In a potentially explosive report, veteran Yediot Ahronot defense commentator Ron Ben-Yishai writes on Ynet that Israel is headed toward a new confrontation with the United States and its allies in the wake of this summer’s Operation Protective Edge. The Americans and Europeans insist that Israel must strive for a two-state solution with the Palestinians, arguing that it’s unacceptable for Israel to wreak destruction on Gaza every few years, leaving them to pay for its repeated reconstruction. They also claim that renewing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will help them to mobilize the Arab world to join the fight against ISIS and other extremist groups, Ben-Yishai writes.
Israel, Ben-Yishai writes, is reaching the opposite conclusion. In what he calls “a dramatic reversal,” Israeli officials say that at a time of extreme instability in the Middle East, it would be suicidal for Israel to consider allowing full sovereignty in most of Judea and Samaria, even if the territory is demilitarized. Even renewing negotiations over a peace agreement is unacceptable, the Israeli officials say, because such talks would lead to deadlock, frustration and unrest on the Palestinian street. Moreover, Israeli officials express doubt that the moderate Arab states need “an incentive” on the Palestinian front to motivate them to fight the jihadists, who threaten their own regimes.
Ben-Yishai writes that Israel now seeks to “manage” the conflict with the Palestinians rather than try to “solve” it. Toward the goal of maintaining calm in Gaza as well as the West Bank, he writes,
Israel is even willing to pay a serious price for this to happen and thus — without much fanfare –— Israel waived its objection to internal Palestinian reconciliation and the formation of the Palestinian unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
Israel will also work to improve economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza and ease restrictions on movement between the two territories, Ben-Yishai writes. In fact:
Hamas is eager to have Mahmoud Abbas’s U.S.-trained Presidential Guard take control of the border crossings between Gaza and Israel. But the Islamist organization isn’t likely to give in to pressure from Abbas and the West to put its own military wing under Abbas’s control, nor to let officials of the proposed Fatah-Hamas unity government take the reins of civilian government in Gaza.
So says Colonel M., head of the Palestinian unit in the research department of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, in a wide-ranging interview with Arab affairs correspondent Avi Issacharoff of the English-language Times of Israel website and the Hebrew-language Walla! News site.
Colonel M. (the Times of Israel incorrectly translates his title as lieutenant colonel) also describes the IDF intelligence reading of the events that led to the outbreak of this summer’s war in Gaza. He states flatly and firmly that Hamas neither wanted nor planned a war, but stumbled into it unintentionally as the end result of a series of missteps beginning with the kidnapping of three Israeli yeshiva students in the West Bank in early June. He says that published accounts of Hamas planning for a “July War” are “nonsense.” His account of the events is virtually identical to the scenario I laid out in a column in July.
The colonel emphasized, Issacharoff writes, that the views he expressed aren’t his own personal assessment or that of his unit but the consensus view of Israeli Military Intelligence as a whole. He says the assessment is shared by the Shin Bet security service. (This contradicts a recent news analysis in Yediot Ahronot by military correspondent Alex Fishman, who claimed the Shin Bet disagrees and believes Hamas planned the war).
No less intriguing than what the interview says is what it doesn’t say. Issacharoff writes that Colonel M. refused to discuss the situation on the West Bank or Abbas’s strategic thinking, “apparently out of fear of appearing to criticize the political echelon.” It’s yet another indication of the deep and growing divide between Israel’s security professionals and their politician bosses over Israel’s security needs.
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.
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:
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.)
The determination that the Israeli infantry officer thought to have been captured is in fact dead has changed the trajectory of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, which now appears to be winding down.
Military officers were quoted by Walla News and Haaretz late Saturday night as saying that IDF engineers will be finished within a day with the demolition of the 31 Hamas attack tunnels that have been identified leading into Israel. Numerous Israeli and Palestinian news outlets report that troops have begun withdrawing from the populated areas of the Gaza Strip to a staging area along the border fence, where they will remain until the Israeli government decides its next steps. The government said it will continue air strikes against rocket launchers and other offensive targets.
Even before Friday’s abortive cease-fire, the question of how much longer Israel should continue the operation was becoming a political football in Jerusalem last week. Senior military officers told reporters that the mission they were assigned was nearly done and that they were waiting for the government to decide whether to push on or pull back. Cabinet ministers on the right replied that it was up to the military to decide whether the country was safe or not.
