The latest round in Israel’s ongoing military battle is seemingly over. Now the diplomatic war begins.
And this is a war that will be grueling, extend for a longer period than just four weeks, and be fought on various fronts.
Israel has, historically, done far better on the battlefield than in the diplomatic arena that follows its wars. This was true in 1949, when Israel won the War of Independence but could not convert that into any form of acceptance in the region.
It was true in 1967, when the resounding, lightning victory in the Six Day War was met by the Arab world’s famous “three no’s” at Khartoum.
And it was true after the previous two operations against Hamas in Gaza, when Israel both times delivered a resounding punch, but was unable to create a situation whereby Hamas would be unable to rebuild and come back to fight another day.
When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu launched Operation Protective Edge some four weeks ago, he set forth two goals: restoring long-term security and quiet to Israel’s citizens, and significantly degrading Hamas’s fighting capabilities.
As the campaign rolled on, two additional goals were added: destroying the terrorist tunnels, and demilitarizing Gaza.
Now, as the cease-fire kicks in and there is a certain sense that this particular round may indeed be behind us, two of those goals have been met. Hamas, for all its bluster and bravado, has undoubtedly taken a beating, and its military capabilities have been significantly degraded.
And, secondly, the lion’s share of the attack tunnels into Israel has been destroyed.
As far as securing long-term quiet, it will take time to determine whether the massive firepower Israel used against Hamas will deter it from firing rockets on Israel, just as it deterred Hezbollah in the eight years since the Second Lebanon War. The verdict on achieving that goal is still out.
And the final goal, demilitarizing Gaza, is a work that is just beginning, and is one of the key diplomatic fronts Netanyahu will now be fighting on.
Terrorist organizations, by their nature, do not “demilitarize.”
Their raison d’etre is to militarize, to accumulate arms and weapons to kill and terrorize.
That is what they do. Hamas will not decommission its arms voluntarily.
Which means that achieving that goal rests on creating an international mechanism to ensure that Hamas does not use international funds and goods – yet again – to build more rockets and tunnels.
Building that mechanism will necessitate a great deal of diplomatic effort. Israel will obviously want to see the US, the European Union, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia involved, but this will not come without a price.
Netanyahu’s formula that the extent of Gaza’s rehabilitation must be linked to the scope of demilitarization may very well be met by a counter formula: The depth of international cooperation will be linked to a revival of the moribund diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
And therein lies the rub.
One interesting diplomatic aspect of the Gaza crisis was the degree to which key governments around the world ”got it,” and actually understood what Israel was doing, and why.
It is necessary to differentiate between how much of the world’s media – which focused on civilian casualties in Gaza and the body count – viewed the conflict, and how certain key governments perceived it.
No one was surprised that Brazil recalled its ambassador. That was to be expected from a country now playing to the nonaligned countries in order to try to earn a seat on the UN Security Council.
What came as more of a surprise was the degree to which Berlin, London and – though to a lesser degree – Paris were not thrown completely off kilter by the televised images, and continued to reaffirm Israel’s right to defend itself. And in so doing, some of these leaders were walking out of step with their publics.
The leaders generally understood the stakes – that Israel was fighting a radical Islamic organization similar to Iran, Hezbollah, Islamic State and al-Qaida. Their publics, many of them including not unsubstantial Muslim publics, only saw the pictures.
And now those leaders will ask for payback from Israel for giving it the diplomatic space to wage the campaign, and the currency in which they will want to see payment will be “progress in the Mideast peace process.”
“You want our help demilitarizing Gaza, be more forthcoming toward Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank” will be the likely refrain. And this refrain will also be heard from Washington, where the Gaza crisis further strained the already less than ideal Obama-Netanyahu relationship.
But Netanyahu will not be overly eager to pay in this currency.
The gaps between Israel and the PA that emerged during the recently failed US-brokered talks remain, and – if anything – have only deepened.
Both the near-closing of Ben-Gurion Airport due to rocket fire from Gaza, as well as the tunnels that were burrowed into Israel (if that can be done from Gaza, then it will be argued it can also easily be done from a West Bank void of IDF troops), will stiffen Netanyahu’s security requirements – security requirements that the Palestinians were unwilling to accept even beforehand.
The US and Europe will want to see Netanyahu initiate a diplomatic process, but his political space will be limited as those on his right – Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett – are unlikely to give him any room for flexibility.
Furthermore, the country – which just underwent the trauma of daily funerals for soldiers and constantly running to the bomb shelters – will be in no mood to make concessions to the Palestinian Authority, especially amid an uptick in Palestinian terrorism from Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Netanyahu will be walking a difficult tightrope: wanting to give something to the international community to enlist its support in demilitarizing Gaza, but not willing or able to repay the international community in the currency it wants.