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Did Putin Urge Assad to Fire Missiles at Israel

And is Netanyahu being dragged into another Gaza war?

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces bereaved parents in a Knesset committee meeting on the 2014 Gaza war. Credit: Lior Mizrahi
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want war in the Gaza Strip. He didn’t want a war in the summer of 2014, but was dragged into one, willy-nilly. And he’s apparently not looking for a confrontation with Hamas in the Strip this summer, either. That’s the real headline of the meeting of the Knesset State Control Committee on Wednesday that dealt with the state comptroller’s report on Operation Protective Edge. But that message was all but lost amid the raucous exchange of charges and counter-charges between two Likud MKs and bereaved parents.

The prime minister, who had until then tried to avoid any meaningful discussion of the report, claiming that it necessitated a closed forum, nevertheless made a few interesting remarks. “We tried to avoid a war by every means,” he said in reference to the events of the summer three years ago. However, from “the moment the three teens were abducted, we were on a slippery slope,” and descent into a conflict could not be stopped. He added that during those weeks he conveyed a message to Hamas indirectly about his wish to avert war.

Netanyahu thus confirmed what could have been surmised already then from his behavior: the abduction and murder of three youths in the West Bank’s Etzion Bloc by a Hamas squad from Hebron maneuvered him into a tough corner. The discovery of the bodies on June 30, coupled with an intelligence warning about a Hamas plan to perpetrate a major terror attack by means of a tunnel near the Kerem Shalom crossing on the Gaza-Israel border, generated double pressure. When far-right demonstrators mounted a violent hunt for random Arab passersby on the streets of Jerusalem, and coalition party ministers and MKs issued militant declarations – the premier found himself embroiled in a war that he hadn’t planned and hadn’t prepared for.

Netanyahu evaded addressing the substance of the state comptroller’s comments on his government’s contribution to the escalation in mid-2014. The ideological debate on Wednesday with Meretz leader MK Zehava Galon only served his purpose. It enabled him to declare what seems fairly clear: that there can be no political solution with Hamas – an organization that, even when it is reexamining its charter, is not interested in recognizing Israel or in signing a peace agreement with it. But that is not what the comptroller’s report said. In fact, the political alternative it mentions was already on the agenda on the eve of the operation. It involved easing the siege of Gaza and ensuring the continued payment of the salaries of tens of thousands of Palestinian Authority employees there. But under pressure from then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu rejected this idea (and other ministers – Moshe Ya’alon, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, who are complaining today about the missed opportunities of 2014 – did not do enough to promote that alternative at the time).

Now, with Lieberman as defense minister, Netanyahu is doubling down. Plans for easing the siege of Gaza are barely moving ahead, the artificial island project proposed by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz was not approved, and in the Strip itself another crisis is brewing over payment of salaries and the electricity supply, against the background of power struggles between Hamas and the PA.

At Wednesday’s committee session, the cameras focused, perhaps inevitably, on the pained outcries of the bereaved parents Dr. Lea Goldin and Ilan Sagi. The reports on the evening newscasts barely mentioned the trenchant words uttered by Dr. Orit Chai, whose son, Omer, from the Maglan Special Forces unit, was killed in the collapse of a booby-trapped clinic in Khan Yunis.

“A repeated failure in internalization of criticism and in drawing conclusions is looming,” she told Netanyahu. “This must not be allowed to recur. The [recommendations in the comptroller’s] report must be implemented. This is your moral duty to those who fell, so that we will not find ourselves considering the same conclusions yet again.”

Given the government’s steps in the wake of the report, and its current policy, the bereaved mother’s request is unlikely to be fulfilled. Still, the approach presented by Netanyahu this week is interesting. According to what he said, he (implicitly, and more than others) knows how things can go badly awry in war. His role is to prevent wars as far as possible, and to help navigate Israel through tumultuous surroundings at a minimal price.

The prime minister’s comments about trying to avoid war were reinforced in a meeting held the same day between journalists and someone whom I will describe as a senior officer in the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF is now in the midst of an intensive series of operational exercises, some of them aimed at the country’s southern sector. But the officer in question reiterated the General Staff’s approach: namely, that Israel is not required to launch an offensive just because of advances in the enemy’s capabilities – in this case, Hamas’ offensive tunnels – and that if it does, we could find ourselves in an ongoing war, a “hundred years’ war.”

The senior officer also recalled the judicious line taken by the defense establishment – part of the time with the support of the Netanyahu government itself – in the face of the wave of stabbing and vehicle-ramming attacks that began in October 2015. The insistence on continuing to allow tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank to earn a living in Israel, even at the height of the terror acts, helped to calm the situation. So too has the relative restraint entailed in the rules of engagement for forces on the ground, despite calls by ministers (and opposition politicians such as Yair Lapid) urging soldiers to shoot first and think afterward.

