Analysis: Where to talk tough

Threats are less productive than quiet diplomatic pressure on Cairo.

olmert gaza attack 248.88 (photo credit: Channel 2)
olmert gaza attack 248.88
(photo credit: Channel 2)
Apparently buoyed by the effective performance of the IDF in reducing Hamas rocket fire from Gaza into Israel - 80 daily rockets have fallen to significantly less than half that number - Ehud Olmert has been showing more of his former public bravado. On Monday in Sderot, the prime minister gloated that he'd gotten President George Bush hauled away from a speech in Philadelphia to change Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's intended vote on UN Security Council Resolution 1860 last Thursday. Rice, he said, had planned to vote for the resolution, but thanks to his pressure, and to her embarrassment, she was pressed into an abstention. Strikingly, the State Department's spokesman on Monday rejected Olmert's account as "wholly inaccurate as to describing the situation; just 100-percent, totally, completely not true." There was no embarrassment, the spokesman stressed. "Secretary Rice's recommendation and inclination - the entire time - was to abstain." The spokesman went so far as to urge Israel to correct the record - an extraordinary case of Israel's closest ally branding its prime minister, well, "wholly inaccurate." Leaving aside the dismal contradiction of accounts, here was a case of Olmert asserting what is tantamount to puppet-wielding control of American foreign policy - the very kind of outrageous influence that Israel's most bitter critics constantly claim perverts American interests, and whose existence Israel's defenders have always denied. In the same remarks, Olmert departed from the sorrowful tone with which he introduced Operation Cast Lead last month. At the time, he stressed that Israel had resorted to the use of force only with immense reluctance after all alternatives had been exhausted, sought only peace and quiet for its people, and had no quarrel with Gaza's Palestinians. In Sderot, by contrast, he warned that continued Hamas terrorism would be "met with the Israeli people's iron fist," and that Israel would "continue to strike with full strength, with full force until there is quiet and rearmament stops." His electorate, still overwhelmingly supportive of the IDF's gradual depletion of Hamas's terror capacity, need have no quarrel with Olmert's public determination to maintain the pressure on Gaza's Islamist government. But international opposition to the military operation is intensifying as Palestinian civilian casualties inevitably mount. Charges of war crimes and genocide flew around Britain's House of Commons in a debate on Monday, and the numbers are rising at anti-Israel demonstrations on many continents. Israel's public diplomacy strategists, therefore, are emphasizing anything but threats of more violence. What needs to be stressed, they say, is Hamas's indifference to Palestinian loss of life, as exemplified by its operating from mosques, schools and homes, and Israel's efforts to defang Hamas while minimizing that loss of civilian life. Israel's public diplomacy, incidentally, is not being helped by the IDF's vagueness about the Palestinian death toll. The IDF Spokesman's Office reports that more than 300 Hamas gunmen have been killed since the limited ground offensive was launched on January 3, but it offers no firm figures for the proportion of Hamas members in the overall death toll of 900-plus. Privately, IDF sources estimate the Palestinian civilian death toll at some 250 - strikingly lower than the figures cited by news agencies and international media channels. These quote Palestinian officials saying 450 of the 900 dead were civilians, including 300 children. So confusing is the official Israeli stance that even Israeli news sources often misstate Israeli figures or simply use the Palestinian ones. Meanwhile, if the public diplomacy strategists are counseling sensitivity, Olmert and his leadership colleagues emphatically do have a diplomatic forum in which to stress their firmness and resolution, with Egypt as their prime focus. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni insists that there can be no reaching agreements with terrorist organizations such as Hamas. For one thing, Hamas must not be granted legitimacy, she argues. For another, its consent to any deal has no meaning. Hamas is not fighting for freedom in Gaza or to counter Israeli occupation, as its supporters would have the international community believe. It is openly committed to destroying Israel - to replacing Israel with an Islamist Palestine. In competent partnership with Israel, however, Egypt has the capacity to translate the military gains of the past 18 days into long-term change. Hamas is discredited and depleted, but not broken. Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi told Knesset members on Tuesday of cases of Hamas suicide bombers clad in stolen IDF uniforms rushing at troops. A highly sophisticated tunnel was recently discovered in the Nahal Oz area, evidence of Hamas's ongoing aim of staging a "quality" attack. Hamas is still insisting to its supporters that victory is imminent and broadcasts pictures of its purported successes. But if it is neither legitimated in a cease-fire arrangement nor able to rearm under the terms of such an arrangement, a genuine strategic blow will have been struck. The IDF, plainly revived under Ashkenazi, repeatedly warned that the constant flow of arms and explosives via the Egyptian Sinai into Gaza would inevitably spell a bitter military confrontation. Week after week, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin confirmed that assessment with figures on the latest weaponry imports. The government was urged time and again to raise the problem with the Egyptian leadership, to press for more serious Egyptian efforts to prevent the smuggling and then, when it was clear that Egypt was disinclined to act sufficiently, to seek international leverage to pressure Cairo more effectively. The government, however, anxious not to undermine Israeli-Egyptian ties, chose not to act decisively on the issue, and even made plain to sympathetic American legislators that it did not seek to force Egypt into a corner over the matter. Last year, provisions were made whereby a small proportion of US foreign aid to Egypt might be conditioned on greater efforts by Cairo to stop the smuggling. In this year's foreign aid appropriation, no such provision exists. With Cairo holding the key to a credible mechanism for preventing the reconstruction of Hamas's Philadelphi Corridor tunnel apparatus, US and Israeli officials are striving to assemble a package of carrots and sticks that would yield a more helpful Egyptian attitude. This would involve the establishment of an American and/or international mechanism that would not be offensive to Egypt's sovereign sensitivities. There need be no undermining of Egyptian pride if it serves as the coordinator of a serious effort to foster regional calm. And Egypt - so critical of Hamas for goading Israel into this conflict, and so unhelpful to Hamas by keeping its border crossings closed - recognizes all too well that it has a prime self-interest in the marginalizing of the Islamists, who threaten its regime. As Cast Lead continues - with pinpoint IDF operations deeper into Hamas's urban infrastructure, though a full-scale ground offensive is clearly on hold - the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama next Tuesday looms as a potential deadline for its completion. It is Egypt that can either ensure Hamas remains genuinely disabled, or guarantee its inevitable revival. It is to Egypt, quietly, rather than publicly to an unsympathetic global community, that Olmert can most usefully talk tough.