This should have been Bibi Netanyahu’s big year at the United Nations. World revulsion toward ISIS was at a peak, putting Islamist terrorism at center stage. President Obama, long derided by Netanyahu and his allies as a naïve peacenik, had suddenly become a wartime president. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was, at last, the least of the world’s problems. If Bibi wanted the world to leave Israel and the Palestinians alone to fight things out in their own way, all he had to do was show up and play it cool.
But, of course, you knew he wouldn’t. He had to go and take this opportunity — nay, engraved invitation — to show gracious statesmanship and use it instead to show the petulance and short-sightedness for which he’s famous.
Obama, addressing the assembly September 24, hit all the right notes. In a 39-minute speech that ranged from Ukraine to Ebola, Iran, poverty and climate change, more than one-third was devoted to the fight against radical Islamism, as epitomized by ISIS. He called on “the world to join in this effort” to destroy “this network of death.” He declared, uncharacteristically for him, that there could be “no reasoning, no negotiation with this brand of evil.” He demanded that “the Arab and Muslim world” end funding of extremist ideologies. He called on Muslim youth to choose between pluralism and stagnation. He even pooh-poohed the “illusion” that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “the main source of problems in the region.”
The president wasn’t just talking through his hat. Before showing up in New York he’d assembled a global coalition of more than 60 nations to join the fight against ISIS. Some are just providing funds (not a small thing in these tight-budget times; that’s the role our ally Japan played in the 1991 Gulf War). Others, notably the Europeans, are fighting with us in Iraq but haven’t crossed the border into Syria.
On the other hand, five Sunni Arab states have mobilized to join our attack on the Islamist army’s bases on Syrian soil. That’s a historic achievement — getting Arab states to fight openly alongside us Western infidels to extirpate a diseased branch of Islam. You might think back to World War I and T.E. Lawrence leading Arabs against the Ottoman Turks. But that was to dismantle a bloatec empire. This is to defeat concentrated evil that wraps itself in the pages of the Quran.
Fresh from the long war with Hamas in Gaza, tensely facing down simmering unrest in the West Bank and chaos on the Syrian border, Israel’s defense establishment is now bracing for what’s shaping up to be the most bruising confrontation of all: the choosing of the next chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.
The process looks to be a replay of the last race, an ugly slugfest in late 2010 and early 2011 that resulted in the selection of the current chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. That got so nasty that the lead candidates fought each other to a draw amid mudslinging and dirty tricks that ended up in criminal investigations and indictments. Weirdly enough, the lead candidates are back again.
The lead candidates that fall were Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, chief of the Northern Command, who was favored by then-chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and most of his colleagues at General Staff HQ; and the chief of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, favored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak, but fiercely opposed by the army brass. The mudslinging exploded into a scandal that effectively sidelined Eizenkot, though he wasn’t directly involved. Barak went on to nominate Galant, as expected, and the cabinet duly approved him. Days before Galant was to take over in February, however, he was suddenly charged with real estate fraud and disqualified. In the end the job was handed to everyone’s second choice, the inoffensive Gantz.
Everything fell apart so suddenly that an interim chief of staff had to be appointed, the newly installed deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh. That prompted yet another eruption when Israel’s Supreme Court sharply criticized Naveh as unfit to lead the army even temporarily.
This year all the old ghosts are returning, along with some new ones. The lead candidates are, once again, Eizenkot and Galant. Eizenkot is currently deputy chief of staff, and was thought until recently to be the heir apparent. Galant, meanwhile, cleared up his real estate mess last year and recently nominated himself for the post, announcing on television that he’d be available if “called to the flag,” as he grandly put it. He’s reportedly still backed by Netanyahu, though not by the new defense minister, Moshe Yaalon.
If past were prologue, Galant would now reclaim the job dangled by the prime minister but snatched from him at the last minute in 2011. But under Israeli law, nominating the chief of staff is the sole prerogative of the defense minister. And Yaalon shares the generals’ dislike of Galant and respect for Eizenkot.
Well, I said he’d do it and he’s doing it. Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has reportedly (see here and here) offered the job of United Nations ambassador to the information and homefront defense minister, Gilad Erdan, when current ambassador Ron Proshor steps down in December. Erdan’s departure would bring the next candidate on the joint Likud-Beiteinu 2013 electoral slate, Leon Litinetski of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, into the Knesset.
All else being equal, that would boost Yisrael Beiteinu’s Knesset representation to 13 seats and reduce Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud to 18, making Likud the second-largest party in the Knesset after Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (with 19).
Of course, all else is not equal. Netanyahu is said to have given his approval to the Erdan nomination, but “sources in the Likud” are telling reporters (Maariv, Jerusalem Post) that the party won’t accept Erdan’s nomination unless a Yisrael Beiteinu minister quits the Knesset (while remaining a cabinet minister) to make way for the next person on the joint list, Likudnik David Bitan.
Agriculture minister Yair Shamir, a Lieberman ally, was reported in August to be willing to leave the Knesset. At the time I reported that it wasn’t clear how that would help Lieberman, since trading Shamir’s seat for Litinetski’s wouldn’t change the balance between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. Now it becomes clearer.
