Commentary Magazine


Topic: Benjamin Netanyahu

Obama’s Love–Hate Relationship with Retrenchment

Does the Obama administration actually want to step back from world affairs, or does it want to control them more than ever but through obedient proxies? Until recently, the answer seemed to be closer to the former. Obama himself is noticeably uncomfortable on foreign affairs, often displaying his lack of interest in filling the gaps in his knowledge. But perhaps there’s a degree of control the president is unwilling to give up after all.

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Does the Obama administration actually want to step back from world affairs, or does it want to control them more than ever but through obedient proxies? Until recently, the answer seemed to be closer to the former. Obama himself is noticeably uncomfortable on foreign affairs, often displaying his lack of interest in filling the gaps in his knowledge. But perhaps there’s a degree of control the president is unwilling to give up after all.

Israel has always been the exception to Obama’s approach to the world. He has long denounced American meddling, though he tried in his first term (rather transparently) to collapse Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition and force a change in Jerusalem. When it comes to American retrenchment, then, Israel seems to be an exception to the rule yet again.

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the development of the Israel-Egypt relationship since the coup that replaced the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi with General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Here is some key background:

At first, Israeli intelligence officials said they didn’t know what to make of Mr. Sisi, a devout Muslim who in previous posts treated his Israeli counterparts coldly, a senior Israeli official said. As Mr. Sisi moved to take control of the government, Israeli intelligence analysts pored over his public statements, writings and private musings, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

The Israeli intelligence community’s conclusion: Mr. Sisi genuinely believed that he was on a “mission from God” to save the Egyptian state, the senior Israeli official said.

Moreover, as an Egyptian nationalist, he saw Mr. Morsi’s Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, as threats to the state that needed to be suppressed with a heavy hand, the Israeli official said.

Israeli intelligence analysts interpreted Mr. Sisi’s comments about keeping the peace with Israel and ridding Egypt of Islamists as a “personal realization that we—Israel—were on his side,” the Israeli official said.

Here’s how Hamas in Gaza viewed the change:

Under the protective umbrella of Mr. Morsi’s Islamist-led government, Hamas had imported large quantities of arms from Libya and Sudan, as well as money to pay the salaries of government officials and members of their armed wing, Israeli and U.S. officials said. His successor abruptly changed that.

“One day we had been sitting having great conversations with Morsi and his government and then suddenly, the door was shut,” Ghazi Hamad, Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, said in an interview last month.

And here’s the most important point of all, on the war in Gaza:

U.S. officials, who tried to intervene in the initial days after the conflict broke out on July 8 to try to find a negotiated solution, soon realized that Mr. Netanyahu’s office wanted to run the show with Egypt and to keep the Americans at a distance, according to U.S., European and Israeli officials.

The Americans, in turn, felt betrayed by what they saw as a series of “mean spirited” leaks, which they interpreted as a message from Mr. Netanyahu that U.S. involvement was neither welcomed nor needed.

Reflecting Egypt’s importance, Mr. Gilad and other officials took Mr. Sisi’s “temperature” every day during the war to make sure he was comfortable with the military operation as it intensified. Israeli officials knew television pictures of dead Palestinians would at some point bring Cairo to urge Israel to stop.

The Americans felt betrayed, and were clearly frustrated–as other accounts have explained in detail–by their lack of control. Walter Russell Mead calls it an “irony” that the administration wanted to have some way to step back from the world, especially the Middle East, without having it all go to hell, and yet when that opportunity arose they didn’t know what to make of it.

I think Mead is being overly generous. Obama and is advisers were more than surprised; they were resentful to such a degree that it was reflected in their public statements. But they can’t have it both ways. Obama can’t pull back from the world and put more of the burden on our allies to pick up the slack and then complain when those allies think for themselves instead of applying Obama’s magical thinking to serious conflicts.

The real irony is that all this brought Israel and the Arab states much closer together–a perennial goal of American foreign policy–only to make Obama complain they were ganging up on him. It was the one possible success in Obama’s rebalancing efforts, yet it’s the one that really bothers him.

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The Hamas Kidnapping and the Liberal Echo Chamber

Israel’s recent counteroffensive in Gaza against Hamas provided a steady stream of uninformed commentary from the left. But the development in the case of the three kidnapped and murdered Israeli teens a couple of months ago provides a perfect case study in how the left’s echo chamber can amplify an anti-Israel smear with alarming speed.

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Israel’s recent counteroffensive in Gaza against Hamas provided a steady stream of uninformed commentary from the left. But the development in the case of the three kidnapped and murdered Israeli teens a couple of months ago provides a perfect case study in how the left’s echo chamber can amplify an anti-Israel smear with alarming speed.

In June, Gil-ad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach, and Naftali Fraenkel were abducted and murdered by Hamas-affiliated terrorists in the West Bank. The Israeli government identified the suspects as such, but wouldn’t release more information until the investigation proceeded. Now they have reportedly confirmed Hamas’s role in the murders.

Yet back in June, almost immediately there were attempts to absolve the Hamas organization of responsibility by claiming the murderers acted on their own. Because Israel was restricted from releasing all the information it had, it opened space for anti-Israel activists and bloggers to try to push a false narrative that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had deceived the public as a pretext for invading Gaza.

