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 are 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.
Las Vegas, March 29: Chris Christie addresses Republican Jewish Coalition. Sheldon Adelson listens. / Getty Images
With all the apologies flying back and forth these days, you might almost think Yom Kippur came early this year. In fact, tradition teaches that there’s a deep spiritual bond between Yom Kippur, which is six months from now, and Purim, which just passed on March 16. So it shouldn’t surprise to see mockery and farce flying back and forth across the Atlantic, masquerading as regret and atonement.
In Las Vegas on Saturday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie apologizes to Sheldon Adelson for thoughtlessly referring to Israel’s military rule in Judea and Samaria as an occupation. In Jerusalem on Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon meets Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Martin Dempsey and apologizes, yet again, for trashing Washington’s efforts to end, in the words of the Bush roadmap that Israel signed in 2003, “the occupation that began in 1967.” And in Washington, Secretary of State Kerry receives a letter from a deniable Netanyahu cutout, former ambassador Alan Baker, rephrasing the insults in only slightly more decorous terms.
Christie’s apology to Sheldon Adelson was for referring to Judea and Samaria, a.k.a. the West Bank, as “the occupied territories” during his speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition. He made the reference in the context of acknowledging how vulnerable Israel would be without them, but still. Sheldon and Co. hate to hear the territories under Israeli military rule referred to as “occupied” (you known, those “territories occupied in the recent conflict,” in the words of U.N. Security Resolution 242, which Israel continuously refers to as the legal basis for negotiations).
Over in Jerusalem, meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe “Bogey” Yaalon continued his grand apology-and-groveling tour today with an elaborately florid embrace of General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whom he thanked for being a “true friend of the state of Israel and the IDF.” Yaalon is still trying to clean up the mess he’s created with his serial insults of Secretary of State John Kerry in January and the entire Obama foreign policy in March, both of which prompted furious protests from Washington, including a personal phone call from Kerry to Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Yaalon semi-apologized in January with a Defense Ministry press release saying the minister “had no intention to cause any offense” (by calling Kerry “obsessive” and “messianic”). Then on March 20 he semi-apologized in a phone call to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, saying there was “no antagonism or criticism or intent to harm the United States” (when he said the administration was broadcasting weakness throughout the world and got bamboozled by Iran).
This time Yaalon went all out, delivering his message in person to Dempsey, out loud, in front the media. Here’s how the Jerusalem Post reported it:
Pro-Russian activists rally March 1 in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk / Getty Images
The AIPAC conference may be opening at an awkward time for the lobby, as the Forward’s Nathan Guttman writes today. Beyond the fact that it’s still licking its wounds from the Iran sanctions imbroglio and has no clear message to rally around, it has to compete for attention—which is, after all, the point of bringing 14,000 people to Washington—from Oscars night and yet another winter storm.
But there could be an even bigger kink in the planning. As Chemi Shalev writes in Haaretz today, the explosion of Ukraine crisis vastly overshadows the Iran crisis that AIPAC wants to make the centerpiece of the conference. AIPAC was figuring to rev up the troops by invoking the Iranian nuclear threat. It apparently wants to avoid a direct confrontation with the administration over the issue, but it’s not planning on making nice either. Now the entire AIPAC agenda is probably off the front page.
On the other hand, the Ukraine eruption could work to the advantage of Israel’s prime minister, who meets President Obama at the White House on Monday. It’s sort of like a replay of the Monica Lewinsky crisis, which erupted just as Bibi was headed to the White House for a showdown with President Clinton in January 1998.
Senator Robert Menendez addresses AIPAC, March 2013 / Getty Images
When I wrote last week that Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu had instructed AIPAC to go stick its head in a noose — specifically, to pick another fight with the White House over Iran sanctions legislation, a scant 11 days after its bruised retreat from the last one — I wasn’t expecting the lobby to turn around on a dime and publicly assume the position just five days later on the Op-Ed Page of The New York Times, with the entire world looking on.
I mean, it’s no great surprise, at least not to the hard-core cynics among us, that when Israel’s prime minister tells the pro-Israel lobbying juggernaut to jump, the response from its H Street headquarters is “how high?” For all the power routinely imputed to the lobby in Washington, nobody seriously suggests that it wields much influence in Jerusalem. Not that they’ve ever tried. It’s more of what you might call a one-way street.
Usually, though, the process is conducted with a bit of class. AIPAC doesn’t advertise how its decisions are reached nor how closely, if at all, they’re coordinated with Jerusalem. Its public demeanor is that of a dignified American civic association with a deep interest in international affairs. Its decision-making is famously secretive; that’s part of its mystique. Senior officers almost never address the media, except from the dais of their annual Washington policy conference, where they have 10,000 cheering followers parked between themselves and the cameras.