The question appeared to become moot Friday morning after a Givati infantry brigade officer, Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, 23, was reported to have been snatched by Hamas gunmen during an ambush near the city of Rafah and spirited away into a tunnel. Troops closed off Rafah and began a house-to-house search for the missing officer. That led to expectations of a prolonged dragnet like the one conducted in the search for the three kidnapped yeshiva students in the West Bank in June.
On Saturday evening, however, the army’s personnel chief and chief rabbi reported that they had determined that Goldin was dead, relying on “medical, halachic and other considerations” based on “evidence from the battlefield.”
That reopened the political debate over whether Operation Protective Edge was nearing its end or approaching a new stage, and what would constitute victory. Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to the press (Hebrew, English) at IDF headquarters Saturday night and essentially punted: He indicated that the army had done a fine job in taking care of the tunnels, but said that operations would continue as needed.
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.
Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel. Sometime around noon the wind shifted and the tide began to roll out, and Israel started to lose international sympathy for its Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.
Up until Sunday morning Israel had a pretty clear field, owing to a combination of factors. For one thing, the optics. As long as Israel was responding to Hamas rockets with air strikes against Hamas targets, it looked to most observers like a fair fight. Israel’s opponents claimed there was no equivalence given the lopsided death toll. Israel’s supporters claimed the opposite: there was no equivalence because Hamas was aiming at civilians, while Israel was just trying to stop the rockets. In practice, it was a wash.
Even after Israel’s ground troops entered Gaza on Thursday night, July 17, the action looked reasonably measured to most outsiders. Hamas’ network of cross-border tunnels had ceased to be a theoretical problem that morning, when a squad of terrorists emerged on the Israeli side, prepared to attack a kibbutz. Israel sent in troops for what was announced as a limited operation along the border fence to destroy the tunnels. There were no international complaints. Lots of noisy street demonstrations, but hardly a peep from the world’s governments.
It didn’t hurt Israel’s case that the same Thursday saw 298 passengers killed when a Malaysian Airlines passenger was jet shot down over Ukraine, apparently by pro-Russian rebels, and 270 Syrians — soldiers, security guards and civilians — murdered execution-style by ISIS militants who had taken over a natural gas field. Gaza was just one of the world’s killing fields as the weekend approached.
Most important, Israel was facing an enemy, Hamas, that was almost universally despised. Egypt, always central to Israel-Hamas mediation, had been pouring contempt on Hamas throughout the crisis. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas had loudly condemned attacks on Israel during the crisis, once at a June 18 meeting of Islamic foreign ministers in Saudi Arabia and again when Hamas started bombarding Israel. When Egypt’s July 14 cease-fire proposal was accepted by Israel and rejected by Hamas, the Islamist organization’s support was reduced to rogue-state Iran, Islamist Turkey and the emirate of Qatar.
Qatar launched its own cease-fire initiative, which included the preconditions Hamas had demanded — freeing prisoners, opening borders, putting the Gaza-Egypt border under international supervision — but nobody endorsed it. The Arab League, led by Saudi Arabia, lined up formally behind Egypt — and by implication, Israel. The Jewish state had never had more sympathy in the Arab world for its defense needs.
What happened next was something that’s happened over and over in Israel’s military operations in recent years: The government overestimated the depth of its international support and decided to broaden the scope of the operation. On Saturday night the ground campaign was expanded beyond the surgical operation that had been promised against tunnels near the fence. It became a major assault on a densely populated neighborhood of Gaza City, Sheja’iya. The neighborhood houses some of Hamas’ tunnel entries and rocket launchers. It also houses tens of thousands of civilian families.
By evening the shelling and ground fighting had killed more than 80 Palestinians, including an estimated 60 civilians. The expanded fighting also began taking a serious toll on the Israeli side: 13 soldiers killed.
From the “If You’ve Only Got Time To Read One Thing” Dept. Actually, I’ve got three items to recommend, each of which casts invaluable light on what’s going on right now in Gaza. In a moment I’ll rank them in order of importance, but first, a comment on what they have in common. The three are from — in no particular order (I’ll get to that later) — reporter Patrick Kingsley in the left-wing British daily The Guardian; conservative-leaning Israeli political reporter Haviv Rettig-Gur in the right-of-center Israeli news site Times of Israel (he’s formerly of the Jerusalem Post); and liberal-leaning Middle East affairs analyst Zvi Barel in Haaretz.