This was an obviously obtuse thing to say (the abduction was not what spurred Israel’s actions in Gaza no matter who was responsible for the kidnapping), but the left operates in its own echo chamber, so it made the rounds. And in the process, it opened a window into how the left constructs an alternate reality about Israel and then, seemingly, convinces itself that it’s true.

On July 25, New York magazine offered, in a blog post shared over 280,000 times on social media, words that should have stopped the conspiracy theorists in their tracks: “BuzzFeed reporter Sheera Frenkel was among the first to suggest that it was unlikely that Hamas was behind the deaths of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrach.” Indeed, Frenkel has been among the least reliable reporters covering the conflict, in part because sources in the region seemed to have identified her early on as an easy mark. The Middle East is a complex place, and it takes a certain skepticism and political savvy to navigate the degree to which sources attempt to spin the media. Frenkel’s sources picked her out as someone who didn’t possess those qualities, and she rewarded their assumptions with her reporting.

What happened in this case was that BBC reporter Jon Donnison misreported his conversation with Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. Frenkel saw this as confirmation of her theory, and ran with it. As Tablet reported, “It appears the entire episode is the result of an unfortunate game of internet telephone. In her tweet, which was picked up by New York, Frenkel placed Donnison’s words ‘lone cell’ in quotation marks, inadvertently making it seem like Donnison’s language was actually Rosenfeld’s. But it wasn’t, and the implications that have been drawn by New York, and now spread by Andrew Sullivan, are not justified.”

New York’s initial headline on the piece was “It Turns Out Hamas Didn’t Kidnap and Kill the 3 Israeli Teens After All.” The headline was not even close to being accurate, and the site belatedly changed the headline after the story had taken off. And no story on a ridiculous anti-Israel rumor would be complete without being given the full “explainer” treatment by Vox.

Vox has developed a reputation for not coming within a country mile of getting the story right when covering Israel. Vox’s mistakes range from the absolutely adorable–Zack Beauchamp’s claim that there’s a bridge connecting the West Bank and Gaza–to the aggressively ignorant–virtually anything Max Fisher writes. Vox’s template is supposed to be explanatory journalism, so the tone in each piece is one of intellectual authority. Thus, for the gullible leftists seeking to confirm their worldview, Vox is a perfect go-to site.

Fisher offered a typical post on the doubt that confused and biased reporters had tried to cast on the kidnapping. Fisher was, it should be noted, more careful about outright accusing Netanyahu of lying. After trying and failing to get a handle on what was going on, Fisher threw up his hands:

If you want to get angry about something, get angry about this: Israel has for years refused to change its strategy toward Gaza and the larger Israel-Palestine conflict, even though that strategy shows zero indication of yielding sustainable peace and leads Israel to occasionally invade Gaza to weaken anti-Israel groups there.

Therefore, he wrote, “in a much larger sense, in the view from 50,000 feet above the conflict, what may have mattered even more is that the conflict is structured in such a way that another war was likely going to happen whether Netanyahu blamed Hamas or not.”

It’s Israel’s fault, even if Hamas terrorism touches off an escalation of the conflict, in this view. And so we went from revelations that Hamas kidnapped and killed three Israeli teens to accusations that Israel lied about Hamas’s role to declarations that whatever actually happened, Israel is to blame for the cycle of violence. It’s a good example of how the left starts out with a fact, concocts a story that contradicts that fact but conforms to their worldview, and then changes the subject to Israel’s eternal guilt as soon as their deceptions are questioned. Waiting for the facts might be too much to ask of them, but as this week’s revelations show, the truth is worth the wait.

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Bibi and Barack After Gaza

As Operation Protective Edge wound down in Gaza, talk in the media turned to the U.S.-Israel relationship. It has been an unusually tense few months for Washington and Jerusalem.

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As Operation Protective Edge wound down in Gaza, talk in the media turned to the U.S.-Israel relationship. It has been an unusually tense few months for Washington and Jerusalem.

What’s puzzling is not President Obama’s desire for peace. It is always admirable to want wars to go on for no longer than they must. But in this case, once Israel discovered the terror tunnels, the state had to act in its own defense. The New York Times has a story today on the administration’s frustration with its lack of control over another sovereign state’s actions, but the entire piece can be boiled down to the following paragraph, appearing early on in the story:

With public opinion in both Israel and the United States solidly behind the Israeli military’s campaign against Hamas, no outcry from Israel’s Arab neighbors, and unstinting support for Israel on Capitol Hill, President Obama has had few obvious levers to force Mr. Netanyahu to stop pounding targets in Gaza until he was ready to do it.

Well that pretty much explains it, doesn’t it? Not only did Israel have public support in the U.S., but its actions were backed by its Arab neighbors and the U.S. Congress. Obama was the odd man out–or one of the few, anyway. There was a rare consensus in Israel’s part of the Middle East that included Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Everyone was on the same page both with Israel and the U.S. for once. It was an easy diplomatic call for Obama, but he still made the wrong one.

Additionally, the efficacy of American pressure on Israel depends to a large extent on the Israeli public. In this particular case, Hamas had constructed an underground city with tunnels that led into Israeli territory. Of course the Israeli public wanted those tunnels gone. And the threat from the rockets flying from Gaza, often derided by the world as glorified firecrackers, had increased as well. The rockets practically shut down Ben-Gurion Airport, Israel’s gateway to the outside world, which had the effect of temporarily isolating a Jewish polity that, for clear and rational reasons, is a bit sensitive to their enemies’ attempts to ghettoize them.

