Saturday, July 19, 2014

After the cannons fall silent


Israel’s military goals for Operation Protective Edge are clear: restore quiet, and pound Hamas’s operation capabilities. Its diplomatic/political aims are murkier. What exactly does Jerusalem have in mind for Gaza, the day after?

benjamin netanyahu
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv, July 13, 2014. Photo: HAIM ZACH/GPO
Operation Protective Edge  – the third major military operation since Israel “disengaged from Gaza” (talk about an oxymoron) – will eventually come to a conclusion.

And then what? In the event of a cease-fire, what will have changed inside Gaza? Will Hamas remain in power? And if it does not, who will replace it? Will the Palestinian Authority gain control? Will Egypt take a more assertive role? Will PA security officials man the Rafah border crossing?

Moreover, how will the post-fighting reconstruction of Gaza proceed? Who will fund it? Who will be responsible? And if the operation ends with a ground incursion, then what?

In the case of a limited incursion – like 2008- 2009’s Operation Cast Lead – when, and under what conditions, will Israel withdraw again? And if Operation Protective Edge gives birth to a large-scale incursion resulting in the retaking of Gaza, then what? Does Israel reestablish settlements there (as Likud MK Moshe Feiglin proposed)? Or does it “only” destroy the terrorist infrastructure, and then look for someone else to take control (as Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has advocated)? If so, who? The PA? Egypt? Some other arrangement?

IN THE 11 days since the outset of the newest Gaza conflagration, the IDF has successfully identified and hit hundreds upon hundreds of targets inside Gaza. The diplomatic goals for the day after, however – even if they may have been identified by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in private discussions with his most trusted advisers – have not been adequately articulated.

Netanyahu, throughout the campaign, has wisely kept the goals of the operation narrow. Not for him are bombastic goals like the ones then-prime minister Ehud Olmert’s government trumpeted before and during the 2006 Second Lebanon War: nothing short of destroying Hezbollah.

Netanyahu’s goals for the operation, which he has repeated almost every time he has met a microphone over the last 11 days, are to restore quiet, and deliver a significant blow to Hamas.

“Hamas left us no choice but to broaden and intensify the campaign against it,” he said in a brief statement to the nation Tuesday evening, before yet another security cabinet meeting. “This is what we will do until we achieve our goal – the restoration of quiet for Israel’s citizens, while inflicting a significant blow on the terrorist organizations.”

Those are military goals. Yet he has been more circumspect about his overall diplomatic goals for the campaign. As the operation was already well in process, he described one political/diplomatic objective as the eventual “demilitarization” of Gaza.

Explaining why Israel had accepted the Egyptian proposal for cease-fire on Tuesday, Netanyahu said before a meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier that this was done to “provide an opportunity through diplomatic means for demilitarizing the Strip from missiles, rockets and [terrorist] tunnels.”

This demand fell on fertile ears, as Steinmeier responded that “Gaza must not be allowed to remain a permanent arms depot for Hamas because – as we have seen in recent weeks – this creates danger for Israel, and the people in Israel. Also, the people in Gaza must not become permanent hostages to the arms stored among the civilian population. “ This is the type of reaction Netanyahu wants to hear, a reaction he hopes to translate into an action plan to be implemented.

The next day, during a meeting with Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende, he said the international community needed to support the demilitarization of Gaza from rockets and tunnels.

The concept of demilitarization, by the way, is no stranger to the Middle East diplomatic process. Former CIA head George Tenet drew up a now-long forgotten Israel- Palestinian cease-fire and security plan in January 2001 – soon after the outbreak of the second intifada – which stipulated that “the PA will undertake preemptive operations against terrorists, terrorist safe houses, arms depots and mortar factories.”

And two years later, the road map to a permanent two-state solution stipulated in phase one that a “rebuilt and refocused PA security apparatus” will begin “sustained, targeted and effective operations aimed at confronting all those engaged in terror and dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure. This includes commencing confiscation of illegal weapons and consolidation of security authority, free of association with terror and corruption.”

According to leaked Palestinian documents made public by Al Jazeera in 2011 – the so-called “Palestine papers” – the PA’s security strategy to crush Hamas was first put forward by M16, the British intelligence service, when Tony Blair was the British prime minister.

