Diplomacy: Shifting sands

While no clear winner emerged from Operation Pillar of Defense, the ground shifted in a number of areas.

Morsi and Clinton 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Morsi and Clinton 390
(photo credit: 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 round.
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.
Speaking Wednesday 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.”
Those 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 UN.
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.
One 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 East stability.
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 agreement.”
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 Israel.
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 leader.
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 Tuesday.
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.
Turkey does not.
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.
This irrelevance 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 luster.
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 sensitive time.
No less a personage than British Foreign Secretary William Hague said as much Tuesday during a statement to the House of Commons.
“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 process.”
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.
As for 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.
Kadima 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 religious party.
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.
One last thing worth noticing was the harmony apparent at the press statement Wednesday night when Netanyahu, Barak and Liberman all addressed the nation.
Unlike 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.
And this 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.
The 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.
Indeed, now 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 has shifted.