As Ruthie Blum writes today in Israel Hayom:

One could argue that the reason public support for Operation Protective Edge reached a ‎whopping 95 percent was the utter justice of its cause; that the incessant rocket-‎fire from Gaza, now hitting the center of country, was too much even for the peace ‎utopians to bear. ‎

One could assume that no matter what an Israeli’s personal political leanings, he would ‎see the virtue in defeating an enemy that glorifies death; uses children as canon fodder; ‎abuses women; tortures homosexuals and the disabled; and vows to annihilate the world’s ‎Jews while converting or slaughtering its Christians. ‎

Nevertheless, it is usually impossible to get even those Israelis with similar outlooks to ‎agree on anything, including where to hang a communal clothesline, for more than five ‎minutes. Hence the quip, “Two Jews, three opinions.”‎

Blum also mentions the surprising fact that this unity occurred under the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu, whose essential pragmatism tends to leave Israelis wary of his intentions. Netanyahu doesn’t really have a political base in the traditional sense, since the right wing doesn’t trust him. Yet in this current conflict, virtually the entire country was his base.

Such unity of spirit and support for Israel in the Arab world should have been inspiring. To Obama, it was a source of aggravation. As the Times notes:

The blunt, unsparing language — among the toughest diplomats recall ever being aimed at Israel — lays bare a frustrating reality for the Obama administration: the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has largely dismissed diplomatic efforts by the United States to end the violence in Gaza, leaving American officials to seethe on the sidelines about what they regard as disrespectful treatment.

Obama has always been more receptive to the angst of the Democratic Party’s base than other elected Democrats who didn’t, after all, become the most powerful person in the world by riding a wave of feverish antiwar anger. And the Democratic Party’s base is the one sector of American politics whose open hostility to Israel is not only growing stronger by the day but also seeping into the rest of the party from the margins.

Obama has often left commentators perplexed by the battles he chooses and the fights he picks, since they’re so often with steadfast allies. And it should be noted that he hasn’t abandoned Israel in the military realm–far from it. But the diplomatic aggression toward Israel is far from meaningless. The Times explains that “a senior American official predicted that the tough State Department statement would ‘box [Israel] in internationally.’”

Despite having the Arab world on their side in this fight, not to mention the U.S. Congress and the public they represent, the Obama administration is trying to rally international–European, presumably–opinion against Israel. It’s strategically foolish and diplomatically illogical. Perhaps the end of Operation Protective Edge, then–if indeed this is the end–will serve to protect the Obama administration from itself by preventing further self-inflicted wounds, or at least remove Gaza as their source.

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An “Economic Peace” for Gaza?

One of the themes we return to time and again on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the international community’s Oslo vision of the peace process requires the rejection of the only tactics and strategies that have proved successful. The momentum for a two-state solution outran the establishment of the conditions in the Palestinian territories that would foster and support what is otherwise a worthy goal.

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One of the themes we return to time and again on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the international community’s Oslo vision of the peace process requires the rejection of the only tactics and strategies that have proved successful. The momentum for a two-state solution outran the establishment of the conditions in the Palestinian territories that would foster and support what is otherwise a worthy goal.

At the top of this list is what’s referred to as “economic peace,” the attempts led by Benjamin Netanyahu to increase economic cooperation with and development in the West Bank to improve the lives of Palestinians until a final-status agreement can be reached. As I’ve pointed out here before, economic peace actually has a track record of success, unlike most of the West’s meddling in the peace process.

Opponents of economic peace–including American officials current and former–have tended to argue that it’s a scam, a way for Netanyahu to forestall the two-state solution without publicly saying so. They’re wrong, of course: anything that replaces desperation with economic growth helps the Palestinian moderates and shows the value of cooperating with Israel. There’s also been another element to economic peace: demonstrate that the Hamas way is a dead end. And now Netanyahu is taking that argument to the next step, the New York Times reports:

After years in which Israel’s prevailing approach to the Gaza Strip was a simple “quiet for quiet” demand, there is growing momentum around a new formula, “reconstruction for demilitarization.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is only the latest in a string of Israeli leaders who saw Gaza mainly as an irritant to be controlled with periodic crackdowns and as a roadblock to resolving the nation’s broader conflict with the Palestinians. But as Israel’s latest military bout with the Islamist Hamas faction, which dominates Gaza, has proved tougher than previous rounds, even Mr. Netanyahu has begun talking about Gaza’s need for “social and economic relief” from decade-old Israeli restrictions on trade and travel.

This is basically economic peace for Gaza. And its purpose is twofold. The first is to buy time: Israel is essentially negotiating with the international community at this point, repeatedly justifying its legitimate right of self-defense. The international community very quickly gets tired of seeing the images of war, and calls for an end to the fighting regardless of the military objectives accomplished or the near-certainty that the cease-fire would allow Hamas to rearm and restock for the next war.

The international community has not been persuaded by Israel’s clear military objectives, because they could not care less about the repercussions of leaving the task undone. Anyone who decries the imbalance of fatalities by pointing to how few Jews have been killed so far is not going to be moved by the possibility of terrorism against Israel. Even Human Rights Watch’s director Ken Roth got in on the action, unilaterally rewriting the laws of conflict to wave away the rights of Israeli soldiers on Israeli territory. So Netanyahu understands that while he’s quite obviously right–Israel cannot pretend those tunnels aren’t there–the world’s indifference to Israel’s fate means being right isn’t enough.

