After Gaza, what next?

Israel’s policy is affected by developments in a rapidly changing Middle East

By LESLIE SUSSER
November 27, 2012 14:20
the three men 521

the three men 521. (photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)

 
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Although the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas ended without a clear victor, it could reshape a string of key Middle Eastern relationships and keep Gaza quiet for longer than most Israelis expect.

The knock-on effect could facilitate American efforts to create a strong US-Sunni axis against Shi’ite Iran and its proxies; cement new rules of engagement between Egypt and Hamas; redefine ties between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank; and encourage a new American initiative to rekindle the dormant Israeli Palestinian negotiating process.

The cease-fire understandings came after eight days of intensive cross-border fighting, during which Gaza militants fired more than 1,500 rockets and missiles at Israeli civilians mainly in the south, and the Israel Air Force conducted some 1,500 bombing raids over Gaza.

The aerial exchanges ended on November 21 with both sides still very much on their feet.

But from a purely military point of view, the IDF clearly had the upper hand. Of the 1,506 rockets fired from Gaza, 420 were shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome system; only 58, less than four percent, landed in built-up areas. By contrast, the IDF destroyed over 1,600 targets, including virtually the entire Hamas store of long-range missiles, several arms factories, dozens of weapons’ depots and underground rocket launching pads, around 200 smuggling tunnels, government buildings and the Islamic National Bank.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak made a telling comparison: During the operation Israel dubbed “Pillar of Defense,” only one ton of Palestinian explosives landed on target compared to one thousand tons dropped by the IAF.

In addition to pinpointing valued military targets, high-grade intelligence also enabled Israel to target the Hamas and Islamic Jihad military leaderships. At least six top commanders, including Ahmed Jabari, the vaunted Hamas military supremo, were assassinated from the air. One hundred and fifty-two Palestinians, including 88 militants, were killed in the fighting and around 1,400 wounded. On the Israeli side the figures were six dead and 113 wounded.

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In hardheaded rational calculus, Hamas had lost around half its military assets in eight days and its massive rocket effort had caused negligible damage. The success of Iron Dome, an astounding 84 percent, not only saved life and property; in blunting the Palestinian rocket threat, it added significantly to the deterrent effect of the Israeli operation.

But the Palestinians were able to go on firing till the bitter end and more than once send Israelis scurrying to bomb shelters in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Moreover, Israel had called up 70,000 reservists, but failed to launch a ground operation. Hamas, despite being clearly outgunned, was able to exploit these images to galvanize euphoric victory celebrations in Gaza. It also made political gains – enhanced regional status, eased border crossing restrictions and extended fishing and farming rights.

Still, the fighting left scarred psyches on both sides. The big imponderable is whether this translates into a deterrent balance. Do Hamas leaders really believe their victory rhetoric or will the rational profit and loss calculus have a sobering effect? Will their political gains give them an appetite for new hostilities to achieve more, or, on the contrary, induce them to exercise caution not to lose what they have? Initial indications were encouraging. A leading Hamas cleric issued a fatwa, a binding religious edict, to the effect that all Gazans are obligated by Islam to observe the cease-fire and that breaching it would be a sin against the Koran. Unlike previous cease-fires, Hamas was quick to rein in small rogue militias active along the border. It also released longtime Fatah detainees in a goodwill gesture aimed at reconciliation with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

On the Israeli side, government and opposition leaders mulled three options for consolidating the cease-fire if it lasts, or restoring it, if it proves ephemeral:

• Sweeping regional arrangements, including a long-term hudna or cease-fire with Hamas, coupled with a genuine peace process with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – For now, both sides of this equation seem remote.

• Launching a ground invasion of Gaza and overthrowing the Hamas government – But how long would the army have to stay in Gaza, and what exit strategy could there be?

• Enhancing the deterrent balance – Employing sharp periodic military blows to smash terrorist infrastructure and create long lulls, repeating the dose each time the deterrent effect wears off, and using the interim quiet to hone the IDF’s defensive and offensive capabilities in preparation for a more decisive blow next time. This is the current government’s preferred modus operandi.