Interestingly, they all end up in pretty much the same place: Hamas is increasingly isolated, refusing to accept the Egyptian call for an unconditional cease-fire; it keeps on bombarding Israel because it’s desperate for something, anything, that can be presented as a win for all the trouble it’s caused; and consequently, Hamas is receiving (and deserving) most of the blame — from Europe and even the Arab League — for the current suffering of the Palestinians under its rule in Gaza. Its only remaining friends are Turkey and Qatar.
Now to the individual items on my list. First up, Haviv Rettig-Gur’s piece in Times of Israel, a must-read. It’s really two analyses woven together, presented in an unemotional, straightforward and quite convincing argument.
In the first place he looks at the way that both Israel and Hamas use contradictory claims of their own strength and their own weakness — strength in order to deter the enemy, weakness in order to win sympathy abroad. It’s not the most original argument in the world, but he presents it extremely well, and it’s important coming from him.
He proceeds from there to expand on Hamas’s victimhood mentality in order explore its mistaken use of post-colonial theory in service of the Palestinian cause. In Hamas thinking, he writes, the Palestinian fight against Israel is like the Algerian fight against the French in the 1950s. Therefore the enormous suffering that Hamas’s “resistance” causes to the Palestinian people is worth it, as was the unspeakable suffering of the Algerians, because it ends in victory. The weakness of the post-colonialism approach as an anti-Israel strategy, Haviv writes, is that Hamas fails to grasp Israel’s self-understanding as a nation on its own soil rather than a colonial invader.
Here’s a remarkable bit of television — official Palestinian Authority TV, to be specific — in which the Palestinian delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva tells an interviewer that Hamas’s rocket fire from Gaza is a crime against humanity. Plain and simple, no hedging. In Arabic (with English subtitles). Watch it below.
The envoy, Ibrahim Khreisheh, is replying to a question from anchorwoman Nisrin Nasir about the prospects of bringing charges against Israel before the International Criminal Court for its aerial attacks in Gaza. His answer: I’m not running for office, so I’ll give an unpopular but honest answer: It would backfire. Rockets aimed at Israeli civilians are crimes against humanity. Every rocket, individually, whether or not it hits anybody.
He says Israel’s bombardment also constitutes a crime against humanity. A few minutes later, however, he says that Palestinians in Gaza are reporting getting warnings from Israel to clear out before an airstrike. That means, he says, that any fatalities resulting from the airstrikes are accidental, not criminal.
Here’s the video:
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.
The Forward has my latest column on how Israel and Hamas stumbled through a series of accidents and misunderstandings into a war nobody wanted. Because it’s written for print (unlike this blog) it has limits on length, and even though the paper generously lets me run way over my limit every week, there are inevitably things left out that need to be said. Permit me to add.
First, the current blowup began with a kidnap-murder of three Israeli teenagers, two of them 16-year-olds who just finished 11th grade. As the father of a son who is the exact same age — and is in Jerusalem right now on a summer program — I can just begin to guess at the feelings. But I can only begin to guess.
Second, the Israeli government suppressed the fact that the boys were dead, as it knew on Day 2, with the apparent motive of dismantling the Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank. The prolonged, fabricated uncertainty had the collateral effect of inflaming Jewish emotions in Israel and the Diaspora, and the tension may well have intensified the resulting anger after the bodies were found. On the other hand, it also provided cover for Israel to round up and dismantle, with barely a shot fired, a network operating in territory it controls that openly preaches destroying Israel and murdering its citizens. I don’t know that such a roundup is a bad thing.
Moreover, if it allows for a new Fatah-Hamas unity government with Hamas in a seriously weakened position, and a PA that can openly embrace the Quartet conditions and peace process with greater authority — including the ability to speak for and deliver Gaza — then it just might be something even hardcore doves can celebrate.
Third, regarding the current mutual bombardment. Here’s where the series of accidents and misunderstandings kicked in. When Israel began rounding up Hamas-West Bank, amid declarations from Bibi that Hamas “will pay,” the Hamas leadership in Gaza went underground and began gearing up for a renewed Gaza war that they feared — incorrectly, I believe — that Israel was planning. Going underground meant abandoning their earnest-but-not-always-competent enforcement of the 2012 cease-fire. The result was a sudden, drastic increase in rocket fire from PRC, Islamic Jihad and the Qaeda-style jihadis to its right. Israel responded with several aerial attacks on rocket crews.