“If I had said that everyone in possession of a knife has to die, we would have had 800 Palestinians killed, and a third intifada,” the officer declared.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis welcomes Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to the Pentagon, March 7, 2017.Credit: Cliff Owen/AP

Playground of superpowers

In the decision-making triangle, along with Netanyahu and the IDF chief of staff, the third side is the defense minister. (The military’s subordination to the politicians is clear, but the army’s role in shaping policy is often more substantial than its official place in the hierarchy, as was demonstrated by the decision not to attack Iran five years ago.) Even in the less-pressured, “long-fuse” stance adopted by Lieberman since entering the Defense Ministry last May, he continues to cling to the position that in the event of another war in Gaza, Israel must act to topple the Hamas government. According to security sources, the disparities between his approach and that of the army, with respect to the Strip, are apparent in every meeting between them. The top brass is trying to persuade Lieberman that the operational plans they have drawn up would allow Hamas to be dealt a severe blow, without creating a situation of anarchy in Gaza.

Lieberman has a very busy schedule. Friday he’s set to meet with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who is making a first visit to the Middle East. Next week, Lieberman will participate in a conference in Moscow, where he will likely meet with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Sergey Shoygu, and with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Despite the recent tension between Washington and Moscow – over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and America’s punitive raid against the Syrian air force – it’s likely that some aspects of the strategic picture that will be presented to Lieberman by the ministers from the two countries will be mutually compatible.

The Middle East is currently undergoing a profound change. Even if the Trump administration’s policy in the region is far from being clear or cohesive, the U.S. is now more active militarily throughout Asia (the attack in Syria, the use of the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, the threat – which in retrospect proved to be baseless – to send an aircraft carrier to the Korean Peninsula). The Pentagon’s level of attentiveness to and engagement with developments in the Mideast have undergone a quantum leap, as attested to by the frequent conversations between American officers and their Israeli counterparts in recent weeks.

Russia is so far showing no signs of backing off in the face of the heightened American interest in the region. The turning point, which ensured the continued survival of the Assad regime, was achieved primarily thanks to Russian military intervention there, beginning in September 2015. Since the surrender of Aleppo last December, the Russians have provided air cover for the regime’s efforts to regain control of other parts of the country. “Syrians are second now. Iranians are first. And the Russians are gods,” as a Syrian businessman told a Guardian correspondent in Damascus this week.

The senior IDF officer noted that the firing of antiaircraft missiles at Israel Air Force planes during an attack in Syria at the end of March (Arab media reports suggest that there were several such cases in recent months) reflects the Assad regime’s increased self-confidence in light of its military successes. But could it have been the Russians who urged the Syrian president to demonstrate greater assertiveness toward Israel? And what did Moscow know about the regime’s intention to use sarin gas in the attack on the town of Khan Sheikhun?

Precisely in the Trump era, the Middle East is again looking like the playground of the two superpowers. Indeed, President Vladimir Putin is insistent on Russia’s superpower status, despite his country’s marked economic weakness, compared to the U.S. In these circumstances, Israel is again a secondary player, one that is being asked not to interfere. The American president remains unpredictable and capricious, and his order of priorities (fighting ISIS in Syria, or Assad? Working toward an Israel-Palestinian peace? Imposing renewed sanctions against Iran?) is also unknown. Just as Netanyahu tread carefully in his dealings with the administration over limiting construction in the settlements, he’ll likely be wary now of taking unilateral steps in the Gaza Strip.

But even under these circumstances, Israel still looks like being two or three mistakes away from war in many of its security spheres. The bottom line of the Military Intelligence assessment for 2017 resembles that of the past few years: There are no signs indicating an offensive initiative by any of the enemy organizations, but there’s a higher probability of a flare-up as a result of a serious tactical event or a series of mutual miscalculations.

A masked Hamas militant at a rally marking Palestinian Prisoners Day in Gaza City, April 17, 2017. Credit: Adel Hana, AP

Seething pressure cooker

Ahead of the visit by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Washington in early May, and against the backdrop of the Americans’ intention to kick-start a peace process, the tension between the PA, Hamas and Israel is mounting for a series of other reasons. The hunger strike by some 1,200 Palestinian inmates in Israeli prisons hasn’t yet gone into high gear. But at the same time, a struggle for control is underway in the Gaza Strip between the PA and Hamas, and it is having a direct effect on residents’ livelihood and on the daily power supply. Hamas also still has an unsettled account with Israel over the assassination last month of a senior figure in the organization’s military wing, Mazen Fuqaha, which it attributes to Israel.