It’s still not clear whether Lieberman can bring in Litinetski without sacrificing Shamir’s seat to preserve the current party balance, but nobody ever went broke betting on Lieberman. Martin Indyk told an audience in Aspen in July that Lieberman is “the smartest politician in Israel.” And nobody underestimates the bad blood between Lieberman and Bibi.
All things being equal, falling to second place wouldn’t necessarily threaten Netanyahu’s prime ministership. During his last term, from 2009 to 2013, he had one seat fewer than Kadima (27 to 28) but became prime minister when then-Kadima leader Tzipi Livni couldn’t cobble together a Knesset majority to form a coalition.
But again, all things aren’t necessarily equal. Bibi has trouble brewing on other fronts as well.
In an unusual step, Ynet has published an English translation of Nahum Barnea’s weekly Friday column from the August 28 Yediot Ahronot weekend supplement. It’s a powerful indictment of the way the Gaza war was managed, its costs to Israel’s long-term security and political integrity. He talks to the soldiers and officers as well as the cabinet ministers and shows you not just what was done wrong but also what was done very right.
Barnea is always among the best political writers in Israel, but this week he outdid himself.
Here’s a taste:
In one of the common ceremonies at wrestling matches, the wrestler leaves the confines of the ropes. He jumps out of the ring into the audience, his chest puffed up, and stages a victory lap. He is handed a microphone, and he makes a long speech of self-congratulation and humiliation of his rival. The audience responds with a combination of cheers, applause and boos. And then, from the other side of the stadium comes a wrestler we were unaware of, who jumps the puff-chested wrestler from behind, and everything starts anew.
On Wednesday, the prime minister and his entourage landed at the Hatzor Airbase. This was one of the stops on a long journey, a journey only loosely tied to what had happened during the fighting, but strongly tied to what would happen to the prime minister in the near future, in the political arena and in public opinion polls.
This wasn’t a victory lap, but rather a marketing trip. In his early years in politics Netanyahu knew how take a look at himself from the outside — an ironic, sober look. During those years, he was capable of understanding just how similar were the Israeli prime minister’s victory lap to former Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh’s victory celebrations in Gaza. The actions at their hands are damned, and yet they are singing.
“Destruction and killing, this is how wars end,” said one of the most senior officers in Military Intelligence. In this one sentence he manages to sum up the dilemma that accompanied the military operation from its early days: How to kill and destroy to an extent that would force Hamas to stop, but not to an extent that would turn the world against Israel.
The politicians use the word “moral” a lot on this issue. The IDF is the most moral army in the world, Yair Lapid repeatedly says, as do others. When the IDF enters a war while enjoying accurate intelligence, freedom of aerial and naval action, mighty firepower, protection from rockets and sophisticated weaponry, while facing an isolated terror organization under siege — it should be enough for us. When the gap in military might is so large, when the space to maneuver is unlimited, we don’t have to crown ourselves as the overlords of morality as well.
Those who follow me online have observed that I don’t usually respond to my critics. I confess: I have a little fan club that hangs out in the Comments section and on my Facebook page, cursing my ancestry and generally whooping it up, and they seem to be having so much fun that I hate to spoil it. Besides, as Rabbi Tarfon used to say, life’s too short and there’s too much to do (Pirkei Avot 2:20). Usually, I figure the facts will speak for themselves.
Lately, though, I’ve started noticing a weird phenomenon: critics attacking me for holding strange, dangerous or anti-Israel opinions when all I’ve done is quote mainstream Israeli defense doctrine or, on occasion, simply report major stories in the Israeli Hebrew press that haven’t made it into the American media.
On Friday afternoon, for example, Commentary editor John Podhoretz tweeted a snarky dismissal of my latest weekly column, headlined “Who Leaked Israel’s Top-Secret Briefing About Reoccupying Gaza?” My column notes that Israel’s attorney general has been asked formally to open a criminal investigation a security leak that the IDF considers extremely dangerous, and that Prime Minister Netanyahu is the leading suspect. John’s observation:
This is what is known as deranged wishful thinking on the part of anti-Bibi liberals. http://t.co/Z6XMWO9HVY— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) August 22, 2014
Now, there are several possibilities here. Perhaps he only read the headline and blurb, or perhaps the first few paragraphs, and therefore didn’t realize, as my column carefully noted, that this is a news story that’s been all over the Israeli press, liberal (Haaretz) and conservative (Maariv) alike, and that Israel’s attorney general Yehuda Weinstein has been formally asked to open a criminal investigation by Labor Party Knesset whip Eitan Cabel.
It’s possible that John followed up by reading the English Haaretz story, which pins the leak on one of Bibi’s opponents, but couldn’t read the Maariv story, which is in Hebrew and notes that virtually everyone else who’s examined the evidence thinks Bibi did it. Then again, to be fair, my weekly columns in the Forward Forum (as opposed to my blog posts) generally don’t contain links to source material. So he’d have to search online for the actual quotes, using the sourcing information that I did provide in print. To tell the truth, though, I have a sneaking suspicion that he didn’t bother reading the column at all, but merely read the headline, decided it was nuts and decided to vent. This, then, raises the age-old question, Why Can’t Johnny Read?.
