Editor's Notes: Looking the other way

Even as the prime minister was marshaling his defenses against the Winograd critique over Lebanon, a similar failure was playing out in Gaza.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
"It is exclusively in the hands of Israeli leaders and the public to determine whether, when facing challenges in the future, we will come to them more prepared and ready, and whether we shall cope with them in a more serious and responsible way than the way the decision-makers acted - in the political and the military echelons - in the Second Lebanon War." From the Winograd Committee's Final Report, January 30, 2008 In the weeks prior to Wednesday's publication of the Winograd Report into the Second Lebanon War, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert consulted with an array of expert advisers on how best to present his case - how often to speak, what to say and in which media forums to say it, who else to have speaking up on his behalf, who not to have speaking on his behalf, and so on. And who can blame him? After all, he knew he would be fighting for his political life. It's just unfortunate that similar tactical and wider strategic planning was in short supply when it came to formulating government policy on developments in Gaza over recent months, culminating in the brief, Hamas-exploited "blackout" of last week, the puncturing of the Gaza-Egyptian border, and the consequent upsurge in arms flowing into the Strip and terrorists crossing back and forth, now threatening a new terror wave from Sinai. Ironically indeed, some of the very same failures that characterized the war with Hizbullah and its causes seem to have been repeated in Gaza, by a prime minister and his colleagues who were evidently more concerned with deflecting the Lebanon critique than preventing a repetition down south. Just as the relentless stockpiling of arms and preparation for conflict by Hizbullah in south Lebanon continued for years without the parallel Israeli development of a strategic military response, a failing so bitterly exposed when the IDF proved unready to decisively prevail over Hizbullah in the 2006 war, so the relentless stockpiling of arms and preparation for conflict by Hamas and other extremists in the Gaza Strip intensified month by month after 2005's disengagement. This enabled Hamas to rout Fatah's American-trained, unmotivated fighters last summer and facilitated the incessant, debilitating rocket fire into Sderot and its environs - Kassam attacks that culminated, two weeks ago, with a near Hizbullah volume of 40 and 50 Kassams a day flying in. If Israel was severely hamstrung when trying to stop the arming of Hizbullah by the fact that it had no direct leverage over the Iranian and Syrian weapons suppliers, it most certainly did have an address for complaint when it came to the arming of Hamas in Gaza: Egypt, with which Israel has maintained a peace treaty for a full 30 years. Yet the government chose not to properly confront Egypt over its disinclination to effectively patrol its short border with Gaza - even though the failure to prevent the smuggling of weaponry through tunnels into the Strip was inexorably strengthening Hamas militarily and enabling the intensification of rocket fire into Israel. Olmert certainly raised the issue in direct conversations with President Hosni Mubarak. But he and his colleagues were adamantly unprepared to earnestly pressure Cairo over the issue. Thus in December, when, as The Jerusalem Post revealed, the exasperated Israeli defense establishment sent a video to Washington showing Egyptian complicity in the border smuggling - a tape intended for distribution among American legislators, who might in turn have been so dismayed as to threaten cutbacks in US foreign aid to Egypt - the government's diplomatic arm prevented its distribution for fear of antagonizing Mubarak. Israeli officials went so far as to initially try to claim, disgracefully, that the Post's report on the very fact of the tape's existence and dispatch to Washington was untrue. THE GOVERNMENT'S reluctance to send ground forces into the Strip was and is understandable, since fighting in the treacherous alleys of Gaza carries immense risk of loss of life and no long-term benefit so long as the Gaza-Egypt border is not thoroughly sealed. However effective such an IDF operation might be, success could only be fleeting - with new gunmen popping up and replenished supplies arriving to resume the Kassam fire. So casting around desperately for a strategy to curb the aggression from Gaza, the government settled upon the idea of restricting fuel and power supplies. As Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni rationalized, after all, it is surely uniquely absurd for the workers at the Ashkelon power station to be turning up dutifully to maintain power supplies to Gaza, where some of this electricity is promptly employed to manufacture rockets for firing at targets that include the self-same Ashkelon power station. Dismally, however, and in marked contrast to Olmert's careful investment in PR advice for his own political well-being, inadequate thought, to put it mildly, was devoted to the public diplomacy aspect of this Gaza power reduction. Again, the parallels with the run-up to the Second Lebanon War are unmistakable. Hizbullah had effectively wrenched sovereignty from the government in southern Lebanon, and established a terrorist entity targeting Israel there. Israel failed to point this out to the UN and in other key international forums, failed to highlight that Hizbullah's increasingly potent arsenal, given the impotence of UNIFIL, would sooner or later require an Israeli military response. And thus when Israel did go to war against Hizbullah, much of the international community did not appreciate what was at stake, and any initial sympathy with Israel soon evaporated. So, too, in Gaza. Israel failed in recent months to highlight that Gaza had become a hostile entity - territory overrun by a terror group that had violently overthrown Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority, casually and ruthlessly pushing fellow Palestinians off rooftops, shooting and killing civilians who were trying to escape the Strip. Potent and compelling arguments can be made in international law as regards Israel's obligation - or lack thereof - to sustain Hamas's rule in Gaza even as Israeli citizenry comes under daily attack from this hostile territory (and many of these were marshalled