Fresh from the long war with Hamas in Gaza, tensely facing down simmering unrest in the West Bank and chaos on the Syrian border, Israel’s defense establishment is now bracing for what’s shaping up to be the most bruising confrontation of all: the choosing of the next chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.
The process looks to be a replay of the last race, an ugly slugfest in late 2010 and early 2011 that resulted in the selection of the current chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. That got so nasty that the lead candidates fought each other to a draw amid mudslinging and dirty tricks that ended up in criminal investigations and indictments. Weirdly enough, the lead candidates are back again.
The lead candidates that fall were Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, chief of the Northern Command, who was favored by then-chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and most of his colleagues at General Staff HQ; and the chief of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, favored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak, but fiercely opposed by the army brass. The mudslinging exploded into a scandal that effectively sidelined Eizenkot, though he wasn’t directly involved. Barak went on to nominate Galant, as expected, and the cabinet duly approved him. Days before Galant was to take over in February, however, he was suddenly charged with real estate fraud and disqualified. In the end the job was handed to everyone’s second choice, the inoffensive Gantz.
Everything fell apart so suddenly that an interim chief of staff had to be appointed, the newly installed deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh. That prompted yet another eruption when Israel’s Supreme Court sharply criticized Naveh as unfit to lead the army even temporarily.
This year all the old ghosts are returning, along with some new ones. The lead candidates are, once again, Eizenkot and Galant. Eizenkot is currently deputy chief of staff, and was thought until recently to be the heir apparent. Galant, meanwhile, cleared up his real estate mess last year and recently nominated himself for the post, announcing on television that he’d be available if “called to the flag,” as he grandly put it. He’s reportedly still backed by Netanyahu, though not by the new defense minister, Moshe Yaalon.
If past were prologue, Galant would now reclaim the job dangled by the prime minister but snatched from him at the last minute in 2011. But under Israeli law, nominating the chief of staff is the sole prerogative of the defense minister. And Yaalon shares the generals’ dislike of Galant and respect for Eizenkot.
Indications are mounting that the indirect Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire talks in Cairo could be heading for failure, possibly resulting in renewed fighting when the current 5-day truce expires Monday night.
Early reports were that the two sides were close to agreement on an Egyptian compromise proposal for a long-term cease-fire. On Friday and Saturday, however, declarations on both sides indicated that positions were hardening as fierce internal divisions emerged, pulling the leaderships on both sides away from the center. The Palestinian side appears to be stymied by the refusal of the organization’s Qatar-based political secretary, Khaled Meshaal, and the head of its military wing, Mohammed Deif, to go along with the compromise proposals laid out by the Egyptians and mostly accepted by both delegations.
On the Israeli side, meanwhile, chaos appears to be reigning. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who rode a wave of popularity during the military operation, has been facing a tsunami of criticism over the past week from the left, the right, the residents of Gaza-adjacent communities and his top coalition ministers. Two of his senior coalition partners, foreign minister Avigdor Liberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party and economics minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, have repeatedly attacked the prime minister’s management of the Gaza conflict from the right, demanding a continuing assault until Gaza has been taken over and Hamas disarmed or dismantled. Broad circles on the right accuse him of giving away the store (i.e. lifting the blockade) in return for “nothing” (i.e. Hamas-Jihad agreement not to shoot, bombard or tunnel).
The other coalition partners, justice minister Tzipi Livni of Hatnuah and finance minister Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, have been pressing Netanyahu from the left, demanding that he seek to end the fighting by convening an international Middle East peace conference in cooperation with the Arab League. The goal of the conference would be to negotiate an agreement for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Netanyahu hasn’t said no to either minister, by some accounts because he’ll need their votes in the cabinet for the limited cease-fire he’s aiming to obtain in Cairo.
Livni and Bennett have also attacked the Cairo cease-fire negotiations on principle, saying the process amounts to Israel negotiating with Hamas despite its international status as a terrorist organization and effectively gives the Islamist group diplomatic legitimacy. Both also complain that the Egyptian proposal for a long-term cease-fire, by guaranteeing Gaza’s border, would constrain Israel’s ability to reply to terrorist actions from Gaza while failing to prevent Hamas and other terrorist groups from rearming and mounting attacks.
Under the Egyptian proposal, the Palestinian factions in Gaza, principally Hamas and Islamic Jihad, would agree to refrain from all attacks on Israel by land, air and sea, and to refrain from digging tunnels into Israeli territory.
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.
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:
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:
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.
Israel’s peace-pact rejectionists, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon (Wikimedia Commons)
Benjamin Netanyahu is looking more and more these days like he’s preparing to take on the pessimists and nay-sayers and prove them wrong.
For most of the past year the cynics have been insisting that neither Netanyahu nor Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas believes anything will come of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative — but that they’re both playing along with Kerry in hopes of avoiding be blamed when the whole thing collapses. It’s sort of like musical chairs — whoever ends up looking worse when the music stops will bear the brunt of very considerable European economic anger, and likely U.S. anger as well.
Lately, though, it looks like Bibi has given up trying and is now opting for Plan B: telling Europe, America and the rest of the world to go to hell. On a practical level, he seems to be doing everything he can to short-circuit the talks, blame or no blame. Most blatantly, he’s reported by aides to be planning an announcement of new housing construction in West Bank settlements, up to 2,000 units worth, in conjunction with this week’s Palestinian prisoner release. This despite Palestinian threats to walk and European threats to blame Israel and retaliate if that happens. Bibi spends a good deal of time and effort decrying those international moves to delegitimize Israel, which include some highly alarming European sanctions, but he shows little interest in blunting international delegitimization by nodding toward norms the rest of the world considers legitimate.