Government policy, though, could be influenced by developments in a rapidly changing Middle East. In brokering the cease-fire, President Mohammed Morsi’s Sunni-Islamist Egypt emerged as a key Middle Eastern player, with influence in Gaza and Jerusalem, and a productive working relationship with the US.

More than ever regional politics are governed by the Sunni-Shi’ite divide. One key litmus test is Syria, where Sunni-ruled countries, like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and the Gulf States back the rebels, while Shi’ite-dominated Iran and Iraq and Hezbollah support President Bashar Assad.

The Sunni-Shi’ite power struggle is playing out in Gaza too. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood- dominated administration provides the Sunni-fundamentalist Hamas government in Gaza with solid political support Iran never could, and oil-rich Qatar has moved in to replace Iranian economic aid. True, Iran retains influence through Islamic Jihad and as a potential weapons supplier to Hamas. Hamas will aim to get it all: Iranian-supplied rockets and a protective Egyptian umbrella against Israel, coupled with Gulf money and connection to the Sunni world.

The last thing Hamas wants though is Islamic Jihad getting enough Iranian weaponry to challenge its hegemony in Gaza. It wants a strong Palestinian resistance, but only inasmuch as it calls the shots. Under the cease-fire deal, Hamas must prevent all militias, including Islamic Jihad, from initiating rogue actions against Israel. It will not want to allow Islamic Jihad to drag it into premature conflict with Israel; it will also want to retain its military edge in the event of a future showdown with the increasingly powerful Iranian-backed group.

The key to much of what happens in Gaza lies in Cairo. Will Morsi want to see a pinpricking Gaza hurting Israel or a peaceful Gaza promoting regional stability? So far his Gaza policy has been driven by two vital Egyptian interests: Not allowing Hamas to embroil Egypt in self-defeating conflict with Israel and the need to preserve ties with the US, the main source of much needed foreign aid.

The day before the cease-fire, Egypt signed papers for a crucial $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan it would not have received without America’s say-so. Indeed, the cease-fire was achieved through Washington using its economic clout to lean on Cairo, Egypt leaning on Hamas and Hamas leaning on the other Gaza militias. Its architects hope the same dependencies that helped attain the cease-fire will help preserve it.

For Israel, the problem with a relatively long period of quiet is that it could also serve a new Hamas arms build-up. A key test of Egypt’s commitment to the new cease-fire regime will be what it does about stopping arms smuggling into Gaza. As part of the unwritten cease-fire understandings, Morsi promised US President Barack Obama to take stronger action against the main smuggling route – from Iran and Libya through Sudan into Egypt across the Suez Canal into Sinai and through the smuggling tunnels into Gaza.

Israeli intelligence sources say that Egypt, in a positive signal to Washington, is now more serious about this than at any time in the past.

Egypt’s emergence from the cease-fire negotiations with enhanced regional prestige suits Washington’s Middle East policy to a tee. The alliance Obama is building with the Sunnis gives America added regional influence and a launching pad for action against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. So while the American president played a key role in the ceasefire negotiations, he was happy to let Egypt take the lead.

At the same time, he was unwavering in his backing for Israel’s right to self-defense. Anything less would have suggested to the Muslim world as whole that Israel was fair game.

Obama underlined his steadfast support for Israel with a pledge of further funding for Iron Dome.

The US, however, was adamantly opposed to an Israeli ground operation. Arriving in Jerusalem a day before the cease-fire was achieved, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeated the American message that a ground incursion would likely lead Egypt, Jordan and Turkey to sever diplomatic relations with Israel, spark region-wide demonstrations against Israel and the US and cause immeasurable damage to America’s policy of courting the Sunni world, with all that that implied for its ability to deal with the greater threat to Israel – Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons.

Clinton also urged Israel to make two other contributions to US regional policy: Not to try to punish PA President Abbas for seeking nonmember status in the UN in late November, but rather to join American efforts to rekindle the dormant peace process early next year and to repair its damaged ties with Turkey. Both moves would help cement US ties with the Sunni world, and, in the American view, serve Israel’s best interests.

