No matter what happens with regard to Hamas, it will be a mess of one sort or another. There are no clean, neat diplomatic solutions. There is either war now, with all the pain and cost that is necessarily concomitant, or there is the possibility (only the possibility) of a temporary diplomatic resolution that has the seeds of war embedded within it and that, while providing a respite, will inevitably backfire.
Where are we, as I write?
The 72 hours of indirect, Egyptian-mediated negotiations in Cairo between Israel and “Palestinian factions” – which ended midnight Wednesday night – led to no resolution of the differences between Israel and Hamas. We shouldn’t have expected there would be such a resolution, as each side has demands diametrically opposed to the other: Israel is seeking demilitarization of Hamas and Hamas is seeking an end to the blockade of Gaza (in place to prevent importation of further weaponry).
I am reluctant to relay reports of what is said to have gone on, because a good deal of it is undocumented and unreliable: most, if not all, of what we ostensibly learned regarding terms being discussed came from the Palestinian Arab faction (remember, Abbas’s Fatah faction is right in there, negotiating with and on behalf of Hamas). And they have a strong propensity to exaggerate their achievements in such matters.
Did Israel agree to allow Gazan fisherman to go farther into the Mediterranean? Or to permit the quantity of goods – either humanitarian or commercial – going into Gaza from Israel to be substantially increased? Did we concur that Fatah forces might police the border? Could it possibly be that Israeli negotiators agreed to facilitate the movement of money from the PA in Ramallah into Gaza so that Hamas salaries could be paid???
It’s difficult to state what Israel agreed to tentatively, in the course of negotiations – or even agreed to just put on the table for discussion.
Several times, while those reports were coming out, anonymous Israeli officials were cited as saying that no progress was being made. Apparently (and, again, there is no confirmation on this) Hamas is refusing to release the remains of two soldiers it is holding – Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Oron Shaul; this would represent a real stumbling block to any deal Israel might be considering.
Several factors in particular must be mentioned with regard to these negotiations:
First, it is clear that, whatever Israel did or did not agree to, the Palestinian Authority – Abbas’s Fatah faction thereof – is being widely promoted as the “solution” to the problem of Gaza, just as we knew would be the case. We must continue to declare loudly that reliance on Abbas would be a disaster – both because he’s in bed with Hamas and would not “guard” the situation with regard to preventing it from rearming, and because Fatah forces are weak and liable to be taken down by Hamas.
And then, it seems to be the case (is it??) that Israel has dropped the demand for the full demilitarization of Hamas, focusing instead mainly on ways to prevent its rearming. Preventing more sophisticated weapons from being brought in to Gaza is, needless to say, an important and necessary thing to do. But it is not sufficient in and of itself. Hamas still has some 3,000 rockets in its arsenal.
What is additionally the case is that Hamas currently has the capacity to build more of its own rockets, and is continuing to do so.
Reports, some leaked, that did come out citing Israeli sources yesterday seemed quite troubling. We learned that a Security Cabinet meeting that was supposed to have been held had been cancelled because there was “no progress” and nothing to discuss or vote on. But what happened instead of a full Security Cabinet meeting was a series of private meetings that Prime Minister Netanyahu had with various key members of that Cabinet (primarily but not exclusively heads of factions) – notably Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu), Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), Economics Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home), Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua), and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud). Some sources described these meetings as a way for Netanyahu to alert these people to what to anticipate.
Other sources described what happened as an attempt by Netanyahu to “soften up” the Cabinet members in order to get them to vote for some controversial concessions. Something they might or might not agree to:
Additionally there were complaints from some Cabinet members that they were being kept in the dark:
Uh Oh. What doesn’t he want them to know? What might he be promoting?
For the record, I do not believe Netanyahu WANTS to give Hamas anything. He is clear-eyed as to the nature of this adversary. But I am concerned, very simply, that he lacks the nerves of steel required right now to buck the considerable pressure being brought to bear on Israel from a host of international sources. Binyamin Netanyahu has demonstrated himself to be someone who worries a good deal about the international community and functions while watching over his shoulder.
In fairness to him, I acknowledge very readily that the pressure has to be absolutely incredible. (I am not sleeping well at night and right now I wonder how he can sleep at all.) There is reason to believe that he might be considering a host of unpalatable factors – the rising world-wide hostility to Israel because of the deaths of babies in Gaza, the up-coming UNHRC “inquiry” – dubbed Goldstone 2 – into whether we committed “war crimes” in Gaza (which I’ll address another day), the malevolence of Obama (about which more below). It might seem to him that not taking on Hamas right now would be prudent because of all of the other issues that we confront.
But there is a solid case to be made for dealing with Hamas without making concessions – with all that this likely implies. Period.
Two days ago, the “military wing” of Hamas, al-Qassam Brigades, released this statement:
“The warriors in Gaza are waiting with Allah’s help to renew the fighting, or to return to planning the next campaign. There’s no escape. Either jihad or planning [for the next jihad].”
Now, we know that this is how the jihadis operate. It’s hardly a surprise. But for them to be so “in our faces” about it? We should allow them to buy time to plan a better attack on Israel?
The hours leading up to the midnight termination of the temporary ceasefire last night were tense. Egypt – the mediating party – was pushing for an extension to the temporary ceasefire because more time was needed. But, while apparently Israel agreed at some point, Hamas was defiant – with Khaled Mashaal, head of the politburo, the most intransigent – and it seemed that this was not going to happen.
So certain did Hamas seem to be that there would be no extension, and that “negotiations” had failed, that rockets were launched from Gaza into several communities in the south of Israel a full two hours before the official end of the ceasefire. (Something that Hamas later denied having done.)
