Analysis

Gaza Escalation: Netanyahu and Lieberman Are Talking Israel Into a Corner

Balance of threats contradicts working assumption that neither Israel nor Hamas wants war

Netanyahu tours the Sedot Hanegev Regional Council in southern Israel, October 17, 2018
Amos Ben Gershom/GPO

“If these attacks don’t stop, then we’ll stop them. Israel will act with great force,” vowed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, after conducting a security assessment in the south with senior defense officials.

“We’ve exhausted all the possibilities. We have to deal a harsh blow to Hamas,” added Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

In the film “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” the character Tuco, played by Eli Wallach, famously said, “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.” The cast and crew of the film reportedly burst out laughing at Wallach’s brilliant improvised line. But Wallach later said that he thought it sounded pretty sensible; he didn’t mean it as a joke. That is not the case when it comes to Israel’s leaders.

The working assumption that has accompanied the confrontations with Hamas and the other groups in Gaza ever since the marches of return began over six months ago is that Israel and Hamas aren’t interested in war. Both sides want an “arrangement,” that is, a long-term cease-fire whose terms are known. Israel will allow the economic rehabilitation of Gaza (not just infusions of humanitarian aid) that will include the construction of a port and industrial zones in Egyptian territory. Hamas, in turn, will commit to stopping the marches and the incendiary balloons and will abandon the armed struggle against Israel.

>> The three men keeping the miserable peace in Gaza | Analysis

“No side is interested in war,” said Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, in an interview he gave indirectly to Yedioth Ahronoth. “War isn’t good for anyone.” Sinwar’s words didn’t seem to impress Israel’s leaders much, especially given the continued demonstrations at the border fence, the balloons and the rocket launched early Wednesday morning at Be’er Sheva.

Israel has painted itself into a corner with belligerent rhetoric that aims to pass the ball into Hamas’ court. If Hamas contains the demonstrations this Friday, Israel will see it as a sign of its willingness to continue advancing toward an “arrangement.” But if the rocket fire continues and the demonstrations lead to more confrontations, it will mean that Hamas is seeking to force Israel to either yield or go to war. This is an unrealistic equation that has for weeks put only one side to the test. It does not require Israel to stop firing at demonstrators, which is itself fueling more and more demonstrations. The result is that from a situation in which both sides were conducting indirect negotiations through Egypt to finalize the details of the arrangement, they are now conducting public negotiations on drawing the line that, if crossed, will lead to war.

This balance of threats contradicts the working assumption that neither side is interested in war. In the absence of progress in negotiations, and as the prospect of Gaza’s rehabilitation recedes, and after Sinwar, as he sees it, offered a hand and got a fist in return, Hamas may conclude that it can achieve more by war than it can get through ongoing, fruitless negotiations with Israel. After all, Hamas achieved the most promising rehabilitation agreement after Operation Protective Edge. Although the rehabilitation was not implemented, the agreement became the cornerstone of any cease-fire plan, short term or long term, or any other proposed arrangement that followed. Hamas explains that Israel’s statements are meant to frighten Hamas and make it retreat from its demands. But Hamas may find itself in the same trap – that is, believing that Israel does not want a war – and thus believing it can push the negotiations envelope without fear.

A house in then southern Israeli city of Be'er Sheva that was hit by a rocket fired from Gaza, October 17, 2018.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel sees that Israel and Hamas are again putting Egypt to a test of control. Egypt, according to the agreements reached to date, is the one who is meant to guarantee Hamas’ “good” security behavior. The license to open the Strip to the rehabilitation process, subject to Hamas’ behavior, is in Cairo’s hands. Kamel, who was meant to visit both Israel and Ramallah on Thursday, has delayed his visit, although that decision may also change. Kamel had summed up the understandings with Hamas at the beginning of the month, when he met in Cairo with a senior Hamas delegation led by Salah al-Arouri. On Thursday he was meant to meet with Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas to finalize the details of cooperation between the PA and Hamas, mainly the release of funds to pay salaries and moves that will lead to the PA’s return to Gaza.

Abbas’ stubborn refusal to cooperate with the Egyptian plan as long as Hamas doesn’t relinquish control in Gaza and disarm has allowed Qatar to step in as the ATM that will finance the salaries until another solution is found. But Qatar’s involvement doesn’t make Egypt very happy, since the two countries have severed their diplomatic ties and are publicly hostile toward one another. It seems, however, that in a time of distress, and to force Abbas’ hand after he trapped himself in a web of anger with Washington, Israel and Egypt, Qatar is a temporary solution that even Egypt is willing to accept.

The Egyptian goal was and remains to bring about the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas in order to restore responsibility for Gaza to Palestinian hands, so that Cairo can be relieved of responsibility for securing the border with Israel. Here, too, Egypt was forced to give in, and it no longer insists on having the PA assume control of Gaza as a condition for rebuilding the Strip. This, however, is reinforcing Israel’s policy of opposing internal Palestinian reconciliation in order to keep the two Palestinian territories separate and thwart any effort to establish a Palestinian state.

The verbal and military escalation makes it clear to Egypt that it may again be required to engage in achieving a cease-fire instead of promoting a long-term arrangement. This is apparently the reason for the postponement of Kamel’s visit, since he would prefer that his visit yield a diplomatic result, not just temporary calm. The question now is whether there is still room for containment, with Israel prepared to “settle” for attacking controlled targets in Gaza rather than making good on the threats of Lieberman and Netanyahu. This is no longer just a military dilemma but a political dispute in which not only Hamas is setting the tone, but also, and perhaps mainly, the right-wing parties.