From the Palestinian viewpoint, the prisoner release was intended as a way for Israel to demonstrate a good faith commitment to mutual recognition — effectively acknowledging the other side’s fighters as combatants — but the new construction cancels it out by implying an unwillingness to end the occupation. Those close to Netanyahu say the new construction announcements accompanying each prisoner release — this week’s is the third since the peace talks began — are necessary to keep his right flank on board while he moves forward.
If construction were Bibi’s only negative signal, the sop-to-the-right argument might make sense. But it’s just one in a series. There is, to begin with, the fact that his two most senior ministers, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, have both stated repeatedly, in the most public manner imaginable, that they believe the peace talks have no chance of success and that Abbas is the problem and is no partner for peace. One of the main Israeli criticisms of Abbas, ironically, is that he frequently and his aides regularly accuse the Netanyahu government of actions that sabotage peace.
Three weeks after Israeli finance minister Yair Lapid stunned his liberal base by staking out a hardline stance on peace issues, his disappointed lieutenants are coming out in open rebellion.
Lapid, the journalist-turned-politician who scored big in January elections as the champion of the center-left, told New York Times correspondent Jodi Rudoren in an interview published May 19 that he opposed freezing settlement construction, wanted Jerusalem entirely under Israeli sovereignty and—feinting to the right of Bibi Netanyahu—doubted that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was a partner for peace.
The first sign of trouble came 12 days later, in a May 31 Yediot Ahronot interview with science minister Yaakov Peri, the former Shin Bet chief who was Lapid’s first pick for his party slate last October. A longtime dove, Peri said he had been “saddened” that Yesh Atid hadn’t raised the peace process in its fall campaign, saying it was an electoral strategy recommended by Washington consultant Mark Mellman. Acknowledging that he didn’t agree with Lapid on the peace process, Peri called Abbas a “partner for talks” and endorsed a two-state peace pact based on “a return to the 1967 borders, with minor adjustments and retaining three settlement blocs.” He said he would “be making my voice heard soon on this matter.”
Last week the gloves came off. Another Lapid ally, fellow journalist Ofer Shelah, Yesh Atid’s Knesset whip, declared at a high-profile June 11 conference in Jerusalem that “the occupation is corrupting Israeli society, the Israel Defense Forces, Israeli justice, Israeli media, Israeli psyche and Israeli discourse.” He said Israel was growing increasingly isolated, facing a serious threat of international trade boycotts and “approaching the status of South Africa.”
Shelah was responding to an argument made moments earlier at the same conference by deputy transportation minister Tzipi Hotovely, a Likud hardliner. She claimed that the “entire coalition agrees that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace,” recalling Lapid’s New York Times interviews. Both lawmakers were participating in a panel discussion on the Arab Peace Initiative, sponsored by the Molad Center for Renewal of Israeli Democracy, together with the Likud and Labor student clubs at Hebrew University.
The guessing game continues: Will he or won’t he? Will Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agree to open peace negotiations with the Palestinians on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative — meaning, in effect, agreeing to start from the pre-1967 armistice lines as the basis for negotiating future borders?
Netanyahu is under pressure. He very much wants to sit down to negotiate with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas — or, at least, to be seen as very much wanting to. He hasn’t accepted the Arab League plan, but he hasn’t explicitly rejected it. Most of those around him suspect that he’s leaning toward accepting some watered down version as he sees the odds of a binational state growing and the opening for a two-state solution slipping away — not to mention the international legitimacy he needs in the face of Iran.
He was seriously embarrassed last week when his deputy defense minister, rising Likud star Danny Danon, told The Times of Israel in a bombshell interview that neither the ruling Likud party nor the government as a whole would ratify a pact based on two states for two peoples. Danon said the Likud was “legally” opposed to the principle of two states for two peoples, because of formal resolutions adopted by the party about a decade ago and never rescinded. Indeed, Danon said,
there was never a government discussion, resolution or vote about the two-state solution. If you will bring it to a vote in the government — nobody will bring it to a vote, it’s not smart to do it — but if you bring it to a vote, you will see the majority of Likud ministers, along with the Jewish Home [party], will be against it.”
It gets worse. Coalition whip Yariv Levin of Likud — he’s the guy in charge of rounding up Knesset votes whenever a bill comes to the floor — announced Wednesday that he would be assuming co-chairmanship of a new Lobby for the Land of Israel caucus within the Knesset to oppose any territorial concessions in the West Bank. The caucus is to be rolled out at a “celebratory” meeting of coalition hawks gathering in Tel Aviv tomorrow (June 11) to flex muscles against Netanyahu’s reputed peace plans.
Initial caucus membership is 35 lawmakers (out of 120 total), including two Yesh Atid lawmakers, Dov Lipman and Pnina Tamnu-Shata (other Yesh Atid members have joined a rival two-states caucus, initial membership 40). The Land of Israel caucus has outside support from several cabinet ministers who aren’t allowed to join caucuses, reportedly including defense minister Moshe Yaalon of Likud and Jewish Home’s economics minister Naftali Bennett and housing minister Uri Ariel. If I’m not mistaken, that comes to a majority of the 68-member coalition.
Coming to Bibi’s defense on the diplomatic front, former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, currently chair of the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee, acknowledged today that a construction freeze is in effect in the Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem across the pre-1967 Green Line, according to Galei Tzahal Radio.