Well, the next conference is in less than a week. They’re expecting 14,000 conferees. The prime minister himself will be the guest of honor. What was so urgent that it couldn’t wait a week and had to be said now, in the Times?
The signs suggest that the leadership wanted to head off a potential uprising at the conference next week from hardliners angered over what looked like a surrender to the White House on the Senate’s Menendez-Kirk Iran sanctions bill. That’s how the February 6 decision not to seek a vote on the bill has been interpreted in the mainstream media. The ideological press has been even harsher. Bill Kristol, writing the Weekly Standard, accused the lobby of making a “fetish of bipartisanship,” and suggested that its behavior might lead to “a nuclear Iran.” Ouch.
And, of course, that was the message in Bibi’s public spanking: Gentlemen, an about-face is in order.
Hence, the hasty Op-Ed piece. You can tell the authors were acting in haste and under duress from the piece itself; it’s full of holes.
‘Arguably treasonous’? Former Israeli intelligence chiefs Meir Dagan of Mossad (left) and Yuval Diskin of Shin Bet / Wikimedia Commons
There seems be a growing realization on the pro-Israel right — in some corners of it, at least — that its notions of Israel’s security needs don’t have much support among Israel’s security professionals.
What the right calls standing firm on Israel’s bottom line, the generals call sabotaging the peace process. What the generals call basic Israeli security doctrine, the right calls left-wing, pro-Palestinian propaganda.
Reactions from the right to this realization have been pretty much what you’d expect from any self-respecting right-wing ideologue these days: indignant protests that the so-called experts don’t know what they’re talking about. In recent months a growing roster of conservative commentators in both Israel and America have accused the defense establishment as a group or its most prominent members of ignorance, stupidity, disloyalty and even “arguably treasonous” behavior.
This is a new and disturbing development. It’s enough to recall the response in September 2009 to the United Nations’ Goldstone Report, which accused Israeli troops of war crimes, to remember the onetime intensity of the taboo against questioning the integrity of Israel’s defense establishment. But that was before the political leadership of the Netanyahu era began spinning an ideologically-driven security agenda that was radically at odds with the longstanding doctrines of the defense and intelligence establishment, and the politicians discovered that they couldn’t get the generals and spymasters to tailor their assessments to fit the political winds.
The security establishment—former heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet, military intelligence and the IDF general staff—began aggressively speaking out around three years ago, some two years into the Netanyahu administration, once they began suspecting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline policies on Iran and the Palestinians weren’t tough bargaining positions so much as ideologically-driven recklessness.
In the first half of 2011, Netanyahu swept out the heads of all the main security branches, including the Mossad, the Shin Bet, the IDF and the national security council, all apparently because the incumbents had refused during internal deliberations to endorse an Israeli military strike against Iran. The months that followed saw a steady stream of public statements from ex-service heads, in speeches, interviews and op-eds, laying out their views on what Israel does and doesn’t need to be safe. Some were directly critical of the government’s policies; others criticized only by implication.
Hamas police on the Gaza-Egypt border, September 2013 / Getty Images
Ideology continues to trump security in the Netanyahu government’s approach to combating terrorism. As Hamas struggles to maintain its November 2012 cease-fire with Israel in the face of increasing rocket fire, mostly by al Qaeda-linked Salafi jihad factions, Israel responds by bombing Hamas facilities.
In addition to jihadis, the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has been responsible for a small proportion of the rocket fire. The front fired several rockets at the Negev from Gaza earlier in January, including two fired toward Ariel Sharon’s funeral January 13. Israel retaliated January 22 by assassinating a PFLP leader identified as responsible for the rockets, Ahmed Al-Za’anin.
The latest incident began late Thursday, when an unknown group fired a rocket that landed in field outside the Negev town of Netivot. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon declared Friday morning, as he has done repeatedly over the past year, that Israel considers Hamas responsible for all such attacks. The Israeli military retaliated later on Friday by bombing two terrorist installations, a rocket factory in the northern Gaza Strip and a weapons storage facility in the southern strip, that the army later confirmed were both Hamas facilities.
Hamas responded Saturday by withdrawing its rocket prevention units from the field. Initial Israeli responses interpreted the action as Hamas “giving a green light” to stepped up rocket attacks. But by Saturday night, as there had been no further rocket fire, Israeli sources began suggesting that the Hamas troop withdrawal was intended as a message to Israel to direct its fire toward those responsible, rather than punishing Hamas for actions it has been trying to prevent.