More inexplicable is the lengthy critique by John’s Commentary colleague, my friend (for real) Jonathan Tobin, of my previous week’s column, “What Happens in Israel Doesn’t Stay in Israel.” Jonathan wrote a blog post on August 20, titled “Israel Doesn’t Cause Anti-Semitism,” in which he carefully deconstructs my argument that Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians is partly responsible for the growing wave of anti-Semitism among Muslims in Europe.
I know he read the column he’s criticizing, because he quotes from it and takes on its arguments one by one. Here’s his most telling point:
Indications are mounting that the indirect Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire talks in Cairo could be heading for failure, possibly resulting in renewed fighting when the current 5-day truce expires Monday night.
Early reports were that the two sides were close to agreement on an Egyptian compromise proposal for a long-term cease-fire. On Friday and Saturday, however, declarations on both sides indicated that positions were hardening as fierce internal divisions emerged, pulling the leaderships on both sides away from the center. The Palestinian side appears to be stymied by the refusal of the organization’s Qatar-based political secretary, Khaled Meshaal, and the head of its military wing, Mohammed Deif, to go along with the compromise proposals laid out by the Egyptians and mostly accepted by both delegations.
On the Israeli side, meanwhile, chaos appears to be reigning. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who rode a wave of popularity during the military operation, has been facing a tsunami of criticism over the past week from the left, the right, the residents of Gaza-adjacent communities and his top coalition ministers. Two of his senior coalition partners, foreign minister Avigdor Liberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party and economics minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, have repeatedly attacked the prime minister’s management of the Gaza conflict from the right, demanding a continuing assault until Gaza has been taken over and Hamas disarmed or dismantled. Broad circles on the right accuse him of giving away the store (i.e. lifting the blockade) in return for “nothing” (i.e. Hamas-Jihad agreement not to shoot, bombard or tunnel).
The other coalition partners, justice minister Tzipi Livni of Hatnuah and finance minister Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, have been pressing Netanyahu from the left, demanding that he seek to end the fighting by convening an international Middle East peace conference in cooperation with the Arab League. The goal of the conference would be to negotiate an agreement for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Netanyahu hasn’t said no to either minister, by some accounts because he’ll need their votes in the cabinet for the limited cease-fire he’s aiming to obtain in Cairo.
Livni and Bennett have also attacked the Cairo cease-fire negotiations on principle, saying the process amounts to Israel negotiating with Hamas despite its international status as a terrorist organization and effectively gives the Islamist group diplomatic legitimacy. Both also complain that the Egyptian proposal for a long-term cease-fire, by guaranteeing Gaza’s border, would constrain Israel’s ability to reply to terrorist actions from Gaza while failing to prevent Hamas and other terrorist groups from rearming and mounting attacks.
Under the Egyptian proposal, the Palestinian factions in Gaza, principally Hamas and Islamic Jihad, would agree to refrain from all attacks on Israel by land, air and sea, and to refrain from digging tunnels into Israeli territory.
Israel and the Palestinians are said to be near agreement on the terms for a long-term cease-fire for Gaza, following a day of talks in Cairo under Egyptian mediation. The Israeli team was reported by Yediot Ahronot’s Ynet news site to be heading back to Israel this evening to present the tentative agreements to Israel’s security cabinet.
The 11-member Palestinian delegation includes five representatives of Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, including Azzam al-Ahmed, the delegation head, and delegation spokesman Qais Abd el-Karim of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine; four representatives of Hamas, including deputy political secretary Moussa Abu Marzouk; and two representatives of Islamic Jihad. The Israeli delegation includes Shin Bet director Yoram Cohen; Defense Ministry political-diplomatic director Amos Gilad; coordinator of government activities in the territories Maj. Gen. Yoav “Pauly” Mordechai; director of the IDF planning directorate Maj. Gen. Nimrod Sheffer; and Yitzhak Molcho, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s personal lawyer.
Following are the terms of the emerging agreement, as reported on Israel’s Mako-Channel 2 News by veteran Arab affairs commentator Ehud Yaari and reporter Udi Segal:
Demanded by Israel:
A complete halt to firing and hostile action from Gaza.
Israeli control of border crossings to be opened between Gaza and Israel in the framework of the agreement.
Payment of money and any other cash transfers to public workers in Gaza will be carried out only via the Palestinian Authority.
Demanded by Palestinian negotiators:
In a scarcely noticed series of political maneuvers, Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud party lost its primacy as the largest party in the Knesset last Wednesday. It’s now equal in size to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party at 19 seats each. Moreover, don’t be surprised if the prime minister finds himself dropping to 18 in the fall. I don’t know how, but I’ll bet Avigdor Liberman does.
The shift came when Liberman, foreign minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, appointed Likud lawmaker Carmel Shama-Hacohen to become Israel’s ambassador to the Paris headquarters of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as well as UNESCO and the Council of Europe.
Shama-Hacohen was confirmed by the cabinet and sworn in as ambassador by newly elected state president Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday, August 5. The following day, August 6, the last day of the Knesset’s summer session, he was replaced in the Knesset by the next candidate on the 2013 Likud-Beiteinu joint Knesset slate, Yisrael Beiteinu veteran Alex Miller, a longtime Liberman ally.
