Although the election is less than two months away, politics hasn’t completely knocked security developments out of the headlines. Incidents on the Syrian front – exchanges of threats that occasionally lead to exchanges of fire between Israel and the Iranian and Hezbollah forces – are getting the most attention. But the biggest risk of a major eruption of violence in the lead-up to the election is still in the south, in Gaza.
The IDF military intelligence assessment for 2019 includes, as it has for the past two years, a strategic warning about a deterioration on the Palestinian front. Shifts in the internal power relations in the Palestinian Authority and in the security relationship with Israel, in light of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ 83 years of age and expected decline, could lead to an escalation of terror from the West Bank and even to a wider confrontation. In Gaza, the ongoing severe crisis involving the civilian infrastructure continues to put pressure on the Hamas government and could push it into another clash with Israel, despite the understanding (that has become a cliché by now) that neither Israel nor Hamas is interested in a full-scale war.
Not by chance, the first official visit scheduled by new IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi was to the Gaza division. The chief of staff also approved a plan, with an accelerated timetable, to improve the IDF’s preparedness for various combat scenarios in Gaza. This plan has been given budgetary priority over preparations in other areas.
According to the intelligence assessment, Hamas leader Yihya Sinwar is anxious to bring about a change in the civilian situation in the Strip, as the current circumstances threaten the stability of his rule. The March of Return protests at the border fence with Israel have brought Hamas certain achievements, such as an expanded fishing zone and the opening of the Rafah crossing to Egypt for longer periods. But Hamas needs more than that. The photo in which Sinwar was seen embracing UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov in Cairo shows that the terrorist who spent more than 20 years behind bars in Israel for murder is now playing by other rules.
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Sinwar desperately needs an accord and is ready to do quite a bit to see this happen. Still, Sinwar and Hamas will have a hard time accepting an accord that does not include a significant lifting of the blockade, major infrastructure projects and at least the hope of the future construction of a seaport. In their absence, he will consider initiating incidents along the fence – like the sniper ambushes and anti-tank missiles used by other organizations in the past months, even if it could drag the parties to the brink of war.
The IDF Southern Command emphasizes the part being played by Islamic Jihad. Since Ziyad al-Nakhaleh took over as secretary-general last year, after Ramadan Shalah stepped down due to poor health, the organization has been increasing its escalation towards Israel, in a deliberate challenge to Hamas as well. Last week, Islamic Jihad published a video showing the incident in which a bullet fired by one of its snipers struck the helmet of a paratroop company commander during a protest at the fence. This was a defiant move towards Hamas and Egypt, as discussions were underway that morning in Cairo on the conditions for an accord. To a great extent, all of the parties are dependent upon the whims of Islamic Jihad and its attempts to foil the chances of achieving calm.
Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet are also concerned about Hamas’ repeated attempts to ignite trouble in the West Bank and pull the rug out from under the PA and Israel. On Wednesday the Shin Bet announced it had arrested five Hamas operatives from the West Bank and East Jerusalem whom it said were being directed by Hamas headquarters in Gaza. Once again, the plans for violence were thwarted. But the most interesting part was that they included an attempt to dispatch a Hamas operative from the Hebron area to carry out a suicide bombing on a bus in Lod.
Hamas never completely abandoned suicide bombings, but its use of this method has drastically decreased since the second intifada tapered off, the main reason being successful operations by the Israeli security forces. Another factor was apparently the realization by some Hamas leaders that suicide bombings wipe out any chance of gaining international legitimacy for their cause and exact a steep price from Palestinian society. A renewal of the suicide bombing effort shows that Hamas is willing to take a bigger gamble in the West Bank, where it is not in control.
The price of war
The chief of staff’s directive concerning Gaza was immediately described in news headlines and on television as the IDF making heightened preparations for war. But usually absent from the nearly automatic discussion of this issue that occurs every few months is the question of what Israel wishes to achieve in the Strip and how much it is willing to risk to do so.
The conclusion from the three last major operations in Gaza – Cast Lead (2008), Pillar of Defense (2012) and Protective Edge (2014) – is clear enough: Regardless of the varying amounts of force used, the results of the operations were quite similar. Israel sowed massive death and destruction in Gaza, suffered limited losses, and was only able to achieve a few years of deterrence and calm. The main option that the IDF ground forces can propose to the higher ranks, on the political and General Staff level, is a ground maneuver. But there is little appetite for such a move. Any extensive operation in Gaza would cost billions of shekels that were not originally planned for in the defense budget, lead to difficult entanglements in the field, disappoint the public’s high expectations and, of course, involve serious losses among the ground forces.
The challenge in Lebanon is even harder and more complex. It’s no wonder that successive governments have been reluctant to give the IDF the order for a major ground operation, especially given the public’s waning capacity to absorb military casualties. Presuming that Kochavi sees a problem with this, he will have to find a way to improve the IDF’s maneuvering capability beyond what was achieved under his predecessor Gadi Eisenkot.
This week saw the release of an unclassified version of a classified report that was recently authored by two of the most veteran members of the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, Labor MK Omer Bar-Lev and Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah. The two discuss the general outlines of the “IDF 2030” plan that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently gave to the IDF General Staff and the Knesset committee. Netanyahu talks about an additional 40 billion shekels ($11 billion) for the defense budget over the next decade, but his top priorities include the air force, intelligence and cyber, with the ground forces given a lower priority in the plans. Bar-Lev and Shelah warn that “in the absence of an appropriate process and without a wide enough discussion, we could find ourselves chained to distinct decisions that do not come together to form a workable approach, and engage in all sorts of projects that are individually justifiable but may not create a coherent and effective capability when such is needed.”
