Analysis |

Cease-fire in Gaza, Now the Defense Budget Battle Begins

IDF coming in for growing criticism over its performance, mostly from unnamed cabinet ministers, as it seeks $5.6 billion in additional funding.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference, August 27, 2014.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference, August 27, 2014.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Hamas has been celebrating in Gaza for two days now, over what it calls its victory in the fighting with Israel. There have been speeches that are almost identical to those delivered by its leaders after the last round of hostilities at the end of 2012, and wild celebratory gunfire – which, as usual, has caused casualties.

On the Israeli side, the declarations of victory seem more forced. The checklist of talking points was conveyed on Wednesday night in yet another sleepy live news conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.

The text of the agreement released in Cairo regarding the cease-fire that went into effect on Tuesday night would not provide the basis for either side to prove any claims of overwhelming success. Egypt developed a lean agreement, providing for a halt to the fighting for an unlimited period, expanded negotiations over the details in another month, future reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, reinstatement of prior fishing rights off the Gaza shoreline, and an Israeli commitment – stated in general terms – over the easing of restrictions at the Gaza border crossings.

An Egyptian promise to ease the siege at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Sinai is also not anchored in detail or specific commitments. It appears that there is no substantial change between a cease-fire draft from August 19, when the prior cease-fire collapsed, and the version that was agreed upon on Tuesday.

After 51 days of fighting, it seems as if we have almost precisely returned to the starting point. With minor changes, what we have is basically the understandings reached at the end of Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. Along the way, however, in this round 71 Israelis and more than 2,100 Palestinians were killed.

The benefit to Hamas comes in buttressing its strategic position, proving its ability to stand up to the Israeli military machine over a prolonged period, and its recognition as an automatic partner to any future arrangements. When it comes to the actual details, the organization has received very few benefits for the time being. Of course, that raises the question over whether Hamas couldn’t have gotten precisely the same agreement after about a week of fighting in July, when 700 Palestinians had died, instead of prolonging the suffering in Gaza.

Perhaps a similar question could also be posed to the Israeli side. Hamas’ distress in the months prior to the war was clear to anyone following what was happening in Gaza. The generals who rose to power in Egypt had almost completely closed off the smuggling tunnels from Sinai into the Strip, thereby hurting not only residents of Gaza but also curbing the tax revenues that the Hamas regime had derived from the smuggling. And Israel added its own obstacles when it halted the transfer of cement into Gaza, after discovering the attack tunnels leading under the border into Israel last October.

Looking back, it turns out that, shortly before the outbreak of this summer’s fighting, Defense Minister Ya’alon had considered recommendations from his ministry staff that proposed the easing of restrictions on the passage of goods into the Strip. The possibility cannot be ruled out that prior generosity on Israel’s part could have slightly reduced the danger of a confrontation.

IDF officials describe the Hamas leadership in Gaza as having practically begged the Qatar-based leader of its political wing, Khaled Meshal, for his consent this week to a cease-fire. The request is explained as the product of the accumulated effect of Israeli military pressure, particularly the dramatic aerial pounding of the Gaza Strip in the last four days of fighting. (Army officials acknowledge that, in retrospect, it’s possible that this should have been carried out earlier.)

Yet on Wednesday evening, Netanyahu still sounded more cautious than he had been during the course of the war, speaking at length about the use of force. He even acknowledged that he cannot promise that the quiet will be maintained in the wake of Operation Protective Edge.

Listening to Netanyahu’s comments, it was difficult to know if he himself is convinced of the reliability of his argument that Israel came out the victor. According to recent polls, the Israeli public remains skeptical.

And on a daily basis it reads the Facebook thoughts of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, both members of the security cabinet, attacking Netanyahu’s wartime decisions and implying that Israel lost to Hamas.

The IDF is stuck in the middle, sustaining growing criticism over its performance in battle – mostly from anonymous cabinet ministers. The onslaught on the army, and IDF Chief of Staff Gantz in particular, is exceptional in its intensity, and is beginning to hark back to comments made at the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

Gantz is taking flak primarily for his opposition at security cabinet meetings to the total conquest of the Gaza Strip, and for a speech he gave, with unfortunate timing during the war, which was mistakenly interpreted as an early call for residents of communities near the Gaza border to return home before the threat to the area had passed.

While Netanyahu and Ya’alon defended Gantz at Wednesday’s news conference and took his critics to task, Gantz shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Somehow, Ya’alon sounded like a teacher who was reprimanding unruly classmates, demanding that they not harass the new kid in class.

It’s doubtful that the army really needs such protection from the politicians (a Channel 2 poll on Wednesday actually indicated that the public has a high degree of satisfaction over the IDF’s performance in the war). What’s more disturbing from the IDF Chief of Staff’s viewpoint, however, relates to the degree of tension that has developed with residents of border communities, whom Gantz took care to visit and support during the entire course of the fighting.

At the same time, the army is already preparing this week for a battle of a different kind – over the defense budget. The defense establishment’s demands are dizzying: A one-time budget supplement of 9 billion shekels ($2.5 billion) to cover the direct costs of the war, and no less than an additional 11 billion shekels for the 2015 defense budget.

The request is coming at a time when the supplemental amount planned for next year’s entire state budget is currently about 9 billion shekels. If Netanyahu assents to these demands, it’s hard to see how he can pass next year’s budget – and that’s without taking into account the erosion in his political standing and the turmoil that the coalition has sustained as a result of the war.

The war revealed gaps in the preparedness of the army as well as the urgent need for more equipment – more Iron Dome antimissile batteries, more protection for tanks and a great deal of munitions, of various kinds.

At the same time, though, a policy involving wasteful use of firepower was revealed, which reduced stocks to worrying levels following limited hostilities that took place on just one front. The result must prompt a reexamination over the way in which the IDF builds its land-based forces and trains them for their new tasks, taking strategic changes in the region into account.

This also prompts the need to decide from the get-go what structural changes are needed in the army, before the government signs any checks. Netanyahu will soon have to deal with this pressing problem, in addition to his lower standing in the polls, failures in the security cabinet and the controversy over the results of the war.

It’s no wonder that many people expect a long period of chaos in the political system, beginning when the real guns fall silent.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, center, carried by Palestinians celebrating what they said was a victory over Israel after a cease-fire, in Gaza City August 26, 2014. Credit: Reuters

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