As Violence Continues, Tensions Between IDF and Politicians Will Grow

As the current wave of violence enters its sixth month, there are more signs of disputes between top security officials and the government.

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Scene of the shooting attack outside West Bank settlement of Beit El, January 31, 2016.
Scene of the shooting attack outside West Bank settlement of Beit El, January 31, 2016.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel is deeply embroiled in conflict in the West Bank, but the defense establishment, apparently on orders from above, is still refusing to call it by its proper name – a third intifada. This coming Monday will mark five months since the current violence began and, despite its limited intensity, it’s still hard to term this a mere upsurge in terror.

Life in Israel certainly hasn’t ground to a halt because of the stabbing and car-ramming attacks (with a few shootings thrown in). But it’s impossible to ignore the impact of these almost daily attacks on Israelis’ feelings of personal security, especially in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Their cumulative effect is to wear Israelis down, as is evident in the political and media discourse. One possible outcome — of which the first signs have already emerged — is the creation of tension between the government and the Israel Defense Forces top brass.

Last week, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot finished his first year on the job. Even more than his predecessors, he has made his mark in every corner of the army. The structural changes he has instituted; the multiyear plan he formulated — which, unusually, was backed by a long-term agreement with the Finance Ministry over the size of the defense budget; his publication of the IDF’s strategic doctrine; and his stubborn insistence on reexamining many of the axioms by which the IDF has operated for years (from closing military high schools to removing the Jewish consciousness division from the army rabbinate’s jurisdiction) have all resulted in a year of shake-ups.

The fact that Eisenkot is implementing these reforms without creating an organizational culture of either fear or sycophancy is also impressive. So far, the chief of staff has won the admiration of everyone from junior officers in the field to the General Staff (although it must be acknowledged that the IDF has yet to confront any significant military challenge under his leadership). He has even won praise from a group that usually doles it out sparingly: retired generals.

The violence in the territories currently constitutes the principal threat to this unusually happy situation. Neither the politicians nor the professionals of the IDF and Shin Bet security service have yet come up with any effective answer to this new type of Palestinian terror. This is frustrating, especially for a ruling party that won the election last year on a promise to protect Israel’s security.

Eisenkot’s insistence on talking about the situation directly, soberly and sometimes even bluntly has put him on a possible collision course with the politicians. The first signs of this emerged in recent weeks in the form of his public dispute with several ministers over the army’s rules of engagement (in which he was immediately backed by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and later by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), as well as in U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement to Congress that Eisenkot saw advantages to the nuclear deal with Iran and in the army’s support for building a seaport in Gaza, which several key ministers oppose.

But the greatest threat to peace between the government and army brass is the loaded phrase “a diplomatic horizon.” Channel 10 television apparently went a step too far this week when it claimed that Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi had told the diplomatic-security cabinet that a diplomatic process with the Palestinians was needed to halt the violence; the MI chief is too cautious to say anything so explicit to the ministers.

Instead, he stressed the importance of security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, advocated letting more Palestinians work in Israel and warned that the miserable conditions in Gaza constituted a ticking bomb. In doing so, he expressed the joint view of all the defense agencies involved in this issue, including the Shin Bet and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.

But the fact that he didn’t say so explicitly doesn’t alter the fact that all those agencies share the assessment that neither Israel nor the PA is capable of stopping the lone-wolf attacks. Resuming diplomatic negotiations wouldn’t guarantee an improvement, but it could at least offer a chance of halting the deterioration.

Nonetheless, the coalition’s ruling parties don’t want to hear it. The higher the number of casualties climbs — Maj. (res.) Eliav Gelman, who was killed at the Gush Etzion junction on Wednesday by friendly fire from soldiers trying to stop a stabbing, was the 33rd Israeli killed in the last five months — the greater the politicians’ desire becomes to smash the mirror that shows them the reality.

The principal barrier to such an onslaught is the exceptional harmony between Ya’alon and Eisenkot. In addition, the latter seems too experienced to tell the ministers explicitly that there’s no military solution to the problem the trap into which then-Chief of Staff Dan Shomron fell when the first intifada erupted in 1987.

Even so, the longer the violence lasts and the more victims it claims, the greater the tension between Eisenkot and the politicians is likely to become.

Port in a storm

Hamas responded with a threatening statement to Wednesday’s Haaretz report that Israeli politicians and defense officials had resumed discussions on building a seaport in the Gaza Strip. Mushir al-Masri, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, said that absent an agreement on building the port, “there’ll be an explosion.”

The organization is currently trying to leverage Gaza’s worsening humanitarian situation to gain something it could present to Gazans as an achievement that retroactively justifies its unnecessary war with Israel in the summer of 2014. But even if Israel and Hamas were to agree on it via indirect talks, both know it will be hard to advance the port project without Egypt’s consent. And at the moment, it seems Cairo would rather let Gaza wallow in its misery as long as it continues to be controlled by an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that maintains close military ties with Wilayat Sinai (the Islamic State’s affiliate in Sinai).

Nevertheless, Gaza desperately needs economic rehabilitation, as MI chief Halevi told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee this week. Prof. Eran Yashiv, of Tel Aviv University’s economics department, summed up the problem well in an article published more than a year ago.

If Gaza residents had something to lose, Yashiv wrote, their willingness to engage in another military conflict with Israel would be greatly reduced. A significant economic improvement might even cause Hamas’ power to decline over the long run, he said. But the improvement must be major. Easing the blockade and opening the border crossings a bit more won’t do the trick.

Yashiv didn’t resort to outdated ideas like making Gaza “the Singapore of the Middle East.” But he did identify opportunities for economic development in the fields of tourism, services, industry (including high-tech) and gas production. In the short- and medium-terms, he wrote, a lot of money could be invested in employing workers to build infrastructure and develop public services.

Beyond rebuilding from the ruins of the last war — a process that’s still proceeding very slowly — Yashiv advocated a comprehensive multiyear plan he said could significantly improve Gaza’s situation within three years. He estimated the cost at about $5 billion — roughly equivalent to the sum promised (but not delivered) by donor nations after the 2014 war. This would necessitate contributions from the West, Arab states and international organizations.

Yashiv doesn’t consider this mission impossible. The steps taken in the West Bank by the PA’s then-Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in 2007-2013 provide a road map to follow, he argued.

Over the past few weeks, Israel has made major efforts to put out a fire ignited by National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz’s slip of the tongue: Steinitz said Egypt was flooding the smuggling tunnels from Sinai into Gaza at Israel’s request. The Egyptian government didn’t appreciate the implication that its actions in Gaza were dictated by Israeli interests rather than its own.

Meanwhile, Hamas has sent several indirect messages to Israel asserting that despite its energetic efforts to dig new attack tunnels, it isn’t planning a preemptive cross-border strike on Israel. Jerusalem takes these messages with the requisite large grain of salt.

Chief of Staff Eisenkot said earlier this month that the army currently has about 100 engineering vehicles employed in hunting for tunnels along the Gaza border. The question is what will happen if it actually finds such tunnels. Will Hamas sit quietly and let the IDF destroy what it considers a strategic weapon? Or will it hasten to use its tunnels before they are all discovered and destroyed?

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