Diplomacy: Gaza operation has surprises, but Israel-US tension not among them

The non-battleground headlines this week were dominated by strain in US-Israel ties. That strain was as expected as so much else in the campaign; the true surprises came elsewhere.

John Kerry arrives in Israel, July 23 (photo credit: MATTY STERN, US EMBASSY TEL AVIV)
John Kerry arrives in Israel, July 23
Just over a week after Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield in March 2002, moving IDF forces back into West Bank cities to neutralize the terrorist infrastructure at the height of the second intifada, US president George W. Bush held a press conference in Crawford, Texas, with visiting British prime minister Tony Blair.
The Mideast, of course, dominated the discussion.
Israel, Bush declared as Blair concurred, “should halt incursions in the Palestinian-controlled areas and begin to withdraw without delay from those cities it has recently occupied.” To make sure everyone understood, Bush reiterated in an answer to a follow-up question: “Without delay.”
Bush’s comments were followed with explanatory words made in interviews by his national security adviser at the time, Condoleezza Rice.
“The US is putting a lot on the line here,” she said in one interview. “The president said to prime minister [Ariel] Sharon: ‘I really ask you to listen to me as a friend. I really ask you to think of the consequences of what you’re doing here, and it’s important it must end without delay.’ The president several times yesterday used the word ‘now.’” Sharon’s answer: Israel would continue to “fight relentlessly” against terrorism; the Prime Minister’s Office said Israel would continue to “take all the necessary measures to uproot the terrorist infrastructures.”
Following Bush’s call, Israel moved back from a few small Palestinian towns. But it took another month to withdraw from the major cities: Nablus, Jenin, Ramallah and Bethlehem. In other words, Bush demanded “now”; Sharon replied “when I see fit.”
That story is relevant today because it illustrates that platitude about how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
FAST FORWARD 12 years from Defensive Shield to Protective Edge, an operation – like the one in 2002 – that has as its fundamental goal restoring quiet and significantly downgrading terrorist capabilities that developed in areas from which Israel withdrew.
And on Sunday, following the non-stop pictures in the international media of the death and destruction in Gaza, and following harsh Israeli criticism of US Secretary of State John Kerry for what officials in Jerusalem argued was essentially undermining an Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire that better served Israel (and Egypt’s) interests, President Barack Obama phoned Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
There are two versions of that conversation: the official version, put out by the White House; and the unofficial version, reported by Channel 1’s veteran and non-sensationalist foreign news editor, Oren Nahari.
The official readout of the conversation released by Washington (Jerusalem did not publish a version of its own), had Obama underscoring the US’s strong condemnation of Hamas’s rocket and tunnel attacks against Israel, and reaffirming Israel’s right to defend itself. The president, according to this statement, “also reiterated the US’s serious and growing concern about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives, as well as the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza.”
The statement made clear “the strategic imperative of instituting an immediate, unconditional humanitarian cease-fire that ends hostilities now and leads to a permanent cessation of hostilities based on the November 2012 cease-fire agreement. “ The statement also reaffirmed Washington’s “support for Egypt’s initiative, as well as regional and international coordination to end hostilities.” As to Netanyahu’s consistent call for the demilitarization of Gaza, Obama put that at the very end of a list of things that had to happen.
“The president stressed the US view that, ultimately, any lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must ensure the disarmament of terrorist groups and the demilitarization of Gaza,” the statement read.
There was plenty in that official readout to annoy Israeli officials: the demand for an immediate cease-fire; the talk of regional and international coordination – seen in Jerusalem as a heavy nod to the involvement of Hamas’s supporters Qatar and Turkey; a call to address Gaza’s long-term development and economic needs, without a similar call to get rid of Hamas; and – of course – placing demilitarization of Gaza into the wider context of a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
And that was all in the sanitized version of the conversation.
And then came the saltier version, Nahari’s “transcript”: Obama: “I demand that Israel agree to an immediate, unilateral cease-fire and stop all offensive activities, especially air attacks.”
Netanyahu: “What will Israel receive in exchange for a cease-fire?” Obama: “I believe that Hamas will stop shooting their rockets, quiet will be answered with quiet.”
Netanyahu: “Hamas has breached all five previous cease-fires; it’s a terror organization committed to the destruction of the State of Israel.”
Obama: “I expect Israel to unilaterally stop all of its military activities; the images of destruction from Gaza are moving the world further away from Israel’s position.”
Netanyahu: “Kerry’s proposal was totally unrealistic and gave Hamas military and diplomatic advantages.”
Obama: “A week after Israel ends its military activities, Qatar and Turkey will begin negotiations with Hamas based on the 2012 understandings, which include an Israeli commitment to remove the blockade and other restrictions from Gaza.”
Netanyahu: “Qatar and Turkey are the biggest supporters of Hamas. You can’t rely on them to be honest brokers.”
Obama: “I trust Qatar and Turkey... Israel is not in a position to choose the mediator.”
Netanyahu: “I warn that Hamas will be able to continue launching rockets and use tunnels for terror attacks...”
Obama (interrupting Netanyahu): “The ball is in the Israeli court, and it must stop all military activities.”
Though the tone of both versions are vastly different – with US State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf epitomizing the wall-to-wall US denial of Nahari’s version of the conversation by calling it “complete crap” – the bottom line is pretty much the same: a call for Israel to stop the operation immediately – or, as Bush would have said, “now, not tomorrow” – and the recognition that other international mediators, such as Qatar and Turkey, will be involved.
Netanyahu’s response was, well, almost Sharonian in nature.
