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Treading dangerously: Politics goes over the water's edge

In 1947 a US Republican senator, Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, gave a speech that came to be known as the "speech heard around the world". In it he asserted that "politics stops at the water's edge". He meant that foreign policy matters were of such importance that partisans should put aside their petty squabbles to come together in the national interest. He went on to cooperate with the Democratic president, Harry Truman, in a move that led to the end of American isolationism, the implementation of the Marshal Plan and the establishment of Nato.



Today, politics does not stop when it comes to the handling of foreign policies; foreign affairs is being used as a means to consolidate internal partisan groups within nations, at the expense of external security and peace.

The most recent escalation of violence in Gaza and adjacent parts of Israel was ignited by a single rocket fired from Gaza by a Palestinian group believed to be more extreme than the ruling Hamas. The attack wounded four Israeli soldiers and ruined the fragile Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire of 2009.

A brutal series of retaliatory air raids by Israel ensued. Hamas fired more rockets over southern Israel, reaching as far as Tel Aviv. Then the Hamas military commander, Ahmad Jabari, was killed in an air strike. He played a key role in the 2011 release of an Israeli soldier who was held hostage for five years, in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners from Israel.

Then Ali al-Manama, a charismatic and popular commander of Qassam, the military wing of Hamas, was slain in an Israeli missile strike while talking on his cellphone. Israeli intelligence might have used the phone's signal to track him down. His death threw the more moderate Hamas leaders off balance.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is mobilising ground combat troops outside Gaza while broadening the range of air-strike targets. At the same time, representatives of Israel and Hamas are meeting in Cairo with Egyptian officials for indirect talks about a new ceasefire.

Diplomatic pressure has been intensified upon both parties to the conflict. Mediators are asking for restraint in the military campaigns. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned Israel against a Gaza ground offensive. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Jerusalem. President Obama, back in the US after his Asian trip, has talked several times with President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is considered moderate compared to the Salafi. Egypt's leadership does not want to see an escalation of war near the Sinai Peninsual, where it has already seen a number of security incidents with the local population.

Is it a coincidence that the surge of violence in Gaza has come just before the UN deliberates, on November 29, on the enhanced observer status of Palestine at the UN General Assembly? The stakes are extremely high for both the Israelis and Palestinians.

For the Palestinians, the UN green light would mean, in the words of an aide to President Abbas, turning Palestine from an "occupied territory" into an "occupied state". In the days before this crucial vote, Israeli officials have been threatening to pull the financial plug on the Palestinian Authority (PA), a body that was set up by all sides in 1994 to manage Palestinian affairs. Israel has complete financial control of the PA. On the other hand, Abbas cannot back off from his UN motion at the last minute, as he did before. By doing so, he could render the collapse of the PA itself for lack of political progress. It would mean the weakening of his moral and political standing with the Palestinians. A real quandary.

Also, is it happenstance that the fierce Israeli offensive against the Palestinians comes little more than a month before the Israeli general election on January 22, 2013? Prime Minister Netanyahu, after having backed the wrong horse in the US election, is hoping to vaunt his party, the Likud, to demonstrate to Israelis that only he and it can provide them with security.

This show of pivotal strength is even more important to Netanyahu if the Palestinians' UN bid succeeds. His rivals will accuse him of diplomatic failure as well as military weakness if he lets the violence in Gaza spiral out of control and not deliver a deadly counter-punch against the Palestinians.

Some critics argue that Netanyahu does not need a "little war" with the Palestinians. His strategy of continuously crying "wolf" about Iran and its nuclear ambition has successfully distracted international attention away from the Palestinian issue, thus leaving him with a free hand on the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. They also argue that Abbas has no real interest in sparking further military conflicts with Israel.

The sweeping changes in the Arab world - the Arab Spring has already transformed the Middle East landscape - will eventually result in the strengthening of the Palestinian position internationally. Some commentators therefore assert that this most recent escalation of violence will result in another ceasefire sooner rather than later.

But even if a truce is reached that will halt this most recent armed conflict in Gaza, it will only be temporary. Many call the Gaza Strip "an open air prison" or "the largest concentration camp in the world". Israel has built 10-metre high walls around it, with more than 1.5 million people confined inside its borders. No one can enter or exit without Israeli permission. Nobody can trade with Gaza residents, and any revenue the people generate is collected by Israel. The longer the Palestinian people live in these hopeless conditions, the more the likelihood of them turning into extremists.

Israel's existential fear may be valid, but it will not be able to find peace as long as there is no just and lasting solution to a problem where no one party can satisfy 100 per cent of its needs, perceived or real.

It is fair to say that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, everybody's hands are dirty, and there are no angels. However, people's lives are not political footballs. If life is to be held sacred, it must mean every life, not just some.


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