merely entrenches a broken status quo. As the next generation of foreign policy leaders, it falls upon us to shift the discourse from bickering to building, polemics to progress.
Young Professionals in Foreign Policy’s Middle East Discussion Group considered the Gaza question at its July 2014 meeting. Its thirty members are a handpicked group with an impressive array of Mideast expertise. Many speak Arabic, Hebrew, or Persian. Practically all have spent considerable time working or studying in the region. Each member attends a monthly meeting on topics ranging from electoral politics to security to gender in the Middle East.
“A good mediator should be close enough to the fire to feel the heat, but not too close to get burned.”
The group posited that a win for Hamas would be mere survival, or instead any political concession from Israel. In turn, a win for Israel would consist of destroying the numerous tunnels that run between the Gaza Strip and Israel that have been used to attack Israeli soldiers. Some in the group believed that Israel underestimates the cost of the Gaza operation, in which over 1,000 Palestinians have died, to its international legitimacy. Others argued that Israel is well aware of the cost, but has trouble managing it given the nature of asymmetric conflict and international public opinion.
The group also took up the related question of what a “proportional” Israeli response to Hamas entails. There was no clear agreement on this point, but some debate focused on linkage between intentions and capability. An actor with a certain capability must decide whether or not to use it. Intentions in this case are not realized through capability but rather shaped by it.
Efforts to broker a ceasefire have drawn interest from multiple actors, including not only the US, but also Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, the European Union. The group understood this interest as a function of declining US influence in the region. Despite the multitude of potential actors, the group believes some of these actors would likely have more success than others. As one member put it, “A good mediator should be close enough to the fire to feel the heat, but not too close to get burned.”
Much of the debate over the Gaza conflict has played out over social media. Yet the group saw social media’s effect on the politics of the conflict as secondary. Social media – particularly viral articles, pictures, or videos – can have an effect on the perception that one side is more or less “legitimate.” In addition, social media has exposed the complex and sometimes inconsistent nature of peoples’ beliefs on both sides of the conflict. This complexity poses challenges to framings of the conflict on both sides.
With regards to a solution, the group was pessimistic. While it believed one side must ultimately make a deliberate decision to show restraint, the group did not see this decision happening anytime soon. It believed that while international actors can help frame the decision, the ultimate choice to move beyond the status quo must be made by the parties themselves.
Scott Weiner is the chair of YPFP’s Middle East Discussion Group.