An economic peace for Gaza asks the world to envision a demilitarized Gaza’s potential for peace and economic success, and to have the patience to see that vision through. And it also has one other purpose: it gives Palestinians, and their international backers, a choice. Do they prefer Gaza to be controlled by a weaponized terrorist machinery, or do they prefer a much-improved standard of living and engagement with the outside world?

For this argument, Netanyahu at least has the wind at his back. After all, the current war in Gaza has demolished any and all arguments in favor of lifting the siege without demilitarization. Nothing illustrates this better than the terror tunnels. Hundreds of thousands of tons of cement and other supplies to build an underground city to which only terrorists have access while Palestinians above suffer: it’s irrefutable proof lifting import restrictions would only help Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian civilians.

And in doing so, it would lay the groundwork for the next war, in which the Palestinians would be used by Hamas as human shields and we’d be having this discussion all over again. When people decry the “cycle of violence,” they usually mean the Israelis and Palestinians are equally culpable. But though that particular definition of the phrase is ignorant and morally objectionable, they are onto something. There is a cycle of violence, and it goes like this: Hamas terrorists attack Israel, step up rocket attacks while Israel shows restraint, and eventually provoke an Israeli counteroffensive in self-defense.

Netanyahu is proposing to break the cycle. Demilitarize Gaza, he argues, and the restrictions on trade would lose their primary justification. Demilitarizing Gaza would force Israel’s hand with regard to the siege. He is, in effect, calling the bluff of those who claim to care more about Palestinian life than Israeli death. The international community’s response will tell us much about which of those two they see as the greater priority.

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Israel, Bipartisanship, and the Blame Game

How should pro-Israel Democrats respond to the fact that support for Israel in their party is dropping? That question has renewed relevance with the latest polls showing increasing disapproval of Israel within the Democratic Party. Last week’s Gallup poll showed that Democrats do not think Israel’s actions in Gaza are justified by a 47-31 percent tally. And this week’s Pew poll shows that, astoundingly, Democrats are about evenly divided over whether Israel or Hamas is most responsible for the current violence. (Both polls show Republicans broadly support Israel.)

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How should pro-Israel Democrats respond to the fact that support for Israel in their party is dropping? That question has renewed relevance with the latest polls showing increasing disapproval of Israel within the Democratic Party. Last week’s Gallup poll showed that Democrats do not think Israel’s actions in Gaza are justified by a 47-31 percent tally. And this week’s Pew poll shows that, astoundingly, Democrats are about evenly divided over whether Israel or Hamas is most responsible for the current violence. (Both polls show Republicans broadly support Israel.)

It’s a trend that has been on the march for some time. For a while liberals denied there was rising disenchantment with Israel on the left, but that became impossible after the Democrats’ 2012 presidential nominating convention, when the party’s delegates loudly booed at and resoundingly voted down adding pro-Israel language to the Democratic Party platform (the language was added over their objections, though it was quite a scene). At that point, a new strategy was needed, since everyone was well aware the Democrats’ traditional support for Israel was in danger of collapsing.

The new strategy has two main elements. The first is to rule out debate on the issue. When you hear Democrats accusing Republicans of using Israel as a political football, you can be sure the left has said or done something objectionable. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf tried that tack again today. In trying to deflect criticism of her boss, Harf said, according to the AP’s Matt Lee, that “Many members of Congress, I think, like to use Israel as a political issue to try to divide the country.” Translation: when the Democrats are in the process of damaging Israel, supporting Israel becomes an unacceptable partisan play.

The other side to this strategy is to then use this supposed partisanship (defending Israel when the Democrats refuse to do so) to justify the Democrats’ turn away from Israel. The latest example of this comes from Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall. He concedes the point that having an American native like Ron Dermer as Israel’s ambassador can help communicate Israel’s positions clearly and navigate American politics. But Marshall is troubled by this as well because Dermer has a Republican background:

It should go without saying that the Israel-US alliance becomes more brittle as it becomes more clearly identified with a single US political party. And perhaps more than that, as it becomes more clearly identified with the ties between Netanyahu and US Republicans.

Marshall says, correctly, that it hurts the alliance to have support for Israel as an identifiable characteristic of only one political party. What he doesn’t say is that his party is the one increasingly setting aside that alliance. He hints, instead, that by associating with Republicans Netanyahu is the one who made that choice.

In essence, this line of thinking holds that the Israeli government can only get so much support from Republicans before Democrats will walk away. Marshall is not the first to discuss the situation in such terms. On the eve of the 2012 presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, in making his case for Obama, wrote the following:

Republicans have had a good deal of success turning Israel into a partisan issue, mainly by misrepresenting President Obama’s record (but also helped by certain Obama missteps), and if they continue to press their case, many Democrats will find supporting Israel distasteful — they will lump supporters of Israel in the same category they reserve for climate-change-denying anti-choice Obamacare haters. This would be very dangerous for Israel.

Yes, it would be very dangerous for Israel. But it’s also a profound condemnation, even if unintentional, of Goldberg’s fellow liberals. If they will find voluble support for Israel, which in this case includes criticism of Barack Obama for what they perceive to be his weakening of the alliance, to be enough to convince them not to support Israel, then they are not supporters of Israel: they are leftist partisans.