During the month of January some 20 rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, equal the total for the entire preceding 11 months.
The developments come on the heels of a disturbing January 26 report that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been shaking up the hiring and promoting practices at the Shin Bet internal security service in order to create an agency that produces the intelligence he wants. The report, by Haaretz military analyst Amir Oren, says that as a result of the effort, the Shin Bet now has “three out of its four senior officials coming from a religious background and radiating sympathy for a worldview that opposes diplomatic compromise that would involve the evacuation of settlements.”
Oren claims that the shakeup follows Netanyahu’s frustration that he can’t get the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate (or MI) to produce the intelligence he needs to fend off Secretary of State John Kerry and justify an attack on Iran. Military Intelligence, like the rest of the military, insists on strict professionalism both in its assessments and in its personnel decisions, unlike the Shin Bet, which is under the prime minister’s personal supervision. Oren writes:
While Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies insist that Israel must maintain military control over the Jordan River in order to make sure that hostile forces don’t cross over and turn a Palestinian state into a forward base for attacks on Israel, Israel’s main security professionals continue to argue that Israel can accept other security arrangements that would meet Palestinian objections and still fulfill Israel’s needs. But we don’t often hear them explaining how Israel could maintain its security without control of the river.
Yesterday retired brigadier general Ephraim Sneh spelled it out in an op-ed article on Yediot Ahronot’s Ynet Hebrew news site. I’ve translated it into English, below. He argues that the monitoring and control provided by a full military deployment can be maintained today from afar by new technological developments, and that together with the strong security cooperation that currently exists between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, Israel can safely reduce its presence to a minimal level that would meet Palestinian objections.
Sneh was a leader of the Labor Party’s hawkish wing until he quit before the last elections to form his own party, Yisrael Hazaka, which failed to win a Knesset seat. He served in the past as minister of health and minister of transportation as well as two stints as deputy minister of defense. Before entering politics in 1987, he was a career soldier and served as commander of Israeli forces in Lebanon and military governor of the West Bank.
It’s worth noting that another former general, recently retired major general Gadi Shamni, has been arguing recently for a more gradual removal of Israeli troops from the river. In a recent Haaretz opinion essay he wrote that the handover of security control of the river crossings from Israeli to Palestinian security forces will take time, and a firm deadline can’t be set. It sounds on first read like an argument for Netanyahu’s position, but on closer examination it’s not very far from Sneh’s.
Shamni is a former chief of Central Command, as well as military secretary to prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak and most recently Israeli military attaché in Washington.
A New Approach to the Jordan Valley
Technology and Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian security cooperation make it possible to reduce to a minimum the need for an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley within the framework of a peace agreement.
By Ephraim Sneh
Hamas fighters testing a Gaza-made M-75 long-range missile, November 2013 / Getty Images
Maariv’s Eli Bardenstein offered a stunningly clear and disturbing report (in Hebrew, my translation below) on Friday that illustrates the vexing complications introduced into the triangular Jerusalem-Cairo-Gaza relationship by political turmoil in all three places. It makes a very useful companion piece to today’s front-page New York Times report by Jodi Rudoren on Israeli jitters over instability on its eastern front.
In both cases, as Bardenstein notes and Rudoren sort of hints, the Netanyahu government is ignoring the intelligence supplied by its own security establishment, which shows jihadi organizations making life difficult for both Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. The jihadis are creating turmoil, launching pinprick attacks on Israel that violate cease-fire agreements between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas respectively. Hamas and Hezbollah are both besieged — Hamas by the new, anti-Islamist Egyptian military government, Hezbollah by jihadi spillover from the Syrian civil war (as well as political blowback from the Rafiq Hariri murder trial now underway in The Hague) — and are finding it increasingly difficult to enforce their respective cease-fires with Israel. Israel — meaning principally defense minister Moshe Yaalon — chooses to ignore the intelligence, blame Hamas and Hezbollah and launch military responses that only further weaken Hamas and Hezbollah and strengthen the jihadis.
I’ve translated Bardenstein’s piece below, but here’s the gist: Israel is alarmed at the unraveling of the November 2012 Pillar of Defense cease-fire “understandings” and the increasing rocket fire from Gaza — 17 rockets fired in January alone as of Friday (and more since then). It wants Egypt, which acts as mediator between Israel and Hamas, to pressure Hamas to stop the rocket fire. But Egypt has lost influence over Hamas since the military deposed the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi last July. The military government’s approach is not to work with Hamas as Morsi did but to crack down on it.