Netanyahu’s Likud and Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu had joined forces in a joint list for the January 2013 election and formed a joint caucus in the Knesset that was sworn in the next month. Of the 31 Knesset seats they won in the balloting, 20 were held by Likud candidates and 11 by Yisrael Beiteinu.
The two parties retained separate organizations, however. Liberman ended the partnership this past July, claiming that he could not support Netanyahu’s too-moderate response to Hamas rocket fire. He kept his party in the governing coalition, however, and retained his post as foreign minister.
Reducing Likud to parity with Yesh Atid could create serious strains in Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Under the 2013 coalition agreement, Likud-Beiteinu got 13 of the 23 ministerships in the cabinet, though it had 31 of 68 seats in the coalition, on the principle that the governing party must control a majority of the government’s ruling institutions. Following last month’s Netanyahu-Liberman split, Likud had 8 ministers and Yisrael Beiteinu had 5. Of the three junior partners, Yesh Atid had 19 Knesset seats and 5 ministers; Jewish Home had 12 seats and 3 ministers; and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah had 6 seats and 2 ministers.
The Shama shuffle means that Likud now has 8 ministers for its 19 seats while Yesh Atid has 5 for its 19. Yisrael Beiteinu has 5 ministers for its 12 seats while Jewish Home has 3 for its 12.
The all-important security cabinet is even more lopsided: Likud-Beiteinu had 5 of the 8 seats while the other 3 parties had 1 each. Now Likud has 3 to Yesh Atid’s 1 and Yisrael Beiteinu has 2 seats to Jewish Home’s 1.
Conflicting reports from the Egyptian-Palestinian negotiations in Cairo: The Israeli news site Mako-News10 reported Saturday evening that the factions comprising the Palestinian cease-fire negotiating team — the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Islamic Jihad — had made some significant concessions on their demands for renewing the Gaza cease-fire. They agreed to permit Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority forces take over the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing from Gaza into Egypt, something Hamas had flatly opposed until now. And they agreed to defer to a later date discussion of the Hamas demand for a seaport in Gaza. The report is based on a “Palestinian source close to the negotiations” who was quoted by Agence France Presse.
On the other hand, the Jerusalem Post reported early Sunday morning local time that the Palestinian negotiators were preparing to leave Cairo and would not negotiate further unless Israel agreed to return to the talks. Israel has insisted it won’t return to the talks unless rocket fire from Gaza is halted.
The Post’s full account doesn’t quite match its headline and lead. The threat to quit Cairo turns out to be Hamas’s chief negotiator, Cairo-based deputy political secretary Moussa Abu Marzouk, saying that the three Palestinian factions would make their decision after consulting with each other on Sunday morning. Several Hamas officials, some in Cairo, some not, are quoted as threatening to leave Cairo and resume full-scale attacks on Israel unless their demands are met. Also quoted is the chairman of the joint Palestinian delegation, Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmed, who said flatly on Friday that the Palestinians would not leave Cairo until an agreement is reached. At the very end the Post story reports the factions’ concessions on Rafah and the seaport.
In Jerusalem, meanwhile, Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni on Friday gave Prime Minister Netanyahu a draft of a proposal she plans to submit to the security cabinet this coming week to end the conflict in Gaza and resume peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. (Details at News1 in Hebrew and Jerusalem Post in English.)
Israeli news media are reporting a growing tension between the country’s political and military leaders over how far to pursue the campaign in Gaza. On Tuesday morning a “senior military officer” held an off-the-record briefing for a group of reporters (reports in Ynet, Walla) and lodged what the reporters termed “veiled criticism” of the political leadership, charging it with indecision. The officer said the army had completed the tasks assigned to it and that the political echelon now had to decide whether to go deeper into Gaza or to begin withdrawing.
On Wednesday an unidentified cabinet minister fired back at the army, saying that the cabinet had approved every suggestion the army had made. The minister was quoted saying “it was the army that maneuvered us into the situation we’re in now.”
The problem seems to be that the cabinet is deadlocked between pro-cease-fire and smash-Hamas factions, and the IDF is losing patience with the government’s inability to give it clear instructions. It’s a mark of how clueless the ministers are that one of them — evidently from the hard-line faction — can say with a straight face that it’s up to the army to come up with Israel’s goals. After all, we’ve approved everything they’ve asked for. What do they want from us, a policy? C’mon — this is Israel.
The background to the dispute is a complex dilemma that faces Israel right now, which reporters have taken to routinely calling the “plonter” or tangled mess. That may be the name by which this operation is remembered.
Further complicating matters, the pro-cease-fire faction, which reportedly includes Prime Minister Netanyahu, is hobbled by the fact that Israel is nowhere near getting a cease-fire on terms acceptable to it. Israel wants a cease-fire that permits it to continue demolishing the tunnels and further leads to a demilitarization of Gaza. Hamas has flatly rejected disarming.
Anyway, getting a cease-fire requires getting Hamas to stop firing its rockets, but Hamas refuses to agree unless it is brought formally into the negotiating process and asked directly. By that it hopes to gain a degree of international recognition and legitimacy that neither Israel nor Egypt is willing to grant it. Egypt currently envisions Hamas as participating in a Palestinian delegation that is headed by and formally represents the Palestinian Authority. Hamas is angling for its own separate delegation.