If they really do support Israel, they would be able to continue supporting Israel even though conservatives get as (or more) animated about their support for Israel as on other important conservative issues. That should go without saying, but it apparently does not. A bipartisan consensus in support of Israel is what is best for both the United States and Israel, which is why that consensus has endured for decades now. And for it to be bipartisan, Democrats will have to get over their distaste for sharing a coalition with Republicans.

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Kerry’s Folly: Friends Can Say No to Friends

The Israeli government is doing its best to patch things up with the Obama administration after Secretary of State John Kerry was blasted by a broad consensus of opinion in the Jewish state as well as many respected American journalists for his bungled efforts to broker a cease-fire in Gaza that would have helped Hamas. But after all the umbrage from Washington and the apologies from Jerusalem, the real question we should be asking is not about Kerry’s hurt feelings but whether Israel has the right to tell its sole superpower ally “no.”

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The Israeli government is doing its best to patch things up with the Obama administration after Secretary of State John Kerry was blasted by a broad consensus of opinion in the Jewish state as well as many respected American journalists for his bungled efforts to broker a cease-fire in Gaza that would have helped Hamas. But after all the umbrage from Washington and the apologies from Jerusalem, the real question we should be asking is not about Kerry’s hurt feelings but whether Israel has the right to tell its sole superpower ally “no.”

Today’s cease-fire fiasco in which an initiative for a halt to the fighting from Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas demonstrated anew how irrelevant the man lauded by the United States as a peace partner has become in the current conflict. But the main focus of discussion in the last few days has been Kerry’s foolish decision to adopt the positions of Hamas’s Turkish and Qatari allies in putting forward a cease-fire proposal that effectively cut both Abbas and Egypt out of the process. Israel’s government was shocked at Kerry’s betrayal that would have granted Hamas terrorists an undeserved political victory.

But rather than be held accountable for Kerry’s blunder as well as his miscalculations during the course of his sponsorship of peace talks whose collapse led directly to the current round of violence, what we are hearing are complaints about Israel’s chutzpah in calling out the secretary for his mistakes. Some today are pointing out what they consider to be Israel’s foolishness in creating friction with its sole friend. Indeed, at a time when the safety of the Jewish state is directly related to the continued use of the Iron Dome system that was financed in large measure by the United States, and for which Israel will need more funding to keep it shooting down Hamas rockets, there is a sense that uppity Israelis are biting the hand that is feeding them.

There is a superficial logic to such criticism of the Israelis and anytime a foreign government and its press attack any American official. Yet to frame this issue as one of ingratitude on the part of Israelis—both for U.S. assistance and for Kerry’s efforts to broker peace—is to misperceive the problem. Israelis should treat U.S. officials with courtesy and to listen to their advice. Yet expecting them to compromise their security for the sake of good feelings isn’t merely unrealistic. It’s an act of hostility that undermines an alliance that is as much in America’s interest as it is Israel’s.

Such tension between these two close friends is nothing new. U.S. leaders have been pressuring Israel to make territorial withdrawals or “risks” for peace since the inception of the state. That pressure intensified after the Six-Day War when the U.S. switched from an interested onlooker in the conflict (few remember that the Israelis fought all of their wars up until the Yom Kippur War without U.S. arms or significant assistance) to an ally of the Jewish state. Arguments such as those of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan with Menachem Begin, George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker with Yitzhak Shamir, and Bill Clinton and now Barack Obama with Benjamin Netanyahu all raised the same hackles about Israel’s refusal to consistently knuckle under to American demands.

But all these debates revolve around a basic principle that, like it or not, American leaders have had to learn to respect: Israel is a sovereign nation and cannot be asked to sacrifice the lives of its citizens in order to gratify the demands or the ego of American presidents and secretaries of state. In the current case, that means seeking to prematurely force Israel to cease operations against Hamas rocket fire and terror infiltration tunnels or to grant the terrorists concessions is simply unacceptable.

Moreover, as Kerry’s about-face after the weekend in which he agreed that demilitarization of Gaza should be the goal of any negotiations illustrated, even the Obama administration understands that the American people do not support a policy of pressure on Israel. Indeed, anyone thinking that Obama and Kerry might try to squeeze Netanyahu to make concessions by holding up more funding for Iron Dome got a dose of reality in the past few days when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were competing with each other over who would give the Israelis the most additional Iron Dome money.

It can be argued that friends shouldn’t be rude to friends, although the disgust and anger that Kerry generated across the entire Israeli political spectrum, including many fierce critics of Netanyahu, renders the administration’s hurt feelings somewhat ridiculous. But friends have a right to tell a friend—even a generous one that supplies essential aid—that their requests are neither reasonable nor helpful. Israel is not a banana republic and has said no to the United States before this and will again. More to the point, so long as the requests coming from the administration remain as unreasonable and out of touch with the reality of the conflict as those adopted by Obama and Kerry have been, Netanyahu should be able to resist them in the full knowledge that most Americans both understand and support his position.

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Hamas Knows It Is Losing

Is Hamas on the ropes? The terrorist group certainly seems to think so. That’s one takeaway from the tragic news that Hamas terrorists infiltrated the Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz, fired an anti-tank missile, and killed five Israeli soldiers. According to Haaretz, it marks the fourth such infiltration by Hamas fighters via cross-border tunnels. Such events–especially the deadly assault at Nahal Oz–might appear to fall into one of two categories: a successful attack on Israel (Nahal Oz) or a disquieting signal of Hamas’s plans to invade undetected (the attacks that failed). But I think there’s a third explanation.

