Diplomacy: An operation full of surprises

Certain elements of Operation Protective Edge did not go according to script: Hamas could not be read; European governments lent support, even as their publics protested viciously.

PM Netanyahu, Ya'alon and Gantz in the South (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
PM Netanyahu, Ya'alon and Gantz in the South
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
The most surprising aspect about the rockets fired into Israel just before and after the expiration of a 72-hour cease-fire Wednesday at midnight is that nobody was really surprised.
If the more than month-long Operation Protective Edge has taught us anything, it is the degree to which the logic we are used to does not apply in this particular fight.
According to our rationale, Hamas – having been pounded by the IDF, brought death and destruction onto Gaza, and been isolated from most of the world (even the Arab world, save for Iran, Qatar and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey) – should have wanted a cease-fire back on July 15. If not on that date, then at least on July 20; if not then, surely on August 1; and if not on August 1, at least on August 4... and on and on and on.
And each time those who thought Hamas would buckle – like IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, who delivered a positively poetic speech while calling residents of the South to return home after one cease-fire – we’re surprised.
“We have a hot summer. Fall will soon come.
The rain will wash away the dust left by the tanks,” Gantz said, sounding like a modern-day Song of Songs. “The fields will turn green, and the South will be awash in red – in the positive sense of the word – in anemones, flowers and stability, which will be here for many years to come.”
Gantz made those comments on August 6, one day after a three-day cease-fire was declared, and two days before Hamas broke it and then refused to extend another truce. Such beautiful lines built – as it turned out – on foundations of sand.
Until, at a certain point, no one seemed to have any more expectations.
At 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, some nine-and-a-half hours before the expiration of the latest cease-fire, Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz held a press briefing and said, “We don’t yet know what is going to happen.”
Kudos to Steinitz for being so honest. What was troubling, however, is that he is not just some random fellow off the street asked for his opinion. He is the intelligence minister, a man who sits in on the deliberations of the security cabinet (albeit without voting rights), and a person considered close to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
That Steinitz could not gauge how Hamas would react once the clock struck midnight and the 72-hour cease-fire ended illustrates the degree to which the government seems to be groping in the dark concerning the terrorist organization’s plans and tactics. Hamas’s logic is not our logic, and the terrorist organization uses a vastly different ruler to measure success.
All of that has made the current war so difficult to read, even for those at the top.
THE FAILURE to predict Hamas’s decision vis-a-vis the cease-fires is not the only element of this particular conflagration that went against the grain, against conventional wisdom. Other aspects of this war also defied prewar expectations.
For instance, the reaction in Europe. No, not the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic protests on the streets of European cities – those reactions were, at least to some degree, expected – but rather, the reactions of key governments like those in Germany, France and Britain. Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Francois Hollande provided Israel with a degree of diplomatic space to pursue Hamas that was not a given.
And they did it despite ugly, angry and even at times violent anti-Israel demonstrations in their cities.
Aviv Shir-On, the recently appointed deputy director-general for Western Europe in the Foreign Ministry, told The Jerusalem Post this week that the criticism on a governmental level in Europe was “for the most part much less than it was on the street,” where the demonstrations often took on an anti-Semitic tone.
“The governments were restrained, showing understanding for Operation Protective Edge,” he said.
With all the understanding that European governments displayed, Shir-On added, once this conflict ends Europe is going to have to deal with two phenomena that the anti-Israel protests have revealed.
First of all, the governments, various justice systems and media will have to grapple with the realization that there is an anti-Semitic streak in Europe which is wider, deeper and more troubling than most people thought.
“The anti-Semitism evident in the demonstrations has to worry Israel, but also the Europeans themselves,” said Shir-On, a veteran diplomat who served as Israel’s envoy to Switzerland and later to Austria, and is definitely not one to readily conflate legitimate criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism.
But what was seen on the streets of Europe in the last month often blurred the lines from legitimate to illegitimate criticism, he said.
He also said the size of the demonstrations was different this time than in the past – measured now in the thousands, not in the hundreds – a testament to the growth of Europe’s Muslim population, which formed the basis of the protests. Once the protests reach a certain size, they are amplified by media coverage and their composition becomes less important, creating a certain atmosphere very problematic for Israel.
Shir-On said there were large numbers of Turks at many of these European protests, and they were prodded on to no small extent by Erdogan’s anti-Israel and anti-Semitic comments.
The second phenomenon that Europe will have to deal with now is the degree to which the Mideast conflict – despite the best wishes of Europe’s leaders – has indeed been imported to their cities and towns, though not in the classic sense of Arab-Jewish clashes, like the ones seen in Paris at the beginning of the conflict Rather, the Mideast conflict is being imported to Europe in that political, cultural, sociological and economic elements of the global Islamic radicals are gaining a voice there.
“The challenge of IS [terrorist group Islamic State] is for everyone,” Shir-On said.
“I think that the anti-Israel demonstrations are a show of strength for the extremists, and that needs to set off red lights.”
Another rather unexpected byproduct of Operation Protective Edge was the degree to which it compelled various Israeli political leaders to put forward a “day after” plan.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman all presented skeletal plans this week for what should come after the fighting stops.
Livni’s plan included the following elements: Returning the “effective and legitimate control” of the Palestinian Authority to the Gaza Strip in the long term, and beginning this by reintroducing PA officials at the border crossings; disarming Gaza of all illicit arms; and restarting peace negotiations between Israel and the PA, during which “we will discuss with them all the things connected to Gaza, like a seaport, airport and all the stuff that is part of the list of things needed to negotiate as part of a final-status agreement.”
Lapid unveiled a plan he is promoting that includes an international conference involving the US, EU, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, toward the goal of demilitarizing Gaza and eventually transferring it to PA control.
Points include returning the PA to the border crossings; making the PA responsible for the rehabilitation of Gaza, and the sole body responsible for the rehabilitation funds; and ensuring the demilitarization of Gaza.
While both Lapid and Livni’s plans lean heavily on PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Liberman discounts Abbas and says PA elections are needed, to elect a voice with true legitimacy and authority to negotiate.
Liberman’s plan is to topple Hamas, hold PA elections and then work on a “regional comprehensive solution,” not Oslo-style Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Israel’s conflict is not with the Palestinians, but rather with the Arab world, he told the Post this week. And that conflict has three dimensions: the Arab countries, the Palestinians and the “split identity” of the Israeli Arabs.
In his view, what is needed is one package to solve – or as he said, “arrange” – Israel’s “relations with all three dimensions at one time.”
What was surprising about these plans was not that they were presented, or even that they illustrated deep differences inside the ruling coalition.
What was unexpected was that all the big guns weighed in... except for Netanyahu.
And, as one senior diplomatic source said, what many key decision-makers in the international community are eager to hear is Netanyahu’s plan.
The source said that one way Israel will be able to recover some of the goodwill it lost over the last few weeks – as a result of the pictures of the carnage beamed nightly into living rooms around the world – is to initiate a program and present a vision for Gaza and the West Bank.
Liberman has a plan, as does Liberman, Lapid and even Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, though he didn’t unveil it this week.
Only Netanyahu’s plan tarries – which is a shame, for his is the one that matters most.