The problem of getting Hamas to buy into a cease-fire negotiation seems to have been at the heart of John Kerry’s dustup with the Israeli cabinet last weekend. Kerry was trying to get around the problem of getting Hamas’s consent without engaging it directly by talking to Qatar and Turkey, who speak for Hamas.
Nahum Barnea, commonly described as Israel’s most respected political journalist, has spent much of the past two weeks with the troops in Gaza and talking to general command in Tel Aviv. His weekly column in today’s Yediot Ahronot weekend supplement, which I have translated below, happens to say some of the things I’ve been writing over the past few weeks, so a bit of what you’ll read might sound familiar. But his sources are better than mine, better than anyone’s in fact, and he brings you up to date.
But the third section of his column is something new: He says Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has known for a long time about the network of tunnels under Gaza and the threat they pose, but he punted because he had other things on his agenda. Now he’s shocked — shocked! — to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza!
The first section of Barnea’s column echoes my most recent column about Israel’s search for an elusive exit strategy. His second section recapitulates, in telegraphic form, a part of the chain of misadventures leading to unintended war that I described a few weeks ago (“How Politics and Lies Triggered an Unintended War in Gaza”). He doesn’t address the early events described in my article — the government putting out misleading messages about “operating under the assumption that the boys are alive” when it was pretty clear they were dead and placing the gag order over the evidence — because it’s ancient history and pretty much common knowledge among those who follow the news in Israel. (For those still wondering about my sources on that, I can cite a few of the early reports that said the same thing, here, here, here and, regarding the Hebron branch of Hamas acting as a rogue player, here.)
Anyway, Barnea is already moving on to the latest — um, questionable assertion, namely that Israel was surprised (find the claim here and here) by the tunnels, or the extent of the tunnels, and therefore had to ratchet up its Protective Edge campaign unexpectedly at the last minute. Barnea argues, in the third section of this article, that the government had a very clear picture of the tunnels and their extent a long time ago but decided not to act on them because it had other things on its plate. He’s pretty scathing about the current “gap between rhetoric and reality,” as he puts it. Worth a read.
Elsewhere in the Friday supplement, Yediot’s indispensable military analyst Alex Fishman writes that the army began facing the Gaza tunnel problem as early as 2001, and the government’s failure to act on them was the topic of a report by the government comptroller in 2007. I’ll try to translate Fishman’s report in a later blog post. Other sources report that pressure is already building in Israel (see here and here, for example) for a postwar commmission of inquiry into the failure to act earlier on the tunnels.
Barnea concludes, as I did this week, with the argument that Protective Edge strengthens rather than weakens the argument for a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority. Unlike me, he sees signs that Netanyahu is thinking the same thing.
Here’s Barnea, starting with the exit-strategy question:
How Do We Get Out of This
The cabinet [i.e. the 8-member security cabinet], which convened Wednesday for one of its nighttime discussions, was waiting for the utterances of one man, Khaled Meshaal. Meshaal, the head of the political bureau of Hamas, upgraded his position this week. The fate of the cease-fire that so many players are hoping for is in his hands. John Kerry, the foreign minister of the world’s mightiest superpower, used his connections in Qatar to placate him; Kerry believed he was doing this on behalf of the Israeli government and with its blessing. Abu Mazen tried. Turkey tried.
Israel’s consul for public affairs in New York, Gil Lainer, has offered a spirited reply to my June 10 column, “How Politics and Lies Triggered an Unintended War In Gaza.” As a devout Zionist, I’m glad to see a strong, cogent defense of the state of Israel. Unfortunately, as Groucho Marx once put it, this wasn’t it.
Much of the consul’s riposte seems to be based, strangely, on the assumption that facts need not follow one from the other in order to constitute an argument as long as they sound similar. Thus the undisputed fact that Hamas favors conflict with Israel must somehow prove that Hamas wanted this conflict this month. The fact that Islam-motivated terrorist organizations fired rockets from Hamas-ruled territory can somehow mean that Hamas as good as fired those rockets. The fact that Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal praised the kidnapping of the three yeshiva students after the fact must mean that Hamas ordered the crime. Sorry, but things don’t work that way.
Prime Minister Netanyahu promised early on to show proof that Hamas was responsible for the kidnappings, but the proof never came and the promise was quickly forgotten. Instead we have Meshaal’s ravings. Well, Meshaal did indeed praise the kidnapping afterward, but he also said he had no information about it. Other Hamas leaders, including Sami Abu Zuhri and Osama Hamdan, stated flatly that Hamas had not ordered it. Hamas is never shy about acknowledging its actions. Why are we so eager to believe every damning word that comes out of their mouths but to dismiss as lies anything that might be deemed exculpatory?
Other assertions are even stranger. Supposedly I claimed that “Hamas does not desire conflict with Israel” (which I didn’t — I said it didn’t desire this conflict right now) because I’m “unaware of who has been launching rockets at Israel for years.” The consul then proceeds to identify who’s been doing it: the very groups that I blamed. I called them “smaller jihadi groups.” He calls them “Islamic terror groups that, whether they call themselves Hamas or not, espouse the same hatred and are committed to the destruction of the State of Israel.” That is, not Hamas, but they might as well be because they sound the same.
