Conference Call with Tzali Reshef – The War in Gaza: A Peace-Camp Perspective

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On Friday, January 9, 2009, Tzali Reshef of the New Movement-Meretz party, and of Peace Now, spoke by conference call with Meretz USA supporters.  The following is a summary of his remarks.

Reshef opened by explaining the recent alliance created between the New Movement and the Meretz party.  A few months ago, he said, a group of Israelis, some from the Labor Party, and others from outside the political world, decided that the time was right to organize around a revitalized social-democratic party.  They formed the "New Movement", which recently determined that Meretz was the party best suited to be the hub for such an effort.


Reshef noted that the Gaza war presents a challenge for the New Movement-Meretz.  Neither the party (nor Peace Now in Israel) preaches "pacifism": The party, therefore, has stressed its traditional belief that Israel has a right to defend itself militarily and, under certain circumstances, needs to exercise this right to defend its interests.  But there is no "military solution", and this must also be kept in mind whenever military force is employed.


However, Reshef pointed out, party chairman, Haim Oron, made sure to warn on the first night of the war that Israel's operation needs to be limited in scope and duration.  Israel, he said, is all too familiar with operations that somehow expand beyond their original time-frame and objectives.  As a result, he noted, New Movement-Meretz has consistently argued against a ground operation in Gaza.  


The party has also bemoaned the lack of clarity in the government's objectives, and the absence of a clear exit strategy.  Reshef said that none of the three that make up Israel's decision-making troika - Prime Minister Olmert, Defense Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Livni - seem to know how the operation will end, or how the fighting will lead to Israel's official objective: Quiet for Israel's south and a new reality based on a revamped cease-fire.  Reshef expressed support for the objective, but not the methods being used to attain it.


Reshef announced that, on Saturday night, January 10, Meretz and Peace Now will be holding their first demonstration since the start of the war, calling for cease-fire and an end to the military operation.


We face a dangerous turning point, Reshef indicated: The UN has made a cease-fire decision, but both Israel and Hamas have rejected it.  It's not clear what Israel will do next.  For some days, Israel has been hinting at a "3rd phase" of war, following the Phase I air attacks and the Phase II fighting around Gaza's populated areas.  Phase III would involve entering Gaza's populated areas, which, "we think would be a disaster," Reshef warned.  Instead, Israel needs to exhaust all avenues to reach a cease-fire agreement. 


Reshef threw light on the internal debate within Israel's decision-making troika: Barak, he said, seems to want a negotiated cease-fire; Olmert apparently wants to press on with the fighting; while Livni is talking about Israel declaring a unilateral cease-fire, and waiting to see the Hamas reaction.


Nonetheless, Reshef expressed the belief that the fighting will have to end soon: The world won't give it more than another 48-72 hours, and Israel will not defy the entire world.  Israel's leaders are also cognizant of the upcoming inauguration of Barack Obama and what the change in Administration will mean.  Reshef expressed the hope that Israel's leaders would be smart enough to bring the operation to a close with a political arrangement.


Asked about the New Movement-Meretz party's proposed exit strategy, Reshef explained that because it is not involved in the negotiations, and isn't privy to all the details, it has not produced a specific plan.  But it is stressing that a cease-fire needs to be reached very quickly in order to serve Israel's own interests.  He expressed the belief that an improved cease-fire is possible, though Hamas would not be an easy negotiator.  


To date, Reshef noted, the Israeli Jewish public has been overwhelmingly supportive of the war, comparing it favorably to the debacle in Lebanon in 2006.  However, he noted, the public is now beginning to ask questions regarding an exit strategy, and public opinion might start to change.


For the Israeli Left, the war dynamic has been a predictable one, and things are developing in a pattern similar to that of the Second Lebanon War: Ongoing fighting without resolution, growing civilian casualties and suffering, and no apparent government plan as to how stop what it began.


Several participants asked Reshef about the Israeli media's treatment of the war: Were Israelis not being given the full picture; were they not seeing the images from Gaza? And does this explain the overwhelming support for the war among Jewish Israelis?


Reshef replied that Israel is an open society - that the images are out there.  Israeli TV is showing them in a somewhat toned-down way, but Israelis are also viewing the images on Al-Jazeera and other non-Israeli stations.  The big question, he explained, is the approach taken by Israel's analysts, its "talking heads".  For the most part, he reported, they and the general media have been supportive of the operation.  


It is also important to understand, Reshef added, that Israeli public opinion was very prepared for this war from a psychological perspective.  The general sentiment was that the victims were the residents of Israel's south, who have had to pay a price for 8 years.  So despite the different "price" that the two sides are currently paying, Israelis generally feel that, "we didn't start this".  Although there has been a growing sensitivity to the suffering on the Palestinian side, this growth is still slow.


Asked about the internal political fallout from the war, Reshef noted that one of the tragedies of the present situation is that the war is being waged with one eye directed at domestic public opinion.  To date, Barak and Labor have benefitted the most in the polls.  Livni and Kadima had remained essentially unaffected.  


Asked whether there were anti-war voices coming from Labor, Reshef replied that if there are critics of the war within Labor, they were holding their tongues in public, probably since they did not want to undermine Labor's gains in the polls. After all, Reshef explained, 90% of Israel's Jewish citizens are behind the war.


As for the New Movement-Meretz party: The war has put an end to the tailwind that the party was enjoying in the polls, which had shown it at 7-9 seats.  Nonetheless, the latest polls have the party at 6 or 7, which is very positive, considering the war and the party's criticism of it.  Reshef noted that it was not clear whether the party's stepped-up opposition to the war would help or hurt it in the polls.  He revealed that the party had intended to base its campaign on issues other than peace and security - for example, the economy and the environment.  But the current fighting has scotched these plans, and the party will necessarily have to focus on the Palestinian issue.


Several callers expressed concern about the possible rearming of Hamas (as the Hezbollah has rearmed in southern Lebanon), which might one day be able to fire rockets as far as Tel Aviv.  Can this be prevented?  Perhaps, one suggested, Israel has no choice but to "clean out" Hamas entirely?


Reshef argued that his working assumption is that one cannot absolutely prevent neighbors from arming themselves.  Syria, for example, was much more heavily armed than Hamas, and could already hit Tel Aviv; so could other neighbors of Israel.  The question, then, is to how to create a situation, including through the use of deterrence and incentives, in which the other side chooses not to shoot at you.  That being said, Reshef expressed support for ending the operation with an agreement that would control and limit the movement of arms into Gaza.  


Relating to the idea of "cleaning out" Hamas, Reshef argued that, realistically, this was simply not possible.  He reminded listeners that Israel occupied much of Lebanon in 1982, that hundreds of Israeli soldiers were killed, and that this still did not stop the attacks on Israel.


Acknowledging that there is, "no perfect solution", Reshef stressed that the reoccupation of Gaza was simply not an acceptable alternative: A Phase III of the war would result in a great many Israeli casualties and tremendous Palestinian civilian suffering, not to mention the loss of whatever international public opinion is still behind Israel.  So Israel needs to finish the war quickly with the best terms possible.