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.
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.
Yeshiva students pray for safe return of three kidnapped youths
With the terrorist kidnapping of three teenagers dominating the news cycle and nearly every private conversation for the past two days, Israelis have had little attention to spare for America’s national agony in Iraq.
It’s hard to think of a time when the two nations’ fates were so closely linked, yet their concerns were so utterly disconnected. It seems like neither public has time for the other’s troubles.
The similarities of their situations go beyond their struggles with Islamist terrorists. In both countries, it seems, the initial horror of the events themselves — the fall of Mosul, the disappearance of the three yeshiva students — quickly gave way to anger at the perpetrators and their enablers.
And at that moment, when thoughts turned to the enablers, each country’s political sides began to turn on each other.
In America, of course, it’s those who blame Barack Obama for pulling out of Iraq before the mess there was fixed versus those who blame George W. Bush for creating the mess by going into Iraq in the first place.
In Israel, it’s those who blame Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas for opening the door to Hamas — and by none-too-subtle implication, the supporters of the Oslo peace process that created an openly armed Palestinian presence on Israeli-controlled soil — versus those who accuse the right, and especially Benjamin Netanyahu, of freezing forward motion and threatening the tentative stability that’s been won in the past few years.
Israel appears to be sending mixed signals to Washington on U.S. aid to the new Palestinian unity government. On one hand, the Netanyahu government wants everyone to know it’s furious over the new “reconciliation government” that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has formed with the reviled terrorist organization Hamas. Officials from Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington ambassador Ron Dermer have been declaring that the unity pact means “there can’t be business as usual.”
On the other hand, it’s not clear Israel that wants Washington to respond by cutting its financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. Jerusalem depends heavily on the PA security forces’ cooperation in fighting terrorism in the West Bank, and loss of funding could freeze their salaries and keep them home. In the longer run, the aid underwrites billions of dollars in PA governmental services from health to mail delivery and garbage collection that would fall on the Israeli taxpayer if the authority were to collapse under U.S. and international pressure.
Israelis who have met members of Congress in recent days say they’re hearing expressions of confusion over Israel’s mixed messages — that the new PA government is essentially a terror-backed group but that aid should not be cut.
Pro-Israel lawmakers and Jewish groups have been reciting a line that seems to represent a demand for ending aid, namely: “U.S. law is clear — no funds can be provided to a Palestinian government in which Hamas participates or has undue influence.” Those words appear in a pop-up on AIPAC’s website. A nearly identical phrase appears in a speech by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez that’s touted on the American Jewish Committee website and elsewhere.
But that’s not the whole law. Deeper on the AIPAC website is a set of “key points” that states the entire relevant law:
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.
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.
Palestinians in Gaza City on Wednesday celebrating Hamas-Fatah unity pact. / Getty Images
Old Jewish joke: The beggar of Chelm goes to the rabbi’s house and pleads in a most pitiful tone: “Please rabbi, I haven’t eaten in days. Won’t you please give me a ruble to buy some food?”
The rabbi is touched and gives the beggar a ruble.
An hour later the rabbi is walking downtown when he sees the beggar sitting in a café, eating a thick slice of cake. Incensed, he rushes across the square and accosts the beggar: “Scoundrel! I gave you a ruble to buy food because you were in need, and now I see you’ve wasted it on cake. How dare you?!”
“Excuse me,” the beggar replies indignantly. “Yesterday I had no money and I couldn’t eat cake. Today I have money and you say I shouldn’t eat cake. Tell me, rabbi, when can I eat cake?”
So it is with Hamas, Fatah and Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Last week there was no point in Israel closing a deal with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority because it could only speak for the West Bank half of the Palestinians, given that Gaza is controlled by Hamas. Today there’s no point in closing a deal because the Palestinian Authority is finalizing an agreement for joint rule with Hamas, which will put it in partnership with a terrorist organization sworn to Israel’s destruction. So tell me, rabbi, when will there be a point in closing a deal?
Conventional wisdom offers two possible answers to the question. One is that the economic blockade of Gaza is intended to weaken and eventually topple the Hamas government so that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority can regain full control. That would allow it to speak for all Palestinians and become a viable negotiating partner—assuming, that is, that you believe Fatah could ever be a viable negotiating partner.