Avigdor Liberman at Likud-Beiteinu campaign rally, December 2012 / Getty Images
Israeli Foreign Avigdor Liberman announced today that he was pulling his Yisrael Beiteinu party out of its electoral alliance with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. The two combined forces in a joint electoral slate in advance of last year’s Knesset elections, but never merged the two parties into a single organization.
Liberman isn’t taking his party out of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, he told a press conference this morning. Nor is he quitting his job as foreign minister. Still, the split of the erstwhile Likud-Beiteinu alliance into two separate Knesset caucuses leaves Netanyahu in a precarious position, commanding just 20 lawmakers in his 68-member coalition.
Liberman’s split with Netanyahu comes after days of increasingly harsh squabbling over policy toward Hamas. Liberman has repeatedly called for the government to step up its attacks on Hamas, including a reoccupation of Gaza on the scale of Operaiton Defensive Shield in 2002. On Saturday, appearing in the southern city of Sderot, he slammed as “unthinkable” and “a serious mistake” Netanyahu’s offer to Hamas of a restored cease-fire, or “quiet in return for quiet.”
The dispute reached a climax at the weekly Sunday cabinet meeting, where Netanyahu and Liberman traded insults while ministers on the right lined up with Liberman and Netanyahu’s strongest support came from his usual critics to his left, including Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni and environment minister (and onetime Labor Party chief) Amir Peretz.
Netanyahu now heads a coalition of five parties in which his own Likud, nominally the governing party, holds a plurality only by the narrowest margin. Of the coalition’s 68 lawmakers (in the 120-member Knesset), 20 belong to the Likud, 19 to finance minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, 12 to economy minister Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, 11 to Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and 6 to justice minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah.
Yesterday I posted my translation of a Facebook post by Yuval Diskin, the former director of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency. He wrote that Israel’s security is threatened by a growing anger and frustration among the Palestinian public — and that the frustration is due in large measure to Israeli government policies. Among those policies: dismissing the Palestinians as a peace partner, ignoring their economic woes and continuing to build settlements on land the Palestinians claim as their future state.
Today Haaretz published two articles in English that elaborate on that thought. One is a new piece by Diskin, outlining what he describes as an achievable path to an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, via a four-way peace arrangement between Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan and Egypt.
The other is an account of a briefing by Mossad director Tamir Pardo, the current director of the Mossad intelligence agency, given on Thursday to a group of Israeli businessmen. As reported by Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid, Pardo told the gathering that the “biggest threat to Israel’s security is the conflict with the Palestinians and not Iran’s nuclear program.”
According to an attendee at the briefing, Pardo listed the most dangerous threats to Israel’s security as the “Palestinian issue” and the rise of the so-called Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) as a destabilizing terror base in the region. Pardo reportedly declined to include the Iranian nuclear project in his catalogue of most serious threats to Israel’s security or survival.
This isn’t the first time Pardo has downplayed the Iranian nuclear threat, in seeming contradiction to the views of his boss, Prime Minister Netanyahu. In December 2011 he said in a speech to an annual gathering of Israeli ambassadors that it was a “mistake” to describe Iran as an “existential threat” to Israel.
Mourners at the fresh grave of Naftali Fraenkel, one of three Israeli teens murdered, allegedly by members of the Hamas-linked Qawasmeh family of Hebron. / Getty Images
Now that the bodies of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers have been found and laid to rest, the crisis is rapidly turning into a wickedly complex, five-sided tug-of-war with enormous stakes on all sides. One axis pits hawks against doves inside Israel, with cries from the public for revenge backed by right-wing cabinet ministers while the military, backed by government doves, urges cautious, calibrated measures, to avoid an escalation into war. Prime Minister Netanyahu is caught in the middle, immobilized by indecision.
The debate erupted into angry verbal confrontations at security cabinet meetings on Monday and Tuesday, reaching a climax at one point when IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz praised the cabinet for adopting a temperate set of counter-measures that avoid escalation into full-scale war. In reply Gantz received a tongue-lashing from economics minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party, the cabinet’s strongest advocate of harsh measures. Bennett angrily told Gantz he had no authority to “critique” the ministers’ actions.
The second line of tension is a tug-of-war between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas over Abbas’s month-old unity pact with Hamas. A Hebron-based Hamas cell is believed responsible for the kidnap-murders, and Netanyahu is demanding that Abbas break off ties with the Hamas leadership in response. Abbas is holding off, deterred by doubts over the involvement of Hamas leaders — Hamas officials in both Gaza and Damascus continually deny any involvement or knowledge — and by popular pressure from below not to be identified too closely with Israel. But Israel anger and Hamas recalcitrance may leave him no choice.
The third and perhaps most significant line of confrontation is the growing tension between Hamas leaders in Gaza and Damascus and the local Hamas organization in Hebron. The Hebron organization, dominated by one of the city’s oldest and largest clans, the Qawasmehs, has effectively operated for more than a decade as an independent franchise within the fundamentalist movement, and frequently as a radical opposition force and spoiler. The Shin Bet has identified Marwan Qawasmeh, 29, and a family hanger-on, Amer Abu-Eisha, 33, as the kidnappers of the yeshiva students.
