Was Operation Protective Edge just another round in Israel’s ongoing battle with Hamas in Gaza, the latest installment of an occasional series that began with Cast Lead in 2008 and continued with Pillar of Defense in 2012?
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Are Israel and the Palestinians of Gaza doomed to repeat this bloody scenario with ever-increasing frequency?
Or is Netanyahu playing a longer, deeper game? Can he pluck a diplomatic victory from the smoking rubble that will eventually benefit both Israelis and Palestinians?
There are indications that this last hellish month was more than just a gruesome Gaza Groundhog Day of death and destruction. There is a chance that Netanyahu is planning to use this war to create peace.
Netanyahu gave us a peek beneath the surface of the shifting diplomatic landscape on Saturday night when he referred to the unprecedented regional backing for Israel's move against Hamas, calling it a “very important asset."
He was referring to the deafening silence in the Arab world for the past month, where criticism of Israel has been muted – and matched by criticism of Hamas.
Sissi's Egypt has clearly sided with Israel, destroying tunnels under Rafah and cutting off the flow of arms and cash to Hamas. Saudi Arabia is quietly backing the Egyptians. On Friday, King Abdullah condemned Israeli actions but also denounced the "shameful and disgraceful terrorists ... trying to hijack Islam and present it to the world as a religion of extremism, hatred, and terrorism."
The quiescence of the moderate Arab world, which sees in Hamas an extension of Iranian influence that threatens them as much as it threatens Israel, could create the conditions for a historic diplomatic reboot.
“At the end of the battle and the operation, it will open many new possibilities for us,” Netanyahu said, referring to the silent support of the Egyptians, Saudis and their allies.
The tacit approval for the destruction of Hamas extends to the Palestinian Authority, where President Mahmoud Abbas has insisted that the unity agreement signed earlier this year must involve the dismantling of Iz al-Din al-Qassam, the armed wing of Hamas. Abbas’s frustration with the Hamas militia boiled over in public as the Israeli air attacks began, when he blamed Hamas, not Israel, for the rising tensions.
“What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?” Abbas asked in remarks broadcast by Palestine TV in early July. “We prefer to fight with wisdom and politics."
“It’s not important who wins or loses,” he said. “What’s important is to end this bloodshed."
Aside from issuing some low-key, pro-forma denunciations of Israeli actions in Gaza, Abbas’s government has been almost mute.
As Barak Ravid pointed out in these pages Sunday, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has long been pushing her Israeli cabinet colleagues to stop branding Abbas as an extremist and start to see him as a potential partner, not a problem.
The almost complete lack of popular protest on the West Bank - barring isolated "days of rage" after repeated Hamas pleas - is no coincidence.
Several weeks ago, Palestinian security forces went house to house in the West Bank, collecting the remaining weapons still held by the grassroots fighters of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the people who headed the Second Intifada. They are Fatah, supporters of the PA, not Hamas. The clear aim was to stifle any emergence of the much-predicted Third Intifada.
That creates a new range of options for Israel once the fighting ends. But Netanyahu must also consider his domestic constituency. Before sending in the troops, Netanyahu knew that two of his predecessors, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, were driven from office after failed military operations against the Palestinians and Hezbollah.
In a poll of Jewish Israelis conducted last week by Dr. Yuval Feinstein at the Sociology Department of Haifa University, 86% of respondents said the only reason for ending hostilities would be the complete cessation of rocket fire. 85% said the fighting must not end before the Hamas tunnel network is permanently decommissioned. 51% said the aim of the operation should be the overthrow of the Hamas regime in Gaza. Without a long-term diplomatic solution, any and all of these will be hard to achieve. The next round will only be a matter of time.
If Netanyahu is seen to agree to a ceasefire now when the Israeli public believes that the job is only half done, that the Hamas military infrastructure is still in place, then he will be perceived as having been defeated and not having scored a decisive victory against Hamas. He knows that he would be facing almost certain defeat at the polls in the next election if he is perceived as not having finished the job.
But if Netanyahu can leverage a pullout from Gaza by creating a historic opportunity for peace, he might transcend the narrow interests of his party and win the support of the majority of Israelis who still want to see a viable two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.
Once Israel has destroyed Hamas's military capability - primarily the tunnels and rockets – logic suggests that Israel has two options: either withdraw and wait for the next round, or reoccupy Gaza.
But there is a third way, endorsed last week by Maj. Gen. (ret.) Israel Ziv, former head of the IDF Operations Directorate. That would be to use the current diplomatic climate as a launchpad for a new diplomatic initiative.
The first step would be to place Gaza under the protection of an international peacekeeping force led by Egypt to prepare for new elections. According to all the polls before Operation Protective Edge began, Hamas’ popularity in Gaza has been plummeting. Their increasing weakness was a key factor in their decision to accept the unity agreement with Fatah earlier this year that foresaw the end of Hamas rule in Gaza.
The election will pave the way for the return of PA control to Gaza and political reunification with the West Bank without the threat of Hamas and other radicals undermining the calm.
Egypt’s reward will be the opportunity to rebuild its economy with backing from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia - who see the suppression of Hamas as a key element in pushing back the tide of radical jihadism now sweeping the Arab world.
Israel has always opposed the introduction of international forces, but in the current climate it just might work to the advantage of everyone – except Hamas.
“Unlike in previous rounds of fighting, Israel and Egypt will ensure that Hamas will be unable to rebuild its force – Egypt by continuing to prevent smuggling and Israel by the freedom of action it has reserved itself in a unilateral move in which it decides the rules of the game, chiefly, the prevention of Hamas’ force buildup,” says Maj. Gen (ret.) Amos Yadlin, director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate.
And that will herald Netanyahu's moment. If - and it's a big if - all this comes to pass, it will present Israel with the best conditions to make peace with the Palestinians since the death of Yasser Arafat, with strong regional backing from the moderate Arab world.
If this is indeed what Netanyahu has in mind, he will need to summon all his rhetorical and political skills to carry his party with him to the inevitable conclusion: a demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza headed by Mahmoud Abbas.