Diplomacy: Shifting sands
While no clear winner emerged from Operation Pillar of Defense, the ground shifted in a number of areas.
Clinton and Egypt's President Morsi Photo: REUTERS
The US rang the bell, Egypt separated the fighters and the boxers staggered to
their respective corners Wednesday night following the latest round of fighting
– each, with a degree of justification, claiming to have won the
Hamas can claim victory because it is still standing and because
both the bell-ringer and the referee are taking it seriously; Israel can say it
won because it bloodied Hamas’s nose and – at least temporarily – probably took
away its appetite to hurry up and fight another round.
There was no
knockout in this round, something that will frustrate those who believe it
somehow possible to knock Hamas out with one blow. But the way Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu fought shows that he believes this is a bout with many
rounds, and it is not tactically wise to leave oneself exposed in one round
because an unforeseen punch landed now may have a cumulative effect later, when
other fights – such as with Iran – need to be fought.
Netanyahu is not
Ehud Olmert, who – because of his temperament – has been described as the
quintessential Israeli prime minister. In 2006, following the kidnapping of
Gilad Schalit near the Gaza border and then the kidnappings of Eldad Regev and
Ehud Goldwasser in the North, he launched the war in Lebanon. Olmert led with
his gut, with his heart.
Netanyahu, despite his image abroad as a
trigger-happy hawk, is much more cautious in the use of force. When he spoke to
the Knesset in October and announced new elections, he reminded the country that
in the seven-and-a-half years he has served as prime minister, there has not
been one war.
There were, however, two major military campaigns under
Olmert’s three-year watch. But neither the Second Lebanon War nor Operation Cast
Lead solved the problem. Hezbollah was left still standing in the North, though
much deterred, as was Hamas in the South.
Israel’s international standing
in both those campaigns, however, took a massive blow. Netanyahu seemed
determined this time to ensure that wouldn’t happen.
night to a nation relieved at a return to routine but frustrated that the enemy
was not vanquished, Netanyahu said, “Since its establishment, the State of
Israel has faced complex challenges in the Middle East, and in recent years we
have all seen how that complexity has increased a great deal. Under these
conditions we need to steer the ship of state responsibly with wisdom and must
take into account numerous considerations, both military and diplomatic ones.
That is how a responsible government acts, and that is how we acted this time as
well. We employed military might along with diplomatic judgment.”
diplomatic considerations included not wanting to alienate either the US or
Europe with a wider military operation when both the US and Europe will be
needed to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Those diplomatic considerations
also include not eroding US or European support at a time when they will both
also be needed to fend off Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s bid –
perhaps next week – to get the status of a non-member observer state at the
Like all major blow-ups, things have a tendency to look different the
morning after. Indeed, the ground today looks a bit different than it did before
Israel killed Ahmed Jabari and launched Operation Pillar of Defense.
thing to notice is that despite all the tumult that has shaken the region as a
result of the Arab revolutions, when Israel and the Palestinians go to blows,
all else is forgotten.
More than 800 Arabs were killed during the eight
days of fighting from November 14 to November 21, but the world took little
notice. The reason: they were killed in Syria, not in Gaza. What this fact does
is disabuse us of the notion that because of all the problems around us, the
world will not obsess about the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. It will. This
issue, despite Syria imploding and huge question marks over the future of
various countries in the region, is still seen widely as the lynchpin to Middle
What that means is that assumptions that US President
Barack Obama might be too preoccupied with dousing fires in Syria and dealing
with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to reassert himself fully into the Middle
East “peace” process are probably wrong.
There are already calls for him
to use Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s success in brokering the ceasefire
to take a more active role once again in pushing for a Middle East peace
process, and there are once against calls for a “comprehensive peace
The unwavering support, as Netanyahu himself called it, that
Obama gave Israel during the crisis is also worthy of taking note, especially in
light of the concern voiced by many that a second-term Obama, freed of having to
worry about Jewish voters and donors, can “take off the gloves” in dealing
Obama did nothing of the kind.
On the contrary, he
unequivocally stood behind Israel and its right to defend itself. This could be
that moment when the reset button is pushed in the stormy relationship between
the president and the prime minister.
Netanyahu asked for – and received
– rock-solid backing from the US. The president asked for – and received – the
prime minister’s agreement to a cease-fire. That is a good place to start in
rebuilding confidence and trust.
The US also was interested, according to
diplomatic sources, in Turkey playing a role in solving the crisis.
Interestingly enough, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was less keen on the
idea, and the Turks were effectively sidelined.
Morsi came out clearly as
one of the conflagration’s big winners.
Just prior to a scheduled trip to
the US in December during which he will ask for billions of dollars from
Washington and the International Monetary Fund, he proved his worth as a
moderating and stabilizing influence. By reining in Hamas, he burnished the
credentials he wants to present to the West as a pragmatic and moderate
And this came, to a certain degree, at Turkey’s expense. Turkey
wanted to be a central player in the crisis, and – even though it is not an Arab
country – its foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu took part in the Arab League
meeting in Cairo dealing with the situation.