The situation suddenly seemed clear: Enough fooling around in those negotiations; once again Hamas failed to even honor its full commitment to cease firing for 72 hours. The Israeli negotiating team had returned home. Time to get serious. Additional reservists had been called up and our troops were moved up to the border of Gaza. Yair Lapid made a statement about how, if we must attack again because they start launching rockets again, “this time we’ll hit much harder.”
So be it then…
Just to interject a small personal note here. I was relieved – because the prospect of making concessions to Hamas felt terribly wrong: one does not negotiate this way with terrorists. But I was hardly upbeat. I had more of a pained, it’s the right way to go and we’ll have to deal with this with resolve, attitude. I spoke to my visiting grandchildren about where we would would go if there were a siren; having lived through this multiple times already in their own home, they were cool. But I felt an incredible sadness, that the absolute evil of Hamas was making all of this necessary.
Even as Hamas started launching those rockets, however, news began to trickle out from Cairo about an agreement from both sides to extend the temporary ceasefire so that more effort might be expended in reaching a permanent agreement. And indeed, by midnight, the new ceasefire was announced: fire would be held for five days, but it was my understanding that there would be a two-day hiatus before talks began again, which would mean another 72 hours of negotiations.
What turned the trick, apparently, was direct intervention by Barack Obama, who let it be known that he wanted either a final agreement or, at the least, a temporary extension. Reports are that a call he placed to Netanyahu to convey this was exceedingly tense, as have been most of their recent exchanges.
This is what I am seeing:
According to a Wall Street Journal article, which cited government sources, “the US administration has halted a shipment of Hellfire aerial anti-armor missiles to Israel.
“The sources noted that Israel had requested the transfer of ammunitions directly from the Pentagon, without receiving the approval of the White House or State Department officials.
“’We were blindsided,’ one US diplomat said, while a US defense official insisted that ‘there was no intent to blindside anyone. The process for this transfer was followed precisely along the lines that it should have.’
“According to the sources, White House officials were concerned about Israel’s use of artillery, instead of precision-guided munitions in the more densely populated areas in the Gaza Strip…
“After the shipment of the 120-mm and 40-mm rounds caught the White House by surprise, the Pentagon was instructed to put another arms shipment to Israel – a large number of Hellfire missiles – on halt and the administration instructed all of its defense agencies to consult with the White House and State Department before approving any additional arms requests from Israel, the Journal reported.
“A US official told the paper that ‘the decision to scrutinize future transfers at the highest levels amounted to the United States saying “The buck stops here. Wait a second… It’s not OK anymore.”’” (All emphasis added)
Michael Oren, who served a term as Israeli ambassador to the US that ended last fall, has weighed in on this:
“There is a claim in the Wall Street Journal that Israel went around the back of the United States to get a resupply of ammunition from the Pentagon, that it didn’t get permission from the White House. I can only tell you as an ambassador that is impossible because there’s a very specific and deeply embedded procedure for doing that and Israel, in order to get access to preposition military equipment in this country, American equipment, has to go through the administration.”
Oren says the WSJ story is unsubstantiated. But if a US “source” deliberately leaked this faulty information on orders? If this provides Obama with a fabricated public rationale for holding back on Israel?
When did this story appear? Wednesday? When did Obama place his call to Netanyahu insisting that the ceasefire had to be extended? Wednesday.
Here I move into speculation – but speculation informed by a sequence of events that gives it considerable plausibility.
Perhaps Netanyahu was not thinking about “Goldstone 2” or anti-Israel riots in various places. Maybe his concern – a very real and enormously serious one one – was that the US, by withholding military equipment, would make it difficult for Israel to sustain a full war against Hamas. Perhaps this is what he sought to communicate privately to key members of the Cabinet. Perhaps his nerves were sufficiently steel-like in this situation, but he calculated that it might be better to forestall that final confrontation with Hamas until Obama was out of office. (Which might mean making nauseating compromises in the interim.)
Obama’s position on the record in this situation was clearly established some while ago: First he has no desire to see Hamas brought down. And then, he is eager to see that “two state solution” advanced via placement of Abbas in Gaza. What better way to promote these interests than by weakening Israel’s hand?
If there is truth to my speculation, then it is my very fervent hope that Netanyahu will not sit still for this. Oren’s commentary seems the first return volley, but a great deal more would need to follow. Often threats are not spoken about. But, for a number of reasons, whatever threat may have transpired here would need to be addressed as boldly and perhaps publicly as possible. We have many friends in the US.
And there is one last piece to my speculation. Obama would have had to do something to get Hamas to agree to a ceasefire extension. It is quite clear that there was not unanimity within Hamas on this score. The president has a very distorted and distinctive MO in his dealings with other countries: he fails to be supportive of those who are traditional US allies, and he overtly courts and makes concessions to radical regimes such as Iran that embrace values inimical to American interests.
My guess would be (and Kerry played this very game with Abbas during recent negotiations) that Obama either exaggerated to Hamas what Israel is ready to concede or promised Hamas that he would do everything in his power to get Israel to… whatever (perhaps release prisoners)…to provide Hamas with that much needed sense of victory.
We might then, look for increased pressure on Israel to…whatever…
All this said, there is no reason to expect that, when the next 72 hours of negotiations is over, a long-term ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas will necessarily have been achieved. It still remains quite unlikely, I think, concessions or not. If (or when) those Hamas rockets start flying again, there will still be some very tough decisions that will have to be made here in Israel.