At a time of year when most of the rest of the civilized world has been trying to observe a little peace and goodwill, the government of Israel has apparently decided this is a good time to launch “an all-out war to the bitter end” against Hamas… and thus, by extension, against the population of Gaza.

The timing raises questions for reasons that go beyond the season. We’re six weeks away from Israeli elections, in which the right-wing Likud party is favored to win control away from the centrist coalition behind outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert… so there’s the possibility that the current regime is trying to score political points for toughness. We’re three weeks away from Barack Obama’s inauguration, and some White House insiders speculate that Israel’s action was timed to finish before the current administration leaves; others are more cynical, like Middle East scholar Aaron David Miller, quoted as saying “this takes the already slim chance of an early, active and successful Obama engagement on Israel-Palestinian peace and lowers it to about zero.”

Let me stipulate, in order to sidestep the usual straw-man deflections:  Yes, I agree that it’s also bad for Hamas to be lobbing rockets across the border into Israel. And no, I’m not anti-Semitic in any way, shape, or form. However, none of that, nor any possible reason or rationalization Israel may have, either public or private, changes the fact that these bombings are an absolutely unconscionable and illegal act on Israel’s part.

Innocent civilians are suffering and dying by the hundreds, and they are doing so in service of absolutely no constructive end whatsoever. Public protests have bloomed across the capitals of Europe, and rightly so. Congressman Dennis Kucinich sums things up well in a statement he released today, pointing out that

The attacks on civilians represent collective punishment, which is a violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention… The perpetrators of attacks against Israel must also be brought to justice, but Israel cannot create a war against an entire people in order to attempt to bring to justice the few who are responsible. The Israeli leaders know better. The world community, which has been very supportive of Israel’s right to security and its right to survive, also has a right to expect Israel to conduct itself in adherence to the very laws which support the survival of Israel and every other nation. …

Israel is leveling Gaza to strike at Hamas, just as they pulverized south Lebanon to strike at Hezbollah. Yet in both cases civilian populations were attacked, countless innocents killed or injured, infrastructure targeted and destroyed, and civil law enforcement negated. All this was, and is, disproportionate, indiscriminate mass violence in violation of international law. Israel is not exempt from international law and must be held accountable. It is time for the UN to not just call for a cease-fire, but for an inquiry as to Israel’s actions.

Unfortunately, most of the rest of Congress is responding in its usual double-standard fashion, issuing statements supporting Israel’s attacks as “defensive” and placing all the blame on Hamas. As for Obama’s transition team/shadow administration, it is meanwhile keeping its cards close to the vest, pointing out yet again that the U.S. has only one president at a time and issuing bland confirmations that Israel is an “important ally.” However, it seems clear that the Israel/Palestine situation will have to be even more of an early priority for Obama than had already been expected.

Where the incoming president’s priorities, and chances of success, will be most clearly seen, will be in his choice of diplomatic representative. For weeks now, long before these current hostilities, rumors have abounded that Obama would appoint a special Middle East envoy who would report directly to the president, rather than leaving the region to the discretion of the Secretary of State. Haaretz has reported that the two top contenders for this post are reportedly Dennis Ross (who held the post under Bush père and Bill Clinton) and Daniel Kurtzer (former ambassador to both Egypt and Israel). Both are Jewish, and both are experienced diplomats, but beyond that there are critical differences. As Time‘s veteran Middle East correspondent Scott MacLeod concisely puts it, “Ross would be a significant disappointment, Kurtzer an excellent choice.”

Ross, after all, represents the failed politics of the ’90s. He has a track record of a dozen years of failure at achieving any meaningful progress between Israel and the Palestinians, of mismanaging multiple rounds of negotiations, and of consistently placing all blame on the weakest party, the Palestinians. In MacLeod’s words,

his palpable one-sidedness is why he remains completely distrusted by the Arabs he has negotiated with… [he] proved too tolerant of Israeli overreaching, too ambivalent about the rights and legitimate interests of Palestinians and too tone deaf to the impending collapse of the peace process with all its grave consequences.

Kurtzer, on the other hand, was an outspoken opponent of Ariel Sharon’s settlement expansions and border wall during his time in Israel. In a recent book on the subject, he found ample blame on all sides for past diplomatic failures, including with the U.S. approach under both Clinton and Bush. As MacLeod summarized Kurtzer’s view,

A problem with [this] reflexively pro-Israel approach… is that a strong third-party mediating role is essential in order to overcome the Israeli strategic superiority that puts Palestinians at a negotiating disadvantage and therefore makes them warier of deal making.

One could hardly ask for a better endorsement of Kurtzer than the overwrought opposition to him from the reactionary Zionist Organization of America. With enemies like that, he must be doing something right. He seems to have what it takes to bring a fresh, balanced sensibility to diplomacy in the region… and I certainly hope that the heightened stakes of the current situation lead Obama to realize just how desperately such a sensibility is needed. (One heartening early signal in that direction was Obama’s choice for National Security Advisor of retired General James Jones, who last year bucked Israeli preferences by proposing a multinational peacekeeping force in the Occupied Territories.)

Back in September, Ehud Olmert himself declaredwhat no previous Israeli leader has ever said: we should withdraw from almost all of the territories, including in east Jerusalem and in the Golan Heights,” in an interview with the newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth. That, he said, would be the path to a peace agreement. Of course, he only offered this insight (glaringly clear to most of the rest of the world for decades now) after he had preemptively resigned from office in the face of corruption charges, and thus when his ability to act on it was virtually nil. What Israel desperately needs is a government willing to speak, and act on, such truths when they can really make a difference. Failing that, what it needs is the sort of friend and ally in the U.S. that can give it a forceful nudge in the right direction. Further grossly disproportionate bombings of civilians serve only to leave Israel morally and politically isolated, and we are no friend worth having if we continue to act as an enabler of such abuses.

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