Security and Defense: Caught between a Kassam and a Shihab

As efforts to reach a truce with Hamas fail, the defense establishment is focusing on the Syrian track.

kassam\shihab 88 (photo credit: )
kassam\shihab 88
(photo credit: )
On Monday night, Defense Minister Ehud Barak sat down for a private dinner with his Egyptian counterpart, Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Sharm e-Sheikh. This is not the first time the two have met. The last time was in December, when Barak made his first trip to Egypt as defense minister. The time before that was 35 years ago during the Yom Kippur War, when both Barak and Tantawi were battalion commanders fighting against one another in the fierce battles that took place at the Chinese Farm. On Monday, the two exchanged pleasantries, hugs and kisses. Unlike Israel, where defense ministers and prime ministers are switched frequently, sometimes annually, in Egypt, things are a bit more stable when it comes to cabinet appointments. Tantawi, as an example, has been in his post for more than 15 years. In 1993, when he was already defense minister, he was promoted to field marshal by President Hosni Mubarak - only the fifth Egyptian army commander to receive the honor in more than 40 years. Tantawi fought against Israel in the Six Day War, the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War. As defense minister, he witnessed the rise and fall of Yasser Arafat and, almost exactly a year ago, Hamas's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip. In recent months, defense officials said, Tantawi has begun speaking a little differently about Hamas, no longer blaming Israel for the violence in Gaza. The turning point for him - and the rest of the Egyptian leadership, including Mubarak and Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman - was in January, when Hamas breached the border wall with Egypt, enabling hundreds of thousands of Gazans to cross back and forth into the Sinai for almost a week. Defense officials who participated in the recent talks in Sharm said that Hamas's breaching of the border was a "stimulator" for Egypt in understanding that Hamas was no longer merely a threat to Israel. In addition, the Grad-model Katyusha rocket fire on the Ashkelon mall last week during US President George W. Bush's visit meant that the Egyptians could not deny that Hamas is smuggling large quantities of advanced weaponry into Gaza by sea and via tunnels under the Philadelphi corridor. In his meetings with Mubarak, Suleiman and Tantawi, Barak proposed a two-stage cease-fire that would first entail a cessation of military operations and terror activity, and then a lifting of the siege of Gaza in exchange for an advancement in negotiations over the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. THERE IS a clear division of responsibilities among the Egyptian trio. Suleiman holds the "Israeli file" in Cairo, and is the primary mediator between Israel and Hamas regarding the cease-fire and Schalit negotiations. The 72-year-old Suleiman is one of the most feared men in Egypt. Until a few years ago, he rarely appeared in public, and never had his picture published. He is credited with helping Egypt forge strong military ties with the US when he served as head of Military Intelligence in 1991. Three years later, Mubarak appointed him chief of Egyptian Intelligence, and made him a minister-without-portfolio in his cabinet. He is believed to be one of Mubarak's closest confidants and in recent years - due to his powerful regional political standing - his name has been floated as a potential successor to the 80-year-old president. The 73-year-old Tantawi is a born and bred military officer, continuing to wear his uniform as defense minister. Talks with him are on the more operational and tactical levels - stopping the arms smuggling and the infiltration of Sudanese refugees from the Sinai. Mubarak's role is more formal. According to Israeli officials, he doesn't get his "hands dirty" with the details concerning issues like the cease-fire. In meetings, he prefers to speak on a more regional level. On Monday, in addition to wishing him a happy 80th birthday (which was on May 4), Barak spoke to him about bilateral strategic issues and the ongoing peace talks with the Palestinians. WITH REGARD to the cease-fire, the ball is currently in Hamas's court. On Thursday, the Hamas delegation to Cairo returned to Damascus and Gaza after reportedly failing to reach an agreement with Suleiman to accept Barak's proposal. Hamas has yet to officially announce its final decision, which is expected over the weekend. Israel, for the most part, is in favor of the cease-fire. Barak and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert prefer a cease-fire over a large-scale operation in Gaza, which would be costly in lives for both sides. There is also the continued absence of an exit strategy for the IDF, due to the weak standing of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his inability to retake control over Gaza. There is also the Egyptian factor, and with Olmert scheduled to meet with Mubarak next week, Israel does not want to insult its southern neighbor by rejecting its mediation attempts. However, Olmert and Barak are not ignoring the likelihood that even under a cease-fire Hamas will continue building up its military wing and fortifying its terror infrastructure. Predictions are that even if a cease-fire is accepted, it will not necessarily last six months. That is why the IDF has drawn up a number of potential military operations in Gaza, from the reoccupation of the entire Strip to smaller-scale operations, such as conquering the Philadelphi corridor and the Kassam launching pads. Islamic Jihad's car-bomb attack at the Erez crossing on Thursday was meant to kill (and kidnap) IDF soldiers, but at the same time send a message to Israel: Don't forget that we are also a player in Gaza. By allowing Islamic Jihad to perpetrate the attack, Hamas was also sending a message: Lower your demands. If Hamas accepts Israel's conditions for the cease-fire, it will also have the difficult task of reining in the other Palestinian factions - like Islamic Jihad - and ensuring that they hold to the truce. THIS WEEK was not just about the Palestinian front - though, while Wednesday's dramatic announcement about the renewal of negotiations with Syria is not directly connected to the Hamas cease-fire talks, the one does play off the other. Israel's current decision to talk peace with Syria was made after analyzing regional trends. Iran has already taken over the Gaza Strip where Hamas is in complete control. Under the compromise reached Wednesday in Qatar, Iran essentially conquered Lebanon after its proxy, Hizbullah, received veto power in the Lebanese cabinet. In between Lebanon and Gaza is Israel, which is finding itself caught between a Kassam rocket and a Shihab missile. The peace talks with Syria are meant to break that trend, help isolate Iran and ensure that if Israel does decide to invade Gaza in the next few months - or attack Iran's nuclear installations over the summer - Damascus will stay out of the fray. Olmert embarked on the talks with support from a majority of the defense establishment. Barak is a known advocate of peace talks with Syria, as is Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who has pushed for their renewal behind closed doors, but who has yet to make his opinion publicly known. Mossad chief Meir Dagan, on the other hand, claims that Syria's peace intentions are not sincere. Assessments in the defense establishment are that the chances of success on the Syrian track are greater than those on the Palestinian track. As Olmert said a number of times in recent interviews, Syria and Israel each knows what is expected of its part in any potential deal. For Israel, it is a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. For Syria, it is a normalization of ties and a complete cessation of its support for terrorist activity in Lebanon and Gaza. The biggest obstacle to the Palestinian track is Hamas's presence in Gaza. Israeli and PA leaders are still scratching their heads to come up with ideas on how to include Gaza in the ongoing peace talks. The biggest obstacle to peace with Syria no longer appears to be American opposition - the White House put out a statement supporting the talks on Wednesday - but its relationship with Iran, one of Syria's only allies since it became a pariah state due to its violent involvement in Lebanon and the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. While the Golan is certainly important to the Syrians, Ashkenazi believes that Syrian President Bashar Assad is more interested in retaining influence over Lebanon and in his own political stability, which is dependent on his country's economic situation. With the right economic support from the US - unlikely under the Bush administration - Syria, it is hoped, may break its alliance with Iran, which would then be left alone as it faces off against Israel and the rest of the Western world in its race towards nuclear power.