Fuqaha – who was deported to Gaza as part of the prisoner exchange that allowed the return of captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011 – was one of the heads of Hamas’ West Bank headquarters, which funds and issues directives for terrorist attacks in the West Bank. He was shot to death with a pistol by an unknown assailant on a Gaza beach on March 24. Even though Hamas later executed three Palestinians whom it accused of collaborating with Israel, the organization is yet to issue a detailed statement about the assassination. According to Gaza residents, the situation there remains tense, and Hamas security forces are engaged in intense investigations and searches to verify whether Palestinians abetted the assassination.

Meanwhile, Israeli security authorities are less concerned about the possibility of a revenge attack on the Gaza border in the near future. Their view is that Hamas is afraid that any such attack would thrust it into another military confrontation with Israel, which at the moment apparently would not serve its goals. Khalil al-Hayaa, a senior Hamas figure, said this week that the organization is not looking for a war with Israel, as long as Israel is not looking for one either. But Fuqaha’s comrades in Gaza could initiate a major attack on Israel from the West Bank, on the assumption (which could be mistaken) that Israel would prefer to confine its response to the West Bank, thus creating a problem mainly for the PA.

On Wednesday, the Shin Bet security service announced that two Palestinians were arrested at the Erez crossing at Gaza’s northern border, one of them a woman with cancer who, while entering Israel for treatment, attempted to smuggle in explosives in tubes of medicine. Over and above the appalling cynicism of exploiting patients (and this is definitely not the first case of its kind), the incident reflects the kind of effort Hamas is now investing in trying to set terrorist attacks in motion in the West Bank. Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, “Hamas wants to undermine the security situation in Judea and Samaria by means of deadly terrorist attacks.”

At the same time, there’s concern that Hamas will exploit a local religion-based incident to stir up passions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank against Israel and to destabilize the PA government in the West Bank. That was the reason for the unequivocal recommendation to Netanyahu by Israeli security personnel, primarily the Shin Bet, to stop all visits by ministers and MKs to the Temple Mount during Passover.

In the Gaza Strip, the core of the tension is between Hamas and the PA. The latter accuses Hamas of taking advantage of its economic support without allowing it a renewed foothold in administering the Strip. The PA recently slashed salaries of some 65,000 of its employees in Gaza – most of whom have been in forced unemployment for the past decade, while continuing to be paid, since the Hamas takeover of the area – by 30 percent. The PA’s decision was presented as stemming from budgetary problems, in the wake of reduced support from donor states. In practice, though, this seems to be a from-the-gut confrontation, spurred by serious feelings of offense in Ramallah at Hamas’ recent moves.

The Gaza pressure cooker is also seething again because of the PA’s announcement that it will cease underwriting the excise payments on fuel that Israel sells to the Strip, on which the operation of the local power station, and thus the electricity supply, depend. Electricity is now available only six to eight hours a day there, and Hamas is considering a further reduction, to four hours. Hospitals and schools are also affected. At the same time, Egypt has again started to close the Rafah border crossing for lengthy periods, and the temporary easing of restrictions there has been canceled. Even if the reason for this relates to Egypt’s mounting struggle against ISIS – which has perpetrated several serious attacks lately – the results are immediately felt in the Gaza Strip.

Despite the great symbolic importance the Palestinians attach to the problem of prisoners in Israel, for now it’s the daily woes in Gaza that appear to be the focus of attention of the population there. If the hunger strike’s leader, Marwan Barghouti, is able to spur prisoners to embark on a lengthy struggle, the strike might assume greater importance. Such strikes sometimes have far-reaching consequences, extending beyond the prisons. The investigation of the teens’ abduction in 2014 found, for example, that the Hamas murder squad’s decision to perpetrate the attack was made after its members took part in a solidarity rally with striking prisoners. That, in retrospect, is an important link in the chain that led to the deterioration that Netanyahu described this week in the State Control Committee.

The declared Israeli position is that no negotiations will be held with the prisoners. In a Facebook post, Lieberman urged the government to follow the path of Margaret Thatcher. In 1981, at the start of her first term as British prime minister, the Iron Lady forcefully quelled a hunger strike by prisoners of the Irish underground. Ten of the prisoners died, and one of them, Bobby Sands, became a national symbol in Northern Ireland. It’s not clear whether Lieberman seeks a Palestinian reprise of the English drama, or just wants to collect Likes on Facebook. Last week, he told the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that he’s succeeded in cracking the system for issuing posts that attract broad attention.

The defense minister at least has historical knowledge to draw on. The young guard of the National Union, the small and extremist partner of Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, announced on Thursday that its members will set up large barbecues opposite Ofer Prison, “with the aim of breaking the spirit of the hunger strikers and of calling on the government not to yield to the enemy terrorists.”

This is yet another childish provocation that probably doesn’t even merit a mention in the paper, but possibly says something about the spirit of the time.

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