Analysis |

With Gaza Quiet, Israel’s Next Challenge Could Come From West Bank

Security coordination across the West Bank continues, but incidents like Israel’s arrests of Palestinian security personnel are stoking tensions ■ The electoral value of photo ops with soldiers hasn’t escaped the new defense minister: Netanyahu

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An Israeli tank at the Gaza border, November 16, 2018.
An Israeli tank at the Gaza border, November 16, 2018.Credit: Tsafrir Abayov/AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israeli news broadcasts in recent weeks have spared viewers reports on fires in Gaza border communities. Even before the change in the weather, the launching of incendiary kites and balloons from the Strip ceased. In hindsight, it’s hard to believe that the airborne firebombs, as irksome as they are, almost dragged Israel into an unnecessary war over the summer.

Gaza still isn't totally quiet; the weekly demonstrations continue to take along the border fence. Meanwhile, the severe infrastructure problems remain and there has been no progress in the reconciliation efforts between Hamas and Fatah.

If there is a breakthrough, it will be achieved by more money from the Gulf states, which will convince Hamas to sit quietly and continue discussions on a long-term cease-fire. Without this, the next local incident will ignite another round of violence in which the Netanyahu government finds it hard to restrain itself as during previous rounds.

>> These Israeli troops were deeply scarred by a Gaza war incident, but never told anyone. Until now

The tension with the Palestinian Authority, which with desperate wistfulness is watching Hamas being rewarded by Israel and the international community, erupted this week in Jerusalem.

This is the latest round of a months-long conflict based on PA efforts to deter Palestinian real estate dealers from selling properties to Israelis. Once again the police and the Shin Bet security service arrested the PA governor of Jerusalem, Adnan Ghaith – along with 32 Palestinian security people.

Israel is complaining about a violation of the Oslo Accords, which forbid the PA from letting its security forces operate in Jerusalem. Security coordination in the West Bank continues because it’s worth it for both sides, but the tension is real and could lead to an eruption, particularly at a religious site.

This week Carmel Dangor, a political correspondent for the Kan public broadcaster, revealed a small part of what’s happening in the northern West Bank when she discussed an internal army document crafted by a major in the Civil Administration. It describes the behavior of the people from the settlement of Yitzhar.

In recent years the Central Command has been trying to convince us of a distinction between the settlement’s residents – who it claims are peace-loving for the most part – and the yeshiva students at the site and the so-called hilltop youth who live at nearby outposts.

But the document discussed by Dangor paints a completely different picture: dozens of incidents in which settlers from Yitzhar and the seven outposts surrounding it threw stones at Palestinians, burned tires, invaded private land, chopped down olive trees and killed sheep.

In several cases members of the security services were attacked, with three of them wounded. The major from the Civil Administration reports problems in the settlement and nearby based on the improvement of the settlement’s power grid.

In one instance, settlers also eyed a power line meant for an army outpost. In a second case, the residents didn’t want to let the Israel Electric Corporation bring in its own contractor. The reason, as one could guess: The contractor is an Arab.

The major pinpointed the problem: “On the one hand, trying to find creative solutions for unusual requests, amid the continued undermining of governance and the rule of law by Yitzhar residents.”

These are harsh words; I don’t recommend betting on the courageous officer’s chances of promotion in the coming years.

Bibi borrows from ‘Shrek’

For the time being, Netanyahu’s new side gig as defense minister is turning out to be one long happy photo op. Within two weeks the new defense chief has found time to hold a dramatic press conference at defense headquarters in Tel Aviv and visit an induction center.

At that second event, Bibi tasted the food and gave advice to the recruits who were about to begin basic training in the Armored Corps (the advice was even published in their newspaper, with utmost seriousness). And Netanyahu ended the night with a visit to a commando exercise, lecturing the fighters on the lessons of the Holocaust.

Does the 69-year-old prime minister have nothing better to do than watch an infantry exercise at around midnight? Apparently not, especially when there’s an election campaign coming up. Aesthetes may wrinkle their noses at photos of the leader surrounded by masked fighters, but Netanyahu, like Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon before him, is aware of the electoral value of photos with young soldiers and their solemn commanders.

At least the threat of war has eased somewhat. Bibi’s dramatic speech of November 18 convinced Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party to stay in the government, but it stirred anxiety when Netanyahu told the people the security situation would demand sacrifices. (It was a bit like that line in “Shrek”: Some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.)

Meanwhile, military chief Gadi Eisenkot’s term was extended by two weeks to January 15 to give his successor Aviv Kochavi an easier time settling in. Eisenkot seems to be allowing himself more freedom in his relationship with the media. After that commando exercise, the army released a photo of Eisenkot embracing his son, a combat soldier in the elite Maglan unit.

Perhaps the suspicion is only in the imagination of the beholder, but the publication of the photo, several days after Netanyahu’s sacrifice speech, is likely to be interpreted as another gentle trolling of the prime minister by the chief of staff. There may be new-media fighters sacrificing themselves on the keyboard in the battle against terror groups, but there are still fighters of the old-fashioned variety.

When Netanyahu took over as defense minister, he made two quick decisions. He confirmed Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir as deputy chief of staff and gave a final seal of approval to the privatization of Israel Military Industries.

Meanwhile, there’s increasing evidence that the announcement by previous Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman of Kochavi’s appointment was preceded by a long dispute between Lieberman and Netanyahu.

According to Lieberman, he planned to announce Kochavi’s appointment already around Rosh Hashanah in September, but the announcement was postponed due to the prime minister’s rearguard battle against him.

Netanyahu wanted Zamir, his former military secretary, to be appointed chief of staff, or at least included as deputy chief of staff in the announcement on Kochavi. Lieberman refused both demands – and surprised Netanyahu with a unilateral announcement of Kochavi’s appointment at the end of October when the prime minister was in Oman.

Immediately after Lieberman’s resignation, the quick decision by Netanyahu and Kochavi on Zamir’s appointment reinforces the assumption that this was a dictate by the new defense minister, which the chief of staff-designate agreed to accept.

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