He also went to Gaza on
But Ankara’s ability to impact on events was hindered enormously
by its sour relations with Israel.
It takes two to tango, one diplomatic
course said this week, adding that Turkey now probably realizes that if you want
to be a mediator in the Middle East, with all the status that brings, you can’t
do so if you don’t have a workable relationship with Israel. Egypt, even with
Morsi as president, has that type of relationship.
Another big loser was Abbas, whose inability to impact on the events
just underscored his irrelevance.
And as he loses relevance, Hamas gains
it. One of Hamas’s successes in the conflict was to make itself seen in the Arab
world – and increasingly beyond the Arab world – as a legitimate player that
must be dealt with.
Abbas, interestingly enough, did not even try to go
to Gaza during the crisis – he has absolutely no leverage there – nor was he in
Cairo where the ease-fire agreement was being brokered.
may, on the one hand, push him to try to go to the UN next week and further his
statehood bid, hoping that by this move he will regain some lost
However, the US – and increasingly and publicly Europe as well –
is urging him not to, saying that such a move will not have any real
significance, will only infuriate Israel, make a restarting of negotiations even
more difficult to bring about and destabilize matters further at a very
No less a personage than British Foreign Secretary
William Hague said as much Tuesday during a statement to the House of
“While there is any chance of achieving a return to talks in the
coming months, we continue to advise President Abbas against attempts to win
Palestinian observer state status at the United Nations through a vote in the UN
General Assembly. We judge that this would make it harder to secure a return to
negotiations, and could have very serious consequences for the Palestinian
authority,” he said.
Hague argued that while Britain supported
Palestinian aspirations and “understand the pressures” he is under, “we urge him
to lead the Palestinians into negotiations and not to risk paralyzing the
Although the EU has not yet formally decided how to vote, a
collective EU abstention on this matter in the UN would be a further blow to the
PA’s prestige and may be something Abbas will want to avoid.
Operation Pillar of Defense’s impact on the Israeli political scene, one thing
that it has made clear is that diplomatic/security issues – rather than social
and economic ones – will be the deciding factor in these elections, as they have
been in every previous one.
Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich’s efforts to
turn these elections into a discussion of social equality and the high cost of
living have just been made much more difficult by the fighting. In addition, her
lack of security credentials, and the lack of a marquee general on her list,
will hurt. The same is true of Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party.
head Shaul Mofaz attacked Netanyahu from the right on Wednesday night, saying
that he hadn’t completed the job in Gaza. But it is extremely difficult to
imagine that Likud voters, perhaps unhappy that Netanyahu did not “finish off
Hamas,” will now vote for Kadima instead.
It is equally difficult to
imagine that Tzipi Livni, if she decides to form a party of her own, will siphon
off these Likud voters either. Operation Cast Lead, conducted under Olmert and
her watch, did not exactly bring about the demise of Hamas, nor did the Second
Lebanon War deliver a knockout blow to Hezbollah.
The truth of the matter
is that by cooping Avigdor Liberman’s party into Likud, Netanyahu has presented
a problem for secular right-wing voters: they have nowhere else to go. Naftali
Bennett and the rejuvenated Habayit Hayehudi will set itself up as an
alternative, but there is a limit to how many secular voters will vote for a
Netanyahu, therefore, probably did not do himself a huge
amount of political damage by agreeing to a cease-fire, even though polls show
that a majority of Israelis were opposed to it. Those opposed are unlikely, as a
result, to vote for Livni, Lapid, Mofaz, Bennett or Yacimovich.
thing worth noticing was the harmony apparent at the press statement Wednesday
night when Netanyahu, Barak and Liberman all addressed the nation.
the situation during the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead, this
operation was carried out with relative harmony at the top. There might have
been disagreements about whether to accept the terms of the cease-fire within
the senior forum of nine ministers, but the types of disagreements between
Olmert and Livni and Olmert and Barak that characterized the country’s two
previous large military campaigns did not repeat themselves.
might have political significance.
Barak’s political future is obviously
in question, as his Independence Party may not pass the voter threshold needed
to get into the next Knesset. Yet, if tabbed by Netanyahu, he could still serve
another term as defense minister even if he is not a Knesset member.
way in which Liberman embraced Barak Wednesday night, and Barak’s warm words for
Liberman’s diplomatic work, may indicate that another Barak term as defense
minister is something Liberman does not oppose.
And despite Liberman and
Barak’s significant political differences, there is a political logic to this.
If, as most believe, Liberman hopes to eventually lead the Likud, it is in his
interest to keep potential challengers at bay. One such challenger, perhaps the
most significant, is Moshe Ya’alon. If Barak remains defense minister, then
Ya’alon is kept away from that position – a post which is traditionally a great
place from which to launch a bid to become prime minister.
that the rockets and bombs from and into Gaza have ceased, and the smoke of the
battle has cleared, it is possible to see how – in various areas – the ground