Several detailed accounts of the Qawasmeh family’s alleged spoiler role in Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire efforts have appeared in several Israeli and international publications in the last day, claiming, based on Palestinian and Israeli intelligence sources, that the clan staged the kidnapping in order to sabotage the Fatah-Hamas unity pact and reignite armed conflict.
Israeli troops search for evidence at site where the bodies of 3 kidnapped youths were found near village of Halhoul. / Getty Images
Israel’s security cabinet was due to convene at 9:30 pm (2:30 New York time) to discuss Israeli responses to the murder of the three teenagers whose bodies were found just before 6 pm in a shallow grave near the village of Halhul, north of Hebron. And a heated debate has already broken out over the proper steps to take.
As usual, politicians on the right are pushing for a maximalist response, while military figures are warning against letting emotions guide policy and urging “focused” and “targeted” responses. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly blamed Hamas for the kidnapping, and pointed to the Fatah-Hamas unity pact concluded last month as contributing to the terrorist act.
Military and security figures have quietly cautioned since fingers began pointing at Hamas that there was no concrete evidence the kidnappers were operating under instructions from Hamas higher-ups. Today for the first time they began speaking not quietly but openly, warning that attacking Hamas as an organization in response to the kidnapping would backfire, fail to deter future terrorism and serve Hamas’s goal of isolating and delegitimizing Israel internationally.
The three boys, Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gil-Ad Shaer, 16, and U.S. citizen Naftali Fraenkel, also 16, were kidnapped at around 10 p.m. June 12 while trying to hitchhike home for the weekend from their West Bank yeshivas. The area, under Israeli military administration, has been the scene of Palestinian violence for decades but has been relatively quiet for the past few years. They were apparently killed shortly after they were taken.
Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein called for Israel to launch a “war on terrorism.” Knesset member Miri Regev, one of the hardest-line members of Likud called for a wave of “targeted eliminations” of Hamas leaders in Gaza.
On the other hand former Mossad director Danny Yatom urged carefully distinguishing between terrorists responsible for the murders and politicians whose ideology may or may not have inspired the murderers.
Israel gave the world an unusually raw look at its internal divisions this week when the annual Herzliya Security Conference, traditionally the top showcase for the country’s defense doctrines, turned into an extended food fight.
By the end of Day 2 of the three-day gabfest, angry exchanges of retorts and threats had broken out on the main stage among ministers in the Israeli cabinet and between leading Israeli and American defense experts.
More subtle, but arguably more significant, were dueling assessments of the threats facing Israel — on one side, a united front of government spokesmen, and on the other, the uniformed generals who had been asked to present their professional assessments. Government spokesmen presented the Iranian threat as pressing and mortal, while the generals presented it as part of a larger and clearly manageable range of challenges in the region.
Government spokesmen presented the Palestinian Authority as an ongoing threat with no peace solution in sight, particularly given Hamas’s unalterable commitment to attacking Israel. The generals said Hamas had been effectively deterred from attacking Israel — “they’ve learned the price of attacking us,” chief of staff Benny Gantz said laconically — and made no mention whatever of the Palestinian Authority or the peace process.
“They’re soldiers. They didn’t want to stick their necks out by giving their views,” legal scholar and former education minister (and conference staffer) Amnon Rubinstein told me.
The exchange among the ministers drew the most media attention. In a Sunday evening session featuring the heads of Israel’s main political parties, finance minister Yair Lapid and justice minister Tzipi Livni both threatened to quit the government if it decided to begin annexing West Bank territory, as demanded by economics minister Naftali Bennett, who was sandwiched between them. Also appearing was opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog of Labor, who mocked Lapid and Livni for remaining in a government that was building settlement units they oppose, and told Lapid he “should have thought about peace before you dragged your ‘brother’ Bennett into the coalition.”
Lapid also blamed Israel — presumably meaning Prime Minister Netanyahu — for the current “unprecedented crisis” in Israeli-U.S. relations. And he demanded that the government present a map of its desired borders and begin staged withdrawals accompanied by negotiations. That drew a sarcastic retort in Knesset the next day from Netanyahu, who called Lapid “naïve” and “inexperienced.”
The American-Israeli confrontation came earlier in the program and caused some gasps in the audience. It came during a panel discussion on “regional and global threats” featuring American and Israeli defense experts.
The Jerusalem think tank set up by the Jewish Agency in 2002, the Jewish People Policy Institute, appears to have dropped a bombshell into the middle of Israel’s political hothouse with a new report (PDF) it released May 21 on Diaspora attitudes toward Israeli democracy.
The report, titled “Jewish and Democratic: Perspectives from World Jewry,” is based on a six-month series of discussions and seminars involving several hundred community leaders, rabbis, academics and writers around the world. The discussions — about 40 of them, most lasting a day or two — are distilled into an 80-page summary with another 78 pages of appendices.
The process was set in motion when Prime Minister Netanyahu asked Justice Minister Tzipi Livni last year to draft a bill defining Israel’s identity as a Jewish homeland that would pass constitutional muster. Livni asked legal scholar Ruth Gavison to come up with a reading of what the idea of a homeland of the Jewish people worldwide actually means to Jewish people worldwide. Gavison, in turn, asked JPPI.
And here we are.
