The Israeli cabinet’s decision to abandon talks on a mediated cease-fire and to unilaterally decide if and when its Gaza operations come to an end was based on its complete lack of confidence in Hamas’ will or ability to adhere to agreements and on its plan to rely on Israeli deterrence instead. The ramifications of the decision, however, spread farther and wider: it disqualifies Hamas as a partner to the process and deprives it of any potential gains from its bloody Gaza campaign; it ejects Turkey and Qatar from the circle of countries with influence, as Israel had sought from the outset; and it relegates the United States, for the time being at least, to the sidelines.
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Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Netanyahu decided to sugarcoat the bitter pill by deploying uncharacteristic superlatives at his press conference in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, praising the Obama administration’s “terrific” support for Israel throughout Operation Protective Edge. Perhaps this is also one of the reasons that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry decided that this was the right time for a relatively extended tour this week of Asia and the Pacific, from Sydney to Honolulu.
This is the way Jerusalem is leveraging the abduction of IDF officer Hadar Goldin, which resuscitated public support for Israel, at least in the U.S., to its opening level, before the death and destruction in Gaza. Along with Hamas’ quick violation of the cease-fire on Friday morning, the abduction of Goldin arrested the rising tide of criticism being levelled at Israel, which reached a peak on Thursday, hours before the ceasefire, when the White House condemned Israel’s “indefensible” shelling of an UNRWA shelter in Gaza. The American media, which closely tracked Gilad Shalit’s captivity and release and is well aware of the unique psychological impact that the new abduction would have on the Israeli public, re-found some of the empathy it had lost for the suffering on Israel’s side of the equation.
That support, along with what sounded at times like contrition, was clearly enunciated by President Obama at his press conference at the White House on Friday. Obama also acknowledged that “it will be very hard” to reconstitute the broken cease-fire and that Netanyahu’s suspicions about Hamas intentions had been borne out by events. Israel quickly decided to exploit the window of opportunity opened by Obama, inadvertently perhaps, to extricate itself from the Kerry-led diplomatic process that it has distrusted from the outset. Henceforth, Qatar and Turkey are out, Egypt and Mahmoud Abbas are more or less in – the latter, only if he behaves – and Kerry, when he returns, may be asked to sit this one out in the bleachers.
The secretary of state can console himself in the meantime with the vigorous defense of his lost honor that Obama finally mounted on Friday. The president lambasted Kerry’s unnamed critics for “nitpicking” and “second-guessing” his moves. Ironically the term “second guessing” also starred in the rather hubristic sentence attributed to Netanyahu from his leaked and not fully denied conversation with US Ambassador Dan Shapiro: “The U.S. should never second-guess me again on Hamas.” Hard to tell whether Netanyahu meant “second guess” in the sense of critiquing his past decisions or that of trying to quarterback those he will make in the future, but probably both.
The U.S. is unlikely to accede to his request. Not only do some American officials harbor serious doubts about the wisdom of many of the decisions that Netanyahu has made in the recent past – including his staunch opposition to Abbas’ unity government with Hamas – but they may have some new queries about his latest moves as well. . Is Netanyahu’s decision to go it alone, for example, also meant as an escape hatch from a renewed Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process that the U.S. was envisaging as an outgrowth of cease-fire talks? And how will Netanyahu react when he realizes that by abandoning the proposed American framework, he may be exposing Israel to the full brunt of the international outcry that is sure to erupt once its new found sympathy dissipates again and the dimensions of the carnage in Gaza is exposed for all to see?