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Is Hamas on the ropes? The terrorist group certainly seems to think so. That’s one takeaway from the tragic news that Hamas terrorists infiltrated the Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz, fired an anti-tank missile, and killed five Israeli soldiers. According to Haaretz, it marks the fourth such infiltration by Hamas fighters via cross-border tunnels. Such events–especially the deadly assault at Nahal Oz–might appear to fall into one of two categories: a successful attack on Israel (Nahal Oz) or a disquieting signal of Hamas’s plans to invade undetected (the attacks that failed). But I think there’s a third explanation.

The network of tunnels Hamas has built underground has been at the center of the conflict’s escalation. The discovery of the planned Rosh Hashanah mass terror attack utilizing those tunnels has only reinforced to Israel’s leaders that the tunnels must be destroyed or rendered inoperative. Israel has also shown its determination to get a full picture of those tunnels, and has resisted efforts to let Hamas cover its tracks. The rockets are certainly a threat against which Israel has the right to self-defense. But because of Iron Dome, the rockets pale in comparison to the tunnels in terms of sophistication and the danger to Israel’s civilians. So why would Hamas fighters use the tunnels now?

According to what we’ve learned about the tunnels during Operation Protective Edge, they were a grand accomplishment–a city under the sand in the 21st century. They were also to be used for the kind of concerted terror attack that would, to Hamas and its backers, make them worth the investment. The Rosh Hashanah attack certainly would appear to fit that bill. It’s unclear whether the goal would be to take entire kibbutzim hostage, to kill everyone in range and all at once, or to kidnap large numbers of Israelis from all over the country and take them back to Gaza. It could, I suppose, have been a combination of the three.

But there are no indications the tunnels were constructed for desperate jihadis to lure Israel into playing whack-a-mole. It certainly doesn’t make much sense to do so now, anyway. Israel and Hamas are currently at war. Israel is taking this fight very seriously–too seriously for the chuckleheads in Turtle Bay and Foggy Bottom, in fact. The nation is at high alert, the reserves have been called up, and the IDF knows the tunnels are there and are intended to be used for an attack on Israeli territory.

This is, then, easily the worst time for Hamas to start using those tunnels in relatively ad-hoc attacks. Doing so now puts them at a distinct disadvantage, with the IDF ready for them to pop out of the ground. It risks exposing the existence of tunnels the IDF may not have found, and thus expanding the mental map the IDF is piecing together of this underground city.

It reduces if not completely erases the element of surprise, and it ensures the IDF is staffed up enough to respond immediately and forcefully to any breach of its territory. One isolated attack may or may not be considered a casus belli–Hamas is surely aware of just how hesitant Benjamin Netanyahu was in committing ground troops at all–but an attack during a war guarantees a response.

There is always some risk in trying to explain the behavior of a barbaric terrorist organization with logic and reasoning. So maybe Hamas looks like it doesn’t know what it’s doing because it doesn’t know what it’s doing. But even if that’s the case, Hamas’s recent behavior is a tell. Hamas believes Israel means it this time. The Israeli leadership is united, as is much of the Israeli public, and they have resisted pressure from the U.S. to let Hamas off the ropes. Hamas, then, is in “use it or lose it” mode with the tunnels. They expect Israel to leave them no avenue of cross-border attack, so they’re utilizing them while they can.

The U.S. even stepped aside this week to let the UN take a swing at Israel. According to Foreign Policy’s Column Lynch, one expert, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Robert Danin, even “suggested that the United States may be seeking to leverage its position by playing on Israeli fears of being left to fend for itself at a United Nations that appears to be universally opposed to the current offensive.”

Israel is at war, and the American president wants to send a message by playing on Israel’s fears of being abandoned. How nice. And yet, Israel still insists on protecting its civilians instead of begging forgiveness for insulting the magnificent stupidity of the American secretary of state’s attempt to force Israel to appease the terrorists currently popping out of the ground in Israeli territory firing anti-tank shells.

Hamas was expecting the Jews to tie themselves to the tracks and save them the work. When that failed, they expected John Kerry to take care of it, preferably with sturdy Qatari rope. But they are now realizing that Israel intends to win, and that it is well on its way to doing so. And they are acting with evident recklessness, because it might be all they have left.

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Lessons from the Failed Peace Process

There are a few conclusions to be drawn from Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon’s deeply reported and engagingly written investigation into the failure of the recent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The first is that, if the reporting is accurate, there is no longer any doubt that it was the Palestinian side that blew up the talks. They attempted to kill the process twice, but the first time the Israeli negotiators, led by Tzipi Livni, rescued the talks. The second time, the Palestinians ensured nothing could be done to save the process.

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There are a few conclusions to be drawn from Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon’s deeply reported and engagingly written investigation into the failure of the recent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The first is that, if the reporting is accurate, there is no longer any doubt that it was the Palestinian side that blew up the talks. They attempted to kill the process twice, but the first time the Israeli negotiators, led by Tzipi Livni, rescued the talks. The second time, the Palestinians ensured nothing could be done to save the process.

