At the start of the week, Israeli political reporters were treated to a lengthy and interesting briefing by that magical entity that seems to be part prime minister and part “senior political source.” Fascinating things were said at the meeting. They were also quite different from the official talking points of the Prime Minister’s Office. The implication was clear: Benjamin Netanyahu will do his utmost to avoid another war in the Gaza Strip.
The prime minister knows he is paying a certain political price for holding off on sending the army into the Strip on an extensive ground operation. But he has correctly identified the humanitarian problem as the most burning issue in the Strip, and is cognizant that the way to solve the critical shortage of functioning infrastructure in Gaza and to try to ease the severe economic crisis there is not by sending in tanks and troops.
Netanyahu is also aware that even if Israel were to ultimately retake the Strip, there is no one to give the keys to. The Palestinian Authority is not up to the task, Egypt isn’t interested and no local alternative to Hamas rule has yet arisen in the coastal enclave. Israel would very likely get stuck managing the day-to-day lives of 2 million hostile Gazans, all in the shadow of the guerilla warfare that Hamas would still wage. Even if the Hamas leadership is defeated and imprisoned, a terror infrastructure would still remain in Gaza that could wear down the army and inflict casualties for months, if not years, to come.
That is why Netanyahu has repeatedly been willing to give an arrangement with Hamas another chance. While Israel officially has nothing to do with these contacts, it closely monitors every development in the talks with Hamas being conducted by Egyptian intelligence and United Nations Middle East Envoy Nickolay Mladenov. In practice, all of the parties involved know that Israel not only supports the Qatari-funded shipments of diesel fuel, which have already increased the number of hours a day that Gazans have electricity available, it would also happily support the arrangement reportedly taking shape whereby Qatar would pay for government workers’ salaries in Gaza. These are two critical demands for Hamas, and Israel’s new flexibility here marks an important turning point. The urgent summoning of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Cairo Wednesday also indicates that the Egyptians are kicking things up a notch, though the hopes for an accord have been dashed many times in the past.
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Contrary to its rhetoric, Israel’s right-wing government is prepared to live for a long time with continued Hamas rule in Gaza. As Yaniv Kubovich reported in Haaretz this week, the government is not aiming to topple Hamas. Another consideration may be in play here. Netanyahu is pleased with the breakthrough he achieved last week with his visit to Oman. Those in his close circle believe more such opportunities in the Gulf states will come up soon. But it will be much harder to visit those places if Al Jazeera is airing nonstop images of Palestinian children killed by Israeli strikes in Gaza.
The defense establishment now admits that notable progress was made in the talks last week. The ploy by Islamic Jihad, which altered its response policy and launched dozens of rockets in response to the deaths of five protesters by Israeli gunfire last Friday, definitely stirred things up. Israeli intelligence says Islamic Jihad challenged Hamas by outflanking it on the right and reimposing a hard line. Israel was compelled to respond to the rocket fire with a series of airstrikes, and the contacts were halted. The talks have since resumed but another obstacle awaits, as it does every week, with the Friday demonstrations at the border fence, where there is always a fear of casualties. Egypt took the unusual step this week of sending a delegation of intelligence officials to try to ensure that the Palestinians use restraint in the protests.
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There is another interesting change in the cabinet’s thinking on Gaza. As is known, disagreement has arisen between Netanyahu and the top brass on one hand, and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has called for “pummeling” Hamas, on the other hand. Education Minister Naftali Bennett has also been talking about the need for harsher measures in the Strip. But perhaps because of the public’s aversion to possible military losses, both supporters of a more extensive operation and those who call it a last resort have made a point of stating that they are talking about an operation waged from a distance, without a real ground incursion.
For years, there has been disagreement within the Israel Defense Forces over the efficacy of airstrikes and precise intelligence alone in halting rockets and mortar shells, the main weapons Hamas would employ (assuming that at least half of its attack tunnels have been discovered and destroyed). Previous Israeli attempts in the north, in 1993, 1996 and 2006, and the three operations in the Gaza Strip between 2008 and 2014, failed to prove that it can be done. Nonetheless, at least as far as public statements go, a new and unusual consensus is taking shape on this.