Like most JPPI publications, it’s a carefully constructed work, filled with on-one-hand-on-the-other-hand formulations to illustrate the broad range of agreement and disagreement. Still, the report says the agreements were greater than the disagreements, and what the community leaders had to say won’t make Israel’s leaders very happy.
JPPI offers a one-page summary here. Haaretz reporter Judy Maltz offers a more detailed summary here. And the report’s co-author, JPPI fellow Shmuel Rosner, does his usual excellent job of capturing the essence in his Jewish Journal column here.
But the bottom line is this: the consensus among the people they spoke to — admittedly a highly selective sampling of elites — is that most Diaspora community leaders believe Israel should be both Jewish and democratic, that one should not be given precedence over the other. To the extent that the two poles are in tension, the consensus is that it’s a healthy tension that benefits the society. Only the extreme right and extreme left, the report’s authors say, favor privileging one value over the other. Unfortunately, there’s also consensus that both values are seen as embattled, on the defensive in Israel, and it’s making it harder for Diaspora Jews to relate to Israel.
The Israeli military has sent what amounts to a barely disguised message to the political leadership and the troops in the latest round of senior command promotions, announced April 25.
With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process frozen, settler militancy on the rise and right-wing religious nationalists increasingly making their presence felt at the junior command level, the appointments make clear that the General Staff, led by chief of staff Benny Gantz, is doubling down on its basic strategic outlook: cooperation with the Palestinian leadership, enforcement of the soldiers’ code of ethics, deterrence on the northern front — and zero tolerance for Palestinian terrorism. Call them the hardline doves.
The three most charged appointments are the promotion of Brigadier General Herzl “Herzi” Halevi, the IDF’s so-called “philosopher-general,” until recently commander of the Galilee Division, to major general and chief of military intelligence; the appointment of the outgoing intelligence chief, Major General Aviv Kochavi, as chief of Northern Command; and the striking decision to retain the left-leaning chief of Central Command, Major General Nitzan Alon, in his current post overseeing the West Bank.
Alon’s retention at the head of Central Command, which covers the West Bank, sends a clear signal of the army’s impatience with growing settler radicalism and the spread of so-called price tag attacks. Alon is regarded by settler leaders as an undisguised liberal; it’s frequently noted that his wife Mor has been a supporter of the women’s human-rights group Machsom Watch, which is viewed on the right as subversive.
Alon spent much of his career in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit before taking a series of positions in intelligence and field command, mostly in the West Bank. Shortly before assuming his current position as chief of Central Command in December 2011, Alon infuriated settler leaders by calling price-tag actions “Jewish terrorism” in a New York Times interview. He also warned against cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, then under congressional consideration because of the Palestinian application for United Nations recognition. He said cutting aid would destabilize Palestinian security forces, which he described as crucial to stability in the area. Under his command the army has clashed repeatedly with West Bank settlers, and he himself has been physically attacked by settlers and had protest demonstrations mounted outside his home.
Aviv Kochavi’s move from military intelligence to Northern Command, in charge of the Lebanon and Syria fronts, sends a more complicated message.
Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Mahmoud Abbas in 2010/Getty Images
Israel’s decision today to suspend peace talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization, in response to yesterday’s Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, is really three distinct decisions. One is sensible. The second is understandable if questionable. The third is inexcusable.
The first decision is the actual suspension of talks, pending formation of the new Palestinian Authority government. The second is to suspend transfer of tax revenues that Israel collects on the Palestinians’ behalf, in retaliation for Palestinian actions. The third is to launch an international media campaign to “blacken the name” of PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas in international public opinion.
The first, suspending talks, sensibly reflects the gravity of the Palestinian step and the delicacy of Israeli domestic politics. Israel isn’t alone in viewing Hamas as a rejectionist, irridentist and terrorist organization; that’s the assessment of the international community.
The Middle East Quartet — the diplomatic partnership of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — laid out three conditions back in 2006 for Hamas participation in the diplomatic process: recognizing Israel, swearing off terrorism and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. To date it has met none of them. There have been unofficial trial balloons, never formally confirmed, about Hamas possibly accepting peaceful coexistence on some basis. And Hamas has largely observed a cease-fire across the Gaza border since taking a whipping in Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012. But it has flatly refused to give up terror in principle, and the only thing preventing Hamas attacks in the West Bank, where no cease-fire exists, has been Israeli-PLO security cooperation.
Under the circumstances, then, it’s reasonable for Israel to suspend negotiations until it sees whether the new Palestinian unity government meets minimal international norms — in effect, whether unity means Hamas following Fatah toward coexistence or Fatah following Hamas toward endless war. It’s not merely reasonable — it’s the least Jerusalem can do to show its voting public that it’s doing its job.
The second Israeli decision, to suspend the monthly transfer of Palestinian tax revenues, is a longstanding tactic for retaliating over Palestinian provocations. It does seem to be useful as a political safety valve, to let the Israeli public know that their government is on its toes and not giving away the store. Like Palestinian-led boycotts of Israel, it’s a way to pressure (read: beat up on) the other side without actual bloodshed. Like those boycotts, its usefulness in encouraging Palestinian good-faith adherence is a lot less clear. Still more unclear is whether or not it’s legal under Israel’s signed agreements.