The second conclusion is that the way the Palestinians, led by Mahmoud Abbas and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, blew up the talks bodes ill for any future peace process:

Over the next three weeks, with April 29 approaching, Indyk would meet nine times with Livni, Molho, Erekat, and Faraj in a bid to salvage the peace talks. He was determined to get everything in writing this time. No more misunderstandings. And by April 23, the sides seemed close to an extension agreement. Indyk drove to Ben Gurion Airport that day to pick up his wife, and while at the baggage claim, he got a call from Livni. She’d heard that the Palestinians had just done something to ruin all the progress they had made. Indyk immediately phoned Erekat, who said he wasn’t aware of the development, but would investigate. Back at the U.S. consulate, the Kerry team was combing over the details of the emerging deal, with the secretary calling periodically to check in. Soon, the news penetrated their office, too. Weeks earlier, they had been surprised by the timing of Abu Mazen’s U.N. ceremony, but not by the act. The Palestinians had put them on notice. But as the American officials huddled around a desktop computer, hungry for actual details about this rumor they were hearing, they couldn’t believe the headline that now flashed across the screen: FATAH, HAMAS END YEARS OF DIVISON, AGREE TO UNITY GOVERNMENT. The next day, the Israeli Cabinet had voted to suspend the talks. John Kerry’s peace process was over.

It’s one thing to threaten action, set a deadline, and then carry it out. That is essentially what the Palestinians did with their UN gambit. But the idea that the process could just end on a Palestinian whim can poison the well (or whatever’s left of it).

That’s because for the Palestinians, once the process begins it’s in the hands of Abbas, Erekat, and some high-level members of Abbas’s cabinet. That is not the case for Israel. As the report details, the day the Palestinians signed their applications to the UN agencies, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was holding meetings throughout the day in his office seeking to reassure skeptics in his coalition without alienating Livni and the peace processors to their left. Additionally, he had to deal with the constant threat of rebellion from Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing party that held the third-most seats in the governing coalition.

The unity deal between Hamas and Fatah was an unmitigated disaster for the peace process. It was more than just a setback: it raised the possibility that any Israeli leader who risked his government for a peace process would get a more terroristic Palestinian government than he or she started with and would have imminent war looming. The Palestinians are willing to pull the plug without warning. That’s a lesson their Israeli and American counterparts will learn.

And it is related to the third conclusion to be drawn from the essay. The authors relate a conversation between Kerry and Netanyahu in which Netanyahu raises the issue of Palestinian incitement. Eventually, the following exchange occurs:

Kerry pressed on: “When I fought in Vietnam, I used to look at the faces of the local population and the looks they gave us. I’ll never forget it. It gave me clarity that we saw the situation in completely different ways.”

“This isn’t Vietnam!” Netanyahu shouted. “No one understands Israel but Israel.”

That comment may paint Netanyahu as defensive, but in fact he’s right–and the essay demonstrates that convincingly. Kerry and his negotiating team, as well as the Palestinian leadership, consistently misread the Israeli political scene and Netanyahu’s reaction to it. Autocrats don’t seem to understand democratic politics, and Kerry’s team exhibited no real grasp of what it takes to form a consensus and keep a government intact in Israel.

The reporters themselves even got tripped up by Israeli politics and leaned heavily on trite and completely inaccurate narratives. At one point in the article, they refer to Netanyahu as “a right-wing ideologue”–an absurdly reductionist and patently false claim. If Netanyahu, the famous dealmaker and pragmatist who elicits much Israeli wariness precisely because he is not an ideologue, can be classified as such, then everybody and nobody is an “ideologue.”

Elsewhere in the piece we are told, indefensibly, that “Tea Party types were continuing their slow-motion takeover of the Likud.” This is a common, but no less justifiable, trope. It is a sign either that the writer can only understand politics through shallow American analogies or that the writer assumes that to be true of the reader. Or both, I suppose. Whatever the reason, the “Tea Party” contention is obviously untrue, and those who offer it with regard to Israeli politics are doing their readers a considerable disservice.

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Will Kerry Hand Hamas a Victory?

Four days into Israel’s ground operations in Gaza casualties are rising on both sides, but the only ones who seems to be cracking under the pressure are President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. While Hamas remains confident that it can bank on international support and Israel’s government seems determined not to kick the can down the road any further with respect to the ongoing threat from the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, the administration may be panicking and about to make yet another mistake that will sow the seeds for more suffering in the future.

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Four days into Israel’s ground operations in Gaza casualties are rising on both sides, but the only ones who seems to be cracking under the pressure are President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. While Hamas remains confident that it can bank on international support and Israel’s government seems determined not to kick the can down the road any further with respect to the ongoing threat from the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, the administration may be panicking and about to make yet another mistake that will sow the seeds for more suffering in the future.

Secretary Kerry’s hot-mic moment when he sarcastically mocked Israeli efforts to destroy part of Hamas’s underground tunnel complex in Shejaiya was a telling moment in the conflict. Once back live on the air, Kerry reiterated support for Israel’s right to self-defense. But the comments, along with President Obama’s statement of “serious concern” about the casualties from the operation against the Hamas fortress, was the backdrop for the decision to send the secretary of state back to Cairo today to work on a cease-fire. While in principle that seems like the right thing to do at a moment when the conflict is heating up, it is difficult to escape the impression that Kerry’s mission is more an opportunity for an unforced error by Washington–one that will allow Hamas to emerge from the fray with a victory–than a mission of mercy.