in a paper by Bar-Ilan University's Law Faculty's Dr. Avi Bell, issued recently by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs). These arguments were not powerfully made by the government. Israel's deficient emphasis on public diplomacy, indeed, meant that after Israel merely cut back fuel supplies to the Strip - Ashkelon was still sending power into Gaza - Hamas exploited a non-existent crisis to ensure that Israel was blamed for maliciously causing a humanitarian disaster. As the Post's Amir Mizroch described in these pages last week, Hamas arranged prime-time coverage for its entirely unnecessary decision to turn the lights out in Gaza. It organized candlelit protests, complete with staged scenes of cold, huddled children. And it savvily reined in the Kassam crews, temporarily. Meanwhile, back in Israel, the Foreign Ministry was hopelessly snared in bureaucratic red-tape, forbidden from sending its camera crew into Ashkelon to show that the supply-line to Gaza was still emphatically open, sent haplessly from Infrastructure Ministry to Defense Ministry and back in vain for permission to film at a strategic installation. As was so often the case during the Second Lebanon War, moreover, articulate government spokespeople, able to puncture the manufactured images of crisis in Gaza with a few well-chosen words, were again absent. Mark Regev, for instance, Olmert's calm and skilled spokesman, was away last week. And no one approaching his effectiveness was available to fill in for him. Israel's diplomatic corps, as ever, was largely off for the weekend; many of the top European-based diplomats didn't even return to work on Monday, because they were attending an ambassadorial seminar in Brussels. The Foreign Ministry, as Mizroch reported, was not even told ahead of time about Israel's planned reduction of industrial diesel supplies to the Strip. Lamented one diplomat: "How can they expect us to explain government policy if we're not part of the decision-making process, if we're out of the loop?" I happened to spend last Wednesday in London, where the puncturing of the Gaza-Egypt border was largely reported as the desperate act of starving Palestinians, escaping briefly from their Israeli prison. Giving a talk before 120 or so British journalists and others, I was dryly told by my host that "I'm afraid you're not going to find this a very sympathetic audience" and ushered into the crowded room with the words, "After you, Daniel." Still, at least I then had a two-hour platform to offer an Israeli's perspective on the unfolding events. Back here, one of our reporters, invited by BBC Radio to analyze Israel's Gaza strategy, called the Foreign Ministry to better understand it, but was told that our diplomatic hierarchy had no comment to offer. This reporter was ultimately able to refer to remarks that had been made by Tzipi Livni in a closed meeting with Palestinian officials, but no thanks to the Foreign Ministry. The remarks were relayed to her by a helpful Palestinian source. Needless to say, this latest instance of Israel's abiding public diplomacy ineptitude impacted, in turn, on the government's rapid volte face and restoration of supplies - failed diplomacy directly undermining Israeli policy. It also impacted on Mubarak's Egypt. If Israel could not counter the assertion that it was deliberately punishing, blacking out and starving Gaza's masses, that left Mubarak all the less empowered to physically staunch the tide of "liberated Gazans," and to staunch the emboldened opposition to Israeli-Egyptian peace among his own Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood and other groups have been holding protests nationwide, ostensibly in solidarity with Gaza's oppressed populace, but also plainly to undermine Mubarak, the treaty with Israel, ties to Washington et al. And when the watching world thinks of Gaza's oppressed, it need hardly be stressed, it is Israel that is branded as the oppressor. Never mind the fact that Israel is long gone from Gaza and that its departure created the opportunity for the Palestinians to build a model state there. Never mind that the Hamas-voting residents of Gaza are at once victims and accomplices of their terrorist government. Never mind, either, that it is only seven months since the vicious Hamas takeover of the Strip. ONE MORE irony of the great Gaza breakout is that it reemphasizes the need, strongly championed two or three years ago by the former national security adviser Giora Eiland, for Egypt to permanently allocate land on its side of the border for an enlarged, viable Gaza, taking account of the dramatic population growth there in the past generation. (Today's estimated 1.3 million population represents an almost quadrupling of the number 30 years ago.) When still heading the National Security Council under Ariel Sharon before disengagement, Eiland advocated leaving Gaza only as the first stage of an internationally sponsored, multi-stage negotiated program leading to a permanent accord. Specifically, Egypt would have been asked to allocate a 20-kilometer by 30-kilometer (230 sq. miles) rectangle of the sparsely populated Sinai territory on its side of the border to allow Gaza reasonable space to grow and flourish. This enlarged Palestinian Gaza, boosted by overseas investment and support, was intended to feature a major city, major airport and major seaport - and to come to serve as an attractive potential destination, too, for Palestinian refugees. In return for its territorial generosity, Egypt would have been compensated with a strip of land perhaps a third of the size from the Israeli western Negev, with its president receiving the adulation of a grateful world. This kind of initiative would constitute a potential win-win almost all round - certainly for Mubarak, for Israel, and for the people of Gaza - and the opposite for a Hamas that trades in the manipulation of misery. But its achievement requires strategizing, planning, nuanced diplomacy - skills so demonstrably lacking in Israel's governance. Olmert certainly recognized the need for effective public diplomacy and strategizing in trying to stave off Winograd's bite. Indeed, so preoccupied has he been defending himself against accusations of failure over the Second Lebanon War - and specifically a lack of awareness of what was developing and an inadequately considered response when he finally chose to act - that he failed to prevent, across our second unilaterally established border, something of a replication.