The two praise the moves promoted by Eisenkot to improve the state of the ground forces as part of the multi-year Gideon Plan, but say, “Clearly, the ground forces are not where they need to be in order to achieve the objective for which the outgoing chief of staff was aiming.” They say the IDF ground forces still require significant upgrading, but this does not appear to be the direction being taken.
Some of the solutions that Bar-Lev and Shelah have in mind concerning the structure of the ground forces and the equipment at their disposal likely overlap with the ideas that the new chief of staff has under consideration. In the present political atmosphere, it’s not at all certain that Kochavi’s proposals will receive full approval. Meanwhile, it seems Kochavi hasn’t been able to convince Netanyahu, as serving defense minister, of the need for quick approval of a small round of appointments in the General Staff so that the plans can start getting underway.
The most critical appointment is of the next commander of the ground forces. The emerging direction is the appointment of a veteran senior commander, likely Northern Command head Yoel Strick. If this isn’t possible, Kochavi will probably consider promoting a less senior officer, such as Gen. Amir Baram or Brig. Gen. Itai Virov. The delay on this decision is already causing some unease among the General Staff. Another appointment that is being delayed is for the soldiers’ ombudsman, to replace Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik. Eisenkot wanted to appoint Maj. Gen. Yossi Bachar, who recently retired. Former Defense Minister Avidgor Lieberman was considering appointing Brig. Gen. (res.) and former MK Effi Eitam. Netanyahu and Kochavi have yet to reach agreement on the matter.
Another cause of tension between Netanyahu and the army leadership is his use of photo-ops with soldiers from his visits to IDF units as part of his election campaign. Despite the clear directive from the attorney general against doing so, the prime minister carried on this week, posting a few pictures with soldiers and also complaining about what he called the irrational restrictions placed on him. On Wednesday, the chairman of the Central Election Committee, Supreme Court Judge Hanan Melcer, issued an injunction against posting any more photos with soldiers until a meeting on the subject is held next Sunday. It’s not hard to guess what ruling the generals are hoping for. The IDF has enough headaches right now even without Netanyahu using soldiers for political gain.
Gantz’s record and Likud’s rubbish
The prime minister is also feeling threatened now by the candidacy of former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, who so far is making a strong showing in the polls. Netanyahu and Likud are very deliberately trying to paint Gantz as a leftist and defeatist, and these attacks are based on distortions of Gantz’s past statements and on misleading descriptions of military incidents and mishaps in which he was involved during his service.
It’s surprising, however, that Likud has yet to bring up something with which Netanyahu is quite familiar: the plan formulated by the Obama administration in 2014, in the context of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, for security arrangements in the territories. Gen. John Allen oversaw the work on this for the administration and the Israeli cabinet ordered the appointment of a team of senior IDF officers to discuss the details of the plan with him.
Israelis who were involved in the contacts said this week that the talks, which were overseen by Gantz as chief of staff, reached a very advanced stage and that on this basis Allen and his team formulated their plan, which included detailed parameters for the security arrangements that would be put in place following a hypothetical Israeli withdrawal from a majority of the West Bank and Jordan Valley.
At a later stage, the politicians discovered that the IDF representatives had conducted much more in-depth talks with the Americans than was originally planned, and thus placed Netanyahu and his government, which had not intended to conduct actual negotiations, in the position of being the recalcitrant ones. Then Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was infuriated and a crisis with the Obama administration arose when his comments about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (“messianic and obsessive”) were leaked.
Kerry eventually ceased his efforts and the Allen plan was shelved, until it was pulled out again to be reviewed by the Trump administration’s Middle East peace team. But the divergent attitudes of Gantz and Ya’alon, now the No. 2 on Gantz’s list, to the Allen proposal just underscores their ideological differences regarding the future of the territories. These differences are now being blurred as part of Gantz’s hawkish election campaign. But in Gantz’s debut political speech there were hints here and there (building in the settlement blocs, i.e., not in the outposts; taking our fate into our own hands, etc.) that situate him to the left of Ya’alon and Netanyahu.
Some of the charges now being directed at Gantz are completely groundless. Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoram Yair, who headed the committee that reviewed the incident at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, said this week that the claim being made by Netanyahu and Likud that, as division commander, Gantz abandoned the wounded in the October 2000 incident is totally baseless.
Gantz was just the fourth person in the decision-making chain of command related to that incident and “all the decisions were made at the highest level” – i.e., by Ehud Barak, the prime minister and defense minister at the time. Yair believes the mistakes that were made, chiefly the misguided reliance on the Palestinian security forces to rescue wounded Border Police officer Madhat Yusuf, were made in good faith.
The recurrent criticism of Gantz from a few of his former subordinates has nothing to do with his integrity or fairness. There is no real argument about these issues. The criticism has to do with a pattern they claim to see in his conduct, in different positions. They say he doesn’t prepare with due seriousness for the worst possible scenario, as is commonly done in the army. That when things go wrong, Gantz is surprised and therefore does not react with satisfactory speed and efficiency. And that after the crisis passes – from the chaotic withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000 to the Gaza war 14 years later – he puts a rosy filter on the depiction of events and continues on his merry way to his next senior appointment.
These are weighty charges that call for a serious discussion of Gantz’s abilities and his suitability to be prime minister. But a serious discussion is the last thing Likud is after. It’s so much easier to spout rubbish about a weak left and abandoning our soldiers. Not to mention that Netanyahu can also be connected to some of these events, and that he was the one who chose to appoint Gantz as IDF chief of staff in the first place.
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