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Brent Sasley


Brent Sasley, posted here Nov 22, 2012


[This article is  reprinted with permission from Brent Sasley's Blog at Middle East Matrix, Former Winnipegger Brent E. Sasley is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Texas at Arlington. His research interests overlap between Middle East politics and International Relations. His work focuses on identity and foreign policy; the role of emotions in foreign policymaking and international behavior; the interplay between memory and images and foreign policy; and pedagogy in Middle East studies. His main countries of study are Israel and Turkey.]


Why I Support the Palestinian Request at the UN

When Mahmoud Abbas said last year he was going to ask the Security Council for recognition, I was at first opposed to the idea, thinking the price would be too high. I changed my mind, believing it might help light a fire under Israel. That didn’t happen, mostly because the bid itself failed.

And so I still support the Palestinian request for non-member state status. Mostly it’s because the Palestinian Authority under Fatah and Abbas is never going to get a shot at genuine negotiations so long as domestic conditions in Israel don’t change.

That’s not to say, of course, that only Israel is responsible for past failures and potential future progress. Nor do I think Israel should unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank.

But looking at Israel specifically, all I see are obstacles. The Israeli public is less interested in the Palestinians than it’s ever been. The electoral list that emerged from Likud’s primaries this week is composed of members who take a hard line on negotiations over land, settlements, and a Palestinian state. Given that the party is most likely to still be the core of a new coalition government, I’d guess we can expect even less government interest than there is now.

Israel, of course, argues that it’s always ready for negotiations. Yet the hard truth is that it’s not. It’s insistence that the PA recognize Israel as a Jewish state first is a red herring; worse, it’s an excuse to avoid talks. As has been argued by many countless times before, there is no necessary or good reason for the Palestinians to do this, and every reason not to. And it’s a precondition that Israel insists on even as it calls for Abbas to sit down without preconditions.

Israel’s insistence that settlements are not an obstacle to negotiations is also misleading. The reality is that, as facts on the ground, they shrink the potential land area open to negotiations. The Israeli government insists that any final agreement accounts for settlements blocs as part of Israel. Yet the manner by which “neighborhoods” are spun off from existing settlements and then included as part of the settlement’s territory, plus the physical, legal, and security infrastructure that is built up around them, absorbs more and more land considered off-limits.

Progress on peace talks is essential for Israel’s well-being, too. World trends are moving against the occupation and the settlements. Hamas is growing stronger all the time. If it doesn’t get ahead of the curve, Israel’s ability to contribute to management of the conflict and shaping of outcomes will diminish.

There’s just no evidence that a successful Palestinian bid will change things for Israel for the worse. Rather, all the evidence points to the conclusion that not changing the status quo is the most dangerous for Israel.


Brent Sasley: Do Targeted Killings “Work”?

Nov 16, 2012 

As we consider the course of the Israel-Hamas conflict, I asked whether targeted killings–which is how Israel began its military action–really work in stopping rocket fire. My answer was first posted at Open Zion, but it’s reprinted here in full:
Israel began its current attack on Hamas with a tactical surprise, by
killing Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari on November 14. The previous day, Israeli leaders were already publicly musing about a return to this policy of “targeted killings” as a relatively cost-free way of responding to Hamas’s barrage of rockets.

But does the policy actually work in stopping Hamas from continued rocket attacks? Yes—but only in the short term, and only because today Hamas also has an interest in avoiding a battle to the death.

Israel has a long history of assassinating (or, in the more sanitized analytical term, “decapitating”) leaders of militant and terrorist groups. As a policy, it began in earnest in the 1970s, as Israel both killed off individuals in the PLO and tracked down the murderers of the Munich Olympics athletes.

In 1988, top PLO official Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) was assassinated. Throughout the 1990s, Israel targeted other groups, killing Hezbollah leader Abbas Musawi in 1992, Islamic Jihad chief Fathi Shikaki in 1995, and then focusing mostly on Hamas and, as the Second Intifada raged, Fatah and Fatah offshoots. The later 2000s saw more assassinations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders, culminating in March-April 2004 with the deaths of Hamas leaders Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

The scholarly literature is divided on whether assassinations of leaders of terrorist/militant groups work or not. Bruce Hoffman argues that the policy only incites groups to work harder to kill, while Bryan Price contends that in the long-term, decapitation leads to instability in and then collapse of the organization. For his part, Dan Byman suggests the overall balance sheet is just very difficult to assess.

In Israel’s case, killing off leaders and operatives of Hamas has a mixed record. The assassination of Yehiya Ayyash in 1996 led to an unprecedented campaign of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. On the other hand, the spate of assassinations during the Second Intifada put Hamas on the defensive and undermined its capacity and will to operate as aggressively.

We don’t have enough evidence to know if this would also be the case for rocket attacks. Moreover, Israel has successfully used other means to stop rocket fire. It launched a major air and ground assault on Hamas in 2008-2009 to stop heavy rocket fire, and that certainly convinced Hamas to contain the violence coming out of Gaza.

But we can extrapolate from previous experience that decapitation does incentivize Hamas to ease up on its attacks. What makes it harder to gauge the utility of the policy is that Hamas’s raison d’être is no longer the destruction of Israel (or at least that’s not its only position). As a major player in the Palestinian Authority from 2006 until its violent takeover of Gaza in 2007, and as the governing power in the Strip since then, Hamas has a stake in staying alive and relevant. It’s increasingly recognized by other states as legitimate, giving it the chance of becoming more powerful in Palestinian politics.
Its own internal politics
suggest it’s struggling to reorganize in the wake of the Syrian civil war and efforts by Fatah to take the initiative at the UN. To fend off its rivals, Hamas can’t be more open to negotiation than Fatah, but it can’t be less committed to “resistance” than the smaller Gazan groups.

Hamas isn’t looking to go out in a blaze of glory anymore, if it ever was. It wants to carefully balance out its actions.

What this suggests is that targeted killings degrade Hamas’s capabilities in the short term, forcing its officials underground, making it harder to exert leadership over the group, and promoting greater caution about antagonizing Israel. But Hamas’s goal to remain relevant makes it rely on rockets as well as other means, and sometimes its need will be greater—prompting heavier rocket fire—while at other times it will be lesser—leading to restraint on its part.

Assassinations, then, are likely to work in the short term, but can only work long-term in conjunction with other carrots and sticks. Israel, then, should first determine what its strategic and tactical, and political and military, objectives are, before using them as a policy tool.

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