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.