For Israel, keeping the peace by moving closer to the Sunni countries with which it has diplomatic ties, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, makes a lot of sense. In parallel with the cease-fire hammered out in Cairo helping to thaw ties with Morsi’s Egypt, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a quiet move towards Turkey. In late November, Joseph Ciechanover, the prime minister’s special envoy, met a senior Turkish official in Geneva to discuss a possible form of apology by Israel for Turkish loss of life in the “Mavi Marmara” affair two and a half years ago.

Beyond possible rapprochement with Turkey, Israel could take much bolder regional steps. It could exploit the Gaza fallout to launch an initiative based on the 2002 Arab peace plan, and invite the Arab world to peace talks that would include long-term settlements with the Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza. It could also respond affirmatively to any American initiative for serious negotiations with Abbas. Given the current Israeli government’s predisposition and popular anti- Israel sentiment on the other side, such sweeping initiatives are unlikely. But, as the volatile region recalibrates after the Gaza shock waves, they cannot be discounted at some future date, in an altered political constellation.

If diplomacy fails and the cease-fire collapses, Israel would be back to square one.

As with Pillar of Defense, it would have to choose between a limited operation aimed at destroying terrorist motivation (in other words restoring the peace and deterring Hamas from further attacks for a period of time) and a full-scale ground invasion aimed at destroying most or all of Hamas’s military capability. In the latter case, the ground operation could be limited to destroying Hamas’s military infrastructure and then holding the strategic Philadelphi Corridor to prevent new arms smuggling into Gaza from Egypt or it could entail toppling the Hamas regime and reoccupying all of Gaza, as some on the Israeli right, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, propose.

International conditions, however, don’t favor any form of ground operation. During the current round of fighting, the US warned it would be a strategic blunder and Egypt indicated it would be forced to sever ties with Israel. There is no reason to believe any of this will change. Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt has created a new dynamic in the Israel-Hamas-Egypt triangle. Morsi’s ideological closeness to Hamas cuts both ways – it enables him to limit both Hamas rocket fire and the scope of Israel’s response.

Egypt aside, if Israel reoccupied Gaza or the Philadelphi corridor, its international standing would plummet. There would be attrition against the occupying forces and a very difficult exit strategy, with no one to hand over to. Israel could find itself sucked into a strength-sapping Lebanon-like morass.

All of which suggests that Israel’s only realistic military option if the cease-fire breaks down would be more of the same: sharp but limited military action to restore a minimalist cease-fire regime. It also underlines fact that in this last round the government had little choice. It massed reserves to pressure Hamas, but could not have used them without paying a very heavy diplomatic price.

Still, there was a widespread sense of frustration among Israelis at the inconclusive end to the fighting. Many felt that the IDF had put Israel in a position of overwhelming military superiority, but failed to finish the job. People, especially in the south, which has borne the brunt of Gaza rocketing for years, insisted that ground forces should have been sent in to smash Hamas and put an end “once and for all” to the rocket threat. Both Netanyahu and Liberman were ridiculed for not doing what they had advocated in opposition – putting an end to the rocket threat by moving into Gaza and toppling Hamas.

With elections scheduled for January 22, this could have an impact at the polls. Initial signs were that the joint Netanyahu-Liberman Likud-Beiteinu list would lose a few seats to the far right and religious parties, especially Naftali Bennet’s dynamic new Bayit Yehudi. But although there could be marginal shifts within Netanyahu’s rightwing religious bloc, the bottom line is that Pillar of Defense will not change the balance of power between the right and the opposition center-left.

Polls taken in its wake showed the right maintaining a clear majority of around 65-66 seats in the next Knesset, which would make Netanyahu a shoo-in for reelection as prime minister.

Like the 2006 Lebanon War, Pillar of Defense ended after a devastating air force operation, inconclusive results on the ground and widespread public sentiment that more could have been done. But in the Lebanon case the truce has held for more than six years. Pillar of Defense will be judged by how many weeks, months or years the border with Gaza stays quiet.

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