Analysis

U.S. Sends Netanyahu a Gaza Message via Flight Ban

American officials haven’t publicly condemned Israel’s military operation in Gaza, but it seems they have other ways of signaling Netanyahu that it’s time to end it.

AP

The most important diplomatic message of the week was sent to Israel by the American administration Tuesday night, via the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. Its decision to forbid flights to Israel had no substantive professional basis; yet the administration made no effort to halt the directive, and may even have encouraged it. Within hours, American airlines ceased flying to and from Israel, and several European airlines followed suit.

True, the lone rocket that landed in Yehud bordered on the limit set by U.S. regulations – one mile from the airport. But the Iron Dome anti-missile system refrained from intercepting that rocket primarily because its operators were ordered to be extra cautious about interceptions near the airport that could interfere with the planes flying above it.

The political nature of the decision was underscored by the fact that other major airlines, like British Airways, did not stop flying here. One has to assume a giant company like British Airways weighed the security and economic implications of this decision.

Israel saw this American move as sticking a knife in the back of its war effort. At a time when America’s ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, was flooding his Twitter account with messages supporting Israel’s right to self-defense, the behavior of his bosses in Washington sent a very different message. It would be interesting to read the cables sent between the embassy and the State Department between the time the FAA directive was announced and its cancelation at about noon yesterday.

It’s hard to shake the impression that the cessation of flights was no accident. Washington still hasn’t forgiven Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his part in torpedoing Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative, and Netanyahu’s personal relationship with President Barack Obama remains rocky. American officials haven’t publicly condemned Israel’s military operation in Gaza, but it seems they have other ways of signaling Netanyahu that it’s time to end it.

After the FAA reversed its decision, Netanyahu hastened to declare that “the pressure we applied caused the flights to resume.” But if the decision was purely professional and technical, with no diplomatic significance, as the administration claimed, why did Netanyahu have to intervene?

The decision to halt flights to Israel, whether it was made by Kerry or Obama, reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of the Israeli mindset. The difficulties of leaving the country by land mean that Israelis always feel a bit as if they were under siege, and this intensifies during security crises. Moreover, at times of war, many Israelis in any case feel as if the whole world were against them. So how, they will doubtless be asking themselves now, can we rely on the United States to stand with us in the greater security challenges that may be waiting around the corner?

Whether by omission or commission, Obama did exactly the opposite of two of his predecessors (though the historical analogies are obviously exaggerated): Harry Truman broke the Russian siege of Berlin in the early days of the Cold War, and Richard Nixon approved an airlift of arms to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Granted, America is still providing funding for additional Iron Dome batteries. But even if this seems like a case of the mouse being angry at the elephant, in this case, the mouse is right.

What Washington failed to understand, Hamas understands very well. Ever since midweek, Hamas has been launching daily rocket barrages at the general vicinity of Ben-Gurion Airport. They have been successfully intercepted, but Hamas has learned that such harassment works. Khaled Meshal, the Qatar-based head of Hamas’ political wing, declared in a speech this week that his organization would close off Israel’s airspace as punishment for Israel’s closure of Gaza’s airspace.

Nevertheless, the drama over the FAA’s decision was marginal to the main development, the effort to reach a cease-fire. Wednesday night, the diplomatic-security cabinet discussed a proposal for a humanitarian cease-fire lasting a few days. Israel sees advantages to this proposal, since it adopts the “quiet for quiet” formula and requires no up-front Israeli concessions.

The Israel Defense Forces would like any such truce to let it retain its current positions and continue combing the stretch of Gaza it controls for attack tunnels. As of noon yesterday, it had discovered 35, most of which already extended under the border into Israeli territory; destroying them fully will take almost two weeks. But it’s hard to see Hamas agreeing to this.

On the other hand, Hamas is aware of the importance of the Id al-Fitr holiday, which starts Monday, and of the heavy pressure on Gaza’s population. A humanitarian cease-fire would give Gazans some relief and let Hamas regroup its forces. International organizations say Israel’s offensive has destroyed more than 1,000 houses in Gaza and damaged some 20,000; the total damage is estimated at $700 million. Additionally, over 700 Palestinians have been killed. The IDF says at least 200 of them were combatants, and that the actual number is almost certainly higher, but for now, Hamas is trying to conceal its losses.

Hamas’ real dilemma, though, is what happens after a cease-fire. Assuming the IDF continues destroying the tunnels, Hamas’ offensive capabilities will be significantly reduced. Moreover, it will have trouble replenishing its rocket supply, since Egypt’s new government is determined not to allow cross-border smuggling from Sinai to resume. Thus Hamas will have to rely on local production, and its homemade medium-range rockets aren’t very accurate or effective.

Israel’s dilemma is no easier. Soon, Netanyahu will have to order the army either to turn around or to go ahead with a broader operation; keeping it where it is liable to be the worst of both worlds.

Netanyahu understands the risks of a broader ground operation. Yet he also understands that leaving Gaza without accomplishing enough will not just damage him politically, but also damage Israel strategically. Last week’s decision to launch a limited operation aimed at destroying the tunnels was right at the time. But it hasn’t spared him the need to make a new decision this weekend.