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The Glass Ceiling Preventing a Hamas-Israel Calm

The issue of soldiers' bodies and civilians held in Gaza, as well as Israeli political considerations, are hampering what both sides seek ■ What could be Trump and Netanyahu’s positive legacy?

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Hamas supporters waving Palestinian flags at the Jabalya refugee camp, Gaza, October 30, 2020.
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Last Saturday night, two rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip, 15 minutes apart, at the Ashdod area and a bit to the north. The Israeli army rejected instant analyses asserting that the rockets were Iranian revenge via Islamic Jihad.

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Instead, for the third time, the army offered an explanation that sounds incredulous to an outside observer. The Israel Defense Forces accepts the Hamas account, as relayed to Egyptian intelligence, that the organization’s rockets were launched accidentally because of a malfunction of the firing mechanisms, which get confused by lightning storms.

The same claim was made during the winter two years ago. The Israeli response this time was limited and appeared to be an attempt to end the event immediately.

Military Intelligence’s assessment remains unchanged: Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, is focusing on improving Gaza’s grim economy and infrastructure. Looming in the background is the coronavirus threat – the virus is once more spreading widely in the Strip. Temporary stability there requires economic relief and Israeli aid to fight the pandemic.

But there’s also a glass ceiling, two factors that are making it difficult to achieve long-term calm: the absence of agreements to enable a deal for the return of Israeli civilians and soldiers’ bodies, and the Israeli government’s concern about looking weak against Hamas.

Still, there were two positive developments this week. On Tuesday, the Palestinian Authority announced the resumption of security and civil coordination with Israel and expressed a willingness to once again accept the tax revenue that Israel collects for it. The announcement was the fruit of long and patient negotiations by Defense Minister Benny Gantz with the Palestinians, via the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon.

The PA, as a gesture to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, is also ready to discuss once again its economic aid to families of Palestinians  jailed in Israel for security offenses. This is an important development that can help calm the situation in the West Bank. And on Wednesday, a delegation headed by Bahrain’s foreign minister arrived in Israel, an encouraging result of the normalization agreement fostered by the Trump administration.

Perhaps, after everything that’s being said about the disastrous impact that Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu are having in their respective countries, this will be the positive legacy of their joint era in the Middle East. The normalization that’s becoming routine in record time is a tectonic shift in the region. It makes public the relations that Israel forged with some Sunni countries and weakens the bargaining power of the Palestinian leadership, which has seen no reason to retreat from its tough demands in the negotiations with Israel.

But for something of this to be converted into constructive diplomatic contacts, it looks like we’ll have to wait for other times and other leaders – on both sides.

Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, who became Southern Command chief, at the ceremony for handing over the leadership of Military Intelligence, March 28, 2018.

Sign of normality

The general who is handling Gaza got some good news at the beginning of the week. Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, the head of Southern Command, will be the next deputy chief of staff.

Some people who congratulated him say he almost sounded surprised. The appointment process was quick and took place under the radar, while other senior appointments – like police commissioner and state prosecutor – remain frozen because of Netanyahu’s battle for political survival.

Halevi is expected to start his new job in the summer, putting himself in a good position before the appointment of the next chief of staff in January 2023. At the moment, his main contender appears to be the current deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir.

Zamir’s name was again recently dragged through the political mud, through no fault of his own. Former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a television interview that Netanyahu shouted at him in October 2018 when he tapped Aviv Kochavi for chief of staff because, according to Lieberman, the Netanyahus wanted Zamir, the prime minister’s former military secretary.

Zamir doesn’t use connections to get ahead. The meddling supposedly done in his favor hurts him unjustifiably.

Gantz’s decision to appoint him deputy chief of staff, at Kochavi’s recommendation, reflects a wish to prepare competition for Kochavi’s successor in two years between Halevi and Zamir. (And there could be a surprise third candidate, like air force chief Amikam Norkin.) In the meantime, Netanyahu hasn’t been able to dictate the appointments process in the IDF as he has done elsewhere.

In the year ahead, amid the strife in the government and with the possibility of another general election, decisions will have to be made about new chiefs for the Mossad and Shin Bet security service, as both incumbents will conclude their terms in the spring. Also on the agenda are several senior appointments in the IDF, including to lead Military Intelligence and the Southern Command. As candidates for the former post, the names of major generals Aharon Haliva and Lior Carmeli have been mentioned, as well as Brig. Gen. Eliezer Toledano, another former military secretary to Netanyahu.

In contrast to the many negative developments in Israeli society, the fact that the names of these senior generals are barely familiar to the public is a sign of normality.

On the other hand, we have to admit that the current General Staff, formed by Kochavi and before him Gadi Eisenkot toward the end of his term, looks pretty bland and suffers a shortage of independent voices. Too many talented and opinionated generals – Nitzan Alon, Roni Numa, Amir Abulafia, Mickey Edelstein, Nadav Padan – have doffed their uniform in the past two years without fully exhausting their range of possibilities in the IDF.

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