Blair has now emerged as a key figure in trying to put together a cease-fire, so it seems safe to assume the demilitarization idea is firmly on the table.

NETANYAHU HAS set demilitarization – dismantling Hamas of its rockets and rocket- making capabilities – as the target, but what he has not yet addressed is how to get there.

One way not to get there, obviously, is to rely on UN Security Council resolutions.

Israel has been there, done that.

For instance, the Second Lebanon War ended in August 2006 with UN Security Council Resolution 1701 calling for the area from the Israeli border to the Litani River to be “free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the government of Lebanon.” UNIFIL forces were even beefed up to supervise the implementation of that resolution. And how did that go? Well, there are now, according to IDF estimates, more than 60,000 missiles – more than the arsenal of a small NATO country – in Hezbollah’s hands. Before the war and the security council resolution, there were 6,000.

Furthermore, Operation Cast Lead against Gaza ended with UN Security Council Resolution 1860 that called, among other things, for member states “to intensify efforts to provide arrangements and guarantees in Gaza, in order to sustain a durable cease-fire and calm, including to prevent illicit trafficking in arms and ammunition.”

Before that operation, the number of rockets in Gaza, according to widely quoted estimates, stood at 5,000.

Before the current round of fighting, by comparison, Hamas and the other terrorist organizations had in their arsenals, depending on who you ASK, between 9,000- 11,000 rockets – including those that could hit not only Tel Aviv, but even Haifa.

In other words, UN resolutions to demilitarize Gaza will not do the trick, and other mechanisms need to be deployed.

Government officials have cited the manner in which the US and Russia removed Syria’s stockpile of weapons this year as a possible model to be looked at. Syrian President Bashar Assad was, obviously, reluctant to relinquish his chemical weapons stockpiles, but was forced to do so when he feared the US might actually move in to oust him if he did not.

Extending that model to Hamas, the idea would be to squeeze the organization to such a degree it would realize that if it did not rid itself of the rockets, it would lose any foothold in Gaza. The international community – not UN Security Council resolutions – could, according to this school of thought, use its leverage on countries that support Hamas – such as Qatar and a lesser degree, Turkey – to get the organization to budge. For instance, the US does have some influence with Qatar.

The demilitarization objective, clearly a diplomatic goal, was drawn up while Operation Protective Edge was in motion.

Israel did not enter this operation in order to achieve that result. Rather, once the operation was under way, Netanyahu decided this would be a good result to pursue.

THIS IS a difference which reflects, to a certain degree, one shortcoming of the current operation.

Israel was pulled into the operation with clear military objectives – to silence the rockets – but without clear diplomatic goals. And the reason for this lack of diplomatic goals is because Israel was, in fact, dragged into this confrontation very much against its will; it did not initiate or choose this fight, and as such was unprepared diplomatically.

Recall the sequence of events: Hamas terrorists kidnapped and executed three Israeli teenagers in June; Israel responded with a major military sweep in the West Bank, arresting hundreds, including Hamas terrorists freed in the Gilad Schalit deal; Hamas responded by firing rockets on Israel and paralyzing life in the South; Israel retaliated by launching Operation Protective Edge.

Though Israel has proven superbly prepared militarily for this battle (witness Iron Dome), diplomatically – because there are no clear goals – it has proven less ready.

While the IDF had a bank of targets to hit, thus far there has been no indication – outside of the demilitarization of Gaza – what Israel’s further diplomatic goals and targets are. And that places Jerusalem at a disadvantage This lack of a diplomatic vision for the day after also helps explain the much-too-public disagreement between Netanyahu and Liberman over how to wage the war, with the foreign minister urging – more like an opposition MK than a senior member of the war cabinet – going “all the way,” and Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon being much more cautious.

The Netanyahu-Liberman disagreement is not only one of operational tactics, it also shows the government has no grand plan or vision for Gaza. For if it did, Netanyahu and Liberman – two pillars of the government – would not be arguing over what to do now, and that step would have been a clear part of a greater vision.

The government has not defined what it wants to do with Gaza. Conquer it, control it, allow it to be part of a future Palestinian state? If you can’t define your goals, you won’t achieve them.

Or, as Yogi Berra was once quoted as saying, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.”

Israel needs to define for itself, and then for the world, where “there” is in relation to Gaza. And only after it does that will there be any chance of actually getting to that place.

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