Hamas, in turn, complains that the Egyptian crackdown — particularly the mass destruction of smuggling tunnels, which squeezes the Gaza economy — weakens Hamas rule and reduces its ability to control the jihadi organizations that are doing the firing. And both Cairo and Hamas complain that Israel has been making the situation worse by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s insistence on responding to every single rocket launching, no matter how ineffectual, with aerial bombardment.
Benjamin Netanyahu with Likud ministers at weekly cabinet meeting, Sunday, January 12, 2014. From left: Gilad Erdan (communications); Yuval Steinitz (intelligence); Netanyahu; cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit; Gideon Saar (interior) / Getty Images
When should the legislature intrude on the executive branch’s authority to conduct foreign policy by seeking to dictate the terms of sensitive negotiations? Good question, but don’t ask Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His answer seems to depend on who’s doing the negotiating and who’s doing the micromanaging. And he’s not even embarrassed by the .
Netanyahu was said to be angered by a bill that would require prior Knesset approval before his government can enter any negotiations over the future status of Jerusalem or Palestinian refugees. So Maariv’s Zeev Kam reported on Thursday.
Netanyahu reportedly lit into the bill, proposed by Likud hard-liner Miri Regev, at last Sunday’s weekly meeting of Likud-Beiteinu ministers, shortly before the weekly full cabinet meeting. “He appeared particularly angry when the topic came up,” several participants told Kam:
“Nobody should preach to us about Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said when discussing the proposed legislation and Knesset member Regev. Netanyahu went on to emphasize to the ministers that conducting negotiations is the government’s responsibility.
”Private member bills like these damage the government’s functioning,” Netanyahu emphasized.
Ariel Sharon in Knesset, preparing his speech for opening of summer session, May 7, 2001 / Getty Images
Amid the outpouring of tributes to Ariel Sharon following his death, a few seem particularly noteworthy for their unexpected insights — some into the life and character of Sharon, others into the character of the writers.
Chemi Shalev writes in Haaretz about the first time he met Sharon, serendipitously bumping into him at Southern Command headquarters in Sinai one evening during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Chemi was a 20-year-old enlisted man. Sharon was already the legendary, notorious General Bulldozer. When Sharon saw young soldier Shalev gaping at him from a distance, he invited him over to share some food, cooked by his personal chef. Chemi was surprised by Sharon’s enormous personal charm, which seems to have contradicted the man’s fearsome reputation. Over the years, Chemi writes, it is Sharon’s gargantuan contradictions that stand out as the defining characteristics of the man. The piece is well worth reading in full.
Another story comes from the late David Twersky, who wrote in the New York Sun at the time of Sharon’s stroke in 2006 about the first time he had met the old general. It was in the early 1990s, about a decade after Sharon’s Lebanon War, in which David had served as a gunner in an artillery unit outside Beirut and come away with a profound disliking for Sharon. On this particular day Sharon was dropping by the Forward’s offices in New York to visit his old friend Seth Lipsky, our founding editor (and later editor of the Sun). David, then the paper’s Washington bureau chief, was summoned to New York to sit in. Like Chemi, David was struck by Sharon’s personal magnetism, and began to find that while he “remained critical of many of his policies,” the “rancor was gone.”
Now, though, with Sharon felled by a stroke, David wrote that he was “beside myself with sadness at the prospect that Mr. Sharon will no longer be leading Israel and full of trepidation over what will come next.” He saw in Sharon a rare ability for decisive leadership that made him “this generation’s David Ben Gurion.” Like BG, Sharon had the courage to stand up to his own comrades when it became necessary by “doing to the settler movement what Ben Gurion had done to the leftist Palmach militia, disbanding it in the interest of the state.” And when Sharon formed his Kadima party in 2005,
The Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea had only half in jest suggested that the new party be named Rashi (after the famous rabbinic commentator on the Bible and Talmud) as an acronym for Rak Sharon Yachol - Only Sharon Can.
Two more items that are particularly telling, both from Israeli settlers in the renewed Jewish quarter of Hebron. The authors are prominent leaders of that subsector of Israelis who benefited more than any other single segment of Israeli society from Sharon’s actions, namely West Bank settlers. One is from a Knesset member who wrote this weekend, after Sharon’s death, to express thanks to God that Sharon had been felled by a stroke before he could carry out any further withdrawals from settlements. The other is from a spokesman for the Hebron community who calls Sharon a “monster” and expresses confidence that he is damned to eternal suffering for his sins.