The country needs to rethink its policy regarding Gaza

Changing Israel’s mind-set

Smoke rises as Palestinians take part in a protest marking the 71st anniversary of the ‘Nakba’ (the ‘catastrophe’ that they view as resulting from the creation of Israel in 1948) at the Israel-Gaza border fence on May 15 (photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS)
Smoke rises as Palestinians take part in a protest marking the 71st anniversary of the ‘Nakba’ (the ‘catastrophe’ that they view as resulting from the creation of Israel in 1948) at the Israel-Gaza border fence on May 15
The best strategic achievement for Israel in the outgoing Jewish New Year (5779) is that it ended without a war. There were numerous incidents on five fronts in the past 12 months that could have led to an escalation with the potential of a major war, which the government didn’t and still doesn’t want.
The war could have broken out as a result of Israel Air Force strikes against Iranian, pro-Iranian militias and Lebanese Hezbollah targets in Syria, for which Israel has claimed only partial responsibility.
Tension rose too on the Lebanese border, when the IDF exposed and destroyed Hezbollah’s attack tunnels on the Israeli side, which had been dug to be used as launching pads to infiltrate into Israel. The attacks attributed to Israel against Iranian bases in Iraq in the last four months could also have resulted in a major regional confrontation.
But above all, the most fragile front was and still remains Gaza. For the last year and a half, thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of stubborn protesters with a tailwind and organization provided by Hamas and Islamic Jihad have gathered every Friday along the border fence.
The technologically advanced fence will be completed by the end of 2019 after a one-year delay. It has three components. One is a heavy cement wall penetrating underground to a depth of dozens of meters, with sensors to detect attempts to dig tunnels. The second component is a six-meter electronic fence above ground equipped with cameras and sensors. The third part comprises sophisticated control and command posts that integrates all the systems.
The fence-wall-barrier was constructed to prevent Hamas from having its most lethal weapon against Israel: attack tunnels. Indeed, soon after Israel began construction, Hamas understood the ramifications – the fence would deprive its combatants of executing its underground strategy.
But Hamas sought to compensate this loss by redoubling its efforts above ground: unleashing the demonstrators to damage the fence, to clash with Israeli troops along the border, and from time to time fly arson kites and armed mini copters over Israeli skies. In parallel, Islamic Jihad has launched rockets at southern Israel as well, hoping that the IDF would retaliate with a massive military response that could trigger an all-out war.
Islamic Jihad provocations almost made such a scenario come true several weeks ago. During an election rally in Ashdod, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was hurriedly ushered to a shelter by his security detail, after Islamic Jihad launched a few rockets in the direction of the city.
Furious, feeling humiliated in the midst of his election campaign, and fearing it may affect his public ratings, Netanyahu convened an urgent meeting with his security chiefs in which he ordered them – in his twin capacities as prime minister and defense minister – to take action against Gaza.
Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, the closest to Netanyahu among his security advisers, wholeheartedly supported the idea. Cohen is considered to be the most politicized Mossad head since the early days of the state. He doesn’t hide his admiration for his boss. In an unprecedented barrage of “off-the-record” interviews with journalists, he also doesn’t conceal his ambition to go into politics when he retires from his post, probably within a year.
However, Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi – who in the past was either passive or even caved in to Netanyahu’s manipulation of security issues to advance political goals – this time stood his ground. He was joined by Nadav Argaman, chief of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). Both warned that such action would most likely lead to a strong Hamas response of hundreds of rockets fired at Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv, which in turn would require another Israeli round of air strikes and eventually lead to a war and the invasion of Gaza by the IDF.
They told Netanyahu that he can’t single-handedly order military action without consulting and informing the cabinet. The prime minister virtually convened the cabinet via phone conference call, and it approved his request to authorize the IAF to strike Gaza. But Netanyahu once again was challenged, this time by the attorney general.
Dr. Avichai Mandelblit, who will soon announce his decision whether to bring corruption charges against Netanyahu, told the prime minister that the phone conference was not sufficient since the security chiefs did not participate in it. Hours later Netanyahu calmed down, and not for the first time, changed his mind. A war was avoided. But the threat didn’t go away.
WHAT CHARACTERIZED all fronts in the last year was uncertainty and fragility. Every minor incident could have gotten out of hand and turned into a major confrontation. If Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas or Islamic Jihad would have fiercely retaliated with rockets and missiles, or if a single rocket would have killed dozens of civilians or troops, Israel would have no choice but to opt for all-out war.
At the tactical level too, Israel has had important achievements. Most if not all Hamas and Islamic Jihad attack tunnels have been exposed and demolished. The same happened to Hezbollah tunnels on the Lebanese border.
Iran continues to swallow its pride and suffer blows at the hands of the IAF in both Syria, and as reported in the foreign media, in Iraq, with no serious effort so far to retaliate.
Israel also succeeded in preventing escalation on its fifth front: the occupied West Bank. The relative calm there is maintained despite many attempts and plots by Hamas from its command posts in Gaza, Turkey and Lebanon to stir up trouble – to build terror networks, and to carry out attacks against Jewish settlers, Jerusalem and inside Israel itself.
Tranquility has been achieved for several reasons. Shin Bet and Military Intelligence managed to collect information on Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror plans and plots. The security services of the Palestinian Authority to some extent share a common goal with Israel to weaken the radical Islamist movements. Unlike in Gaza, the Israeli administration allows hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to work and to support their families. Being less socio-economically frustrated, their incentive to resort to terror has been reduced.
On all fronts, Israel has shown determination, stubbornness and sometimes brinkmanship, sending clear messages that it does not intend to give up what it perceives as its vital security interests. But as Israel and the Jewish world enter the new Jewish year 5780, it is also evident that all the problems and challenges that Israel faced last year have remained.
On all five fronts and on each front itself, Israel has shown that it has no clear vision and no comprehensive strategy. Its approach and policies solely rely on exerting military force with no parallel or complementary diplomatic moves.
In recent years, certainly since Donald Trump entered the White House, Israel has sanctioned the status quo. At the same time, it is absolutely clear that Netanyahu has miscalculated by fully siding with Trump and the Republican Party, and abandoning Israel’s traditional bipartisan approach.
Trump can’t be trusted as an iron-clad pillar of support for the Jewish state. He is capricious and unstable. His foreign policy is full of zigzags in all international arenas, including the Middle East. Trump’s effort to reconcile with Iran is a slap in Netanyahu’s face, and a blatant example that when it comes to his personal or America’s national interests, Trump can easily throw Israel under the bus.
Israel’s rivals on all fronts – Iran in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and the PA in the West Bank – have also signaled that despite their losses and inferiority, they are not going to cave in to the mighty Israeli military machine. They match Israeli determination with their own, and continue to pursue and consolidate their own interests. Iran continues to build bases in Syria, including near the Israel border on the Golan Heights. Hezbollah is amassing huge arsenal of rockets and missiles. And the rulers of Gaza have not been deterred.
Israel needs to change its state of mind. It has to realize that in dealing with its enemies and rivals, it can’t rely only on the sword. Nothing lasts forever. It needs to launch diplomatic initiatives in order to seek long-term solutions to its regional problems.
One can only wish that in the coming year, the next government – led by someone other than Netanyahu – will change the course of Israeli politics, as well as its foreign and security policies.