On Monday he told the nation that Israel must prepare for an extended operation in Gaza, would not end the operation until the tunnels were neutralized, and expected demilitarization to be part of a solution to the current situation in Gaza – not part of a larger comprehensive agreement. Officials in his office, meanwhile, were saying the Egyptian proposal – not anything from Qatar and Turkey – was the only proposal they would consider.
And on Wednesday, the security cabinet directed the IDF to continue and even expand the operation, approving the mobilization of another 16,000 reservists to help do the job.
Sharon in 2002 characterized Operation Defensive Shield as Israel “fighting for its home,” and Netanyahu has done the same this time, telling the cabinet on Thursday that the soldiers who have so far fallen in battle have done so in the most just campaign possible, “defending our common home.”
And the country believes him, with a whopping 95 percent of Israel’s Jewish population saying in an Israel Democracy Institute poll this week that they think the Gaza operation is just. Ninety-five percent! In this country! If Sharon, back in 2002, could cavalierly dismiss Bush’s call for a withdrawal “now, not tomorrow,” then Netanyahu in 2014 can certainly do the same. Bush was in the second year of his term – meaning Israel knew it would be dealing with him for years to come – and at the time had near record approval ratings, according to a Gallup poll at the time, of 76%.
Obama, by contrast, is nearing the final lap of his term, with Gallup putting his approval ratings at a near personal low of 41%. If Sharon could buck a strong and popular US president in 2002, at the beginning of his presidency, then it should come as no surprise that Netanyahu feels able to buck the will of an unpopular, weak president approaching the waning days of his presidency. Especially when his own favorability records are sky high, and the country is behind the current military engagement to a degree that has not been seen here in decades.
Indeed, just as it should have come as no surprise that as the civilian casualty figures mounted, Obama would call for an immediate cease-fire, and press the prime minister on that point, it also should not have come as any great surprise that Obama’s call would be ignored. It is all part of a well-worn script that has been played out many times in the past.
SO MUCH about Operation Protective Edge, in fact, is running according to script: Hamas’s rocket barrages that precipitated a massive Israeli response, first by air, then only after much deliberation, on the ground; the international media’s obsession with the imbalanced casualty count; condemnations around the world of Israel’s “disproportionate” use of force; the grisly pictures of dead children in Gaza; the establishment of a UN investigative committee; errant shells hitting UNRWA facilities, and charges that Israel was targeting civilians.
So much of this operation has been predictable. Except for two developments – the tunnels, and the regional constellation.
As to the tunnels, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi admitted on Wednesday that while Israel was not surprised by the existence of the tunnels – it has known about them at least as far back as the 2006 kidnapping of Gilad Schalit – it was surprised by the way Hamas planned to use them.
“I’m not sure we had the idea of the motivation to use the tunnels the way they were used,” he said. “Israel didn’t grasp – the way we should have – that these are tunnels that would be used for the same atrocities they are now trying to do.” He implied here a failure of imagination, in the same way the US did not imagine before 9/11 that a small band of terrorists would fly an airplane into the World Trade Center.
And the second major surprise during this operation has to do with the regional context, and how the regional map of alliances has changed beyond recognition.
Were this just a battle between the Jewish state and Hamas, one senior diplomatic official said, it would likely have ended already. But it is not only between Jerusalem and Hamas, but rather also between the terror movement and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Sunni “moderates” against radical political Islam. The official said that adding all those other elements into the mix just complicates efforts to bring the conflict to an end.
Netanyahu, at the very beginning of this operation, laid out Israel’s goals clearly: to restore quiet and significantly degrade Hamas’s capacities. The IDF has successfully degraded their capacities, and is now in the process of destroying the tunnels, which for them is a strategic weapon. Yet the fighting still continues. Why? One key reason, the official said, is this: Though Netanyahu never said the purpose of the campaign was to destroy Hamas, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – who is fighting Hamas’s older brother, the Muslim Brotherhood, inside his own country – would like to see Hamas crushed. The longer the battle wages, the harder Israel pounds Hamas, the better for Egypt.
If, in the meantime, Israel gets roundly condemned around the world for civilian casualties, that – for Egypt – is only value added.
Much was made this week of Israel’s angry reaction to the draft cease-fire Kerry presented that Israeli officials said would have provided Hamas with relief, but not answered Israel’s security demands.
But Israel was not the only actor angry at the proposal – though it was the most vocal. So too were the Egyptians, the Saudis and the Palestinian Authority. Hamas’s fervent wish is to open up Gaza, something that is necessary if it ever hopes to develop the economy and, in fact, rebuild its military capabilities. Opening the border crossing at Rafah is key for that strategy.
And this is precisely why Egypt is not obliging. Cairo does not want to do anything that would assist Hamas or in any way strengthen its standing inside Gaza.
There is also a problem of funds, one Israeli official said. Who will fund the post-war reconstruction of Gaza? Hamas wants the money to come from Qatar, largely so they can do with it as they have in the past. Egypt wants the money to come from Saudi Arabia, so that Hamas will not be able to take any credit, and so that money for kindergartens will actually go to build kindergartens – not tunnels that further entrench Hamas’ control of Gaza.
Israel will not cease bombarding Gaza until Hamas stops firing rockets on Israel. Hamas won’t stop firing rockets on Israel until it gets oxygen from the outside to allow it to stay in power. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are not interested in that happening.
The US-Israel brickbats made all the non-battlefield headlines this week, even though that tension should and could have been predicted. The unexpected development is the degree to which the inter-Arab regional disputes are being played out in this particular localized conflict, keeping it very much alive – three weeks later, and counting.