Hamas was correct in its estimation that provoking a ground invasion would produce Palestinian casualties that fueled the fire of anti-Israel sentiment across the globe. Armed with the backing of Qatar, Turkey, and radical Islamists across the region as well as bolstered by the sympathy of international opinion that can always be counted on to damn any Israeli measure of self-defense even when the Jewish state is being assailed by rockets and tunnel infiltrations, Hamas believes it can simply stand its ground. The longer the bloody battle to disarm the Islamist terror movement that rules Gaza goes on, the more Palestinian human shields will die. That, in turn, will raise the pressure on Egypt to open up its border with Gaza and end the political and economic isolation that has hampered the terror group since the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo last year.

However, Hamas may have, for once, underestimated the resolve of both Israel’s government and its people. Prime Minister Netanyahu was slow to order the ground operation despite being given ample reason to send in troops once Hamas started launching hundreds of rockets at Israeli cities. He also gave Hamas ample opportunities to stand down and accept cease-fires that the Islamists consistently rejected. But once the die was cast, the prime minister seems to be serious about not repeating the mistakes his country made in the recent past whereby it gave Hamas the impression that there was nothing it could do that would be enough to prompt a decision to take out the group’s terror infrastructure. The methodical offensive appears to be doing serious damage to Hamas’s capacity to inflict terror on Israel. If it is allowed to continue, there is a chance that Israel will finally land a lethal blow against the group that is the real obstacle to peace in the region.

Just as important as Netanyahu’s resolve is the reaction of Israel’s people to the crisis. It is likely that Hamas believed Israelis too fearful of paying the high price in blood–both in terms of its own soldiers and Palestinians–to significantly impact the strategic equation along the Gaza border. But so far, despite the frayed nerves of people tired of having to run for bomb shelters and horrified by the loss of life in the fighting, support for the government appears to be strong. A visit to Israel’s southern region showed me that despite the best efforts of Hamas, life is going on even in the areas that have been most affected. Moreover, the faces of the busloads of Israeli reservists who are being shipped into the area of the border showed that the country’s citizen soldiers remain committed to doing what must be done to ensure their country’s safety. If Hamas thought Netanyahu was too politically weak to make hard decisions or that Israelis would turn on him and succumb to foreign pressure, it may have made a crucial mistake.

But that resolve is not shared by Israel’s American ally. Though nothing would do more to pave the way for a renewed peace process with the Palestinians that both Obama and Kerry have ceaselessly advocated than the weakening or the elimination of Hamas, neither man appears to have the intestinal fortitude to unwaveringly back an operation that would do just that. For months Washington has been sending mixed messages to the region that have encouraged the Islamists to believe the U.S.-Israel alliance was weakening as blame for the collapse of Kerry’s negotiations was placed solely on Israel despite the fact that it was the Palestinian Authority’s decision to embrace Hamas that finally ended that fool’s errand. Moreover, by constantly carping about Israel’s counter-attacks after Hamas launched the current war, the administration has encouraged the terrorists to believe that the U.S. won’t let them be defeated.

Thus Kerry’s decision to fly to Cairo to work on a cease-fire is exactly the news that Hamas wanted to hear. They have already made it clear they don’t care how many Palestinians die in the conflict they provoked so long as the end result grants them the political concessions from Egypt that will further their cause. They know that if the U.S. was not prepared to pressure the Egyptian government to throw Hamas a bone or to force Israel to stop operations aimed at eliminating their rocket arsenal and blowing up their underground fortresses, there was no reason for Kerry to come to the region. A cease-fire that would grant Hamas no political victories didn’t require the personal presence of the secretary in Cairo. But by bending to the usual hypocritical international outcry against any Israeli attempt to take out the terror nest on their border, the administration is signalling that it won’t let Netanyahu take out Hamas or allow Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to stand his ground about sealing his country’s border against infiltration from an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood he deposed.

Were Obama and Kerry prepared to show the kind of resolve that Netanyahu and Sisi have exhibited it would be very bad news indeed for Hamas and its foreign cheerleaders that continue to nurture delusions about Israel’s destruction. Instead, the U.S. appears to be as clueless as ever about the stakes involved in this fight and cracking under the pressure generated by the Palestinians sacrificed by Hamas on the altar of their jihadist mission. If so, the price paid by both Israelis and Palestinians in the future will be considerable.

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Washington’s Mixed Messages and Israeli Realities

The Obama administration helped create the situation that led to the current fighting in Gaza by sending mixed messages to the Palestinian Authority about mainstreaming Hamas. That was bad enough, but now the State Department is compounding its recent errors with its equivocal stance about Israeli efforts to suppress both Hamas’s incessant rocket fire and its attempts to send terrorists across the border via tunnel attacks. While U.S. concerns about civilian casualties that result from these counter-attacks are, at least in theory, reasonable, the notion that Israel isn’t doing enough to protect innocents in Gaza reflects the same disconnect from reality that helped create the current mess.

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The Obama administration helped create the situation that led to the current fighting in Gaza by sending mixed messages to the Palestinian Authority about mainstreaming Hamas. That was bad enough, but now the State Department is compounding its recent errors with its equivocal stance about Israeli efforts to suppress both Hamas’s incessant rocket fire and its attempts to send terrorists across the border via tunnel attacks. While U.S. concerns about civilian casualties that result from these counter-attacks are, at least in theory, reasonable, the notion that Israel isn’t doing enough to protect innocents in Gaza reflects the same disconnect from reality that helped create the current mess.

Writing from Jerusalem in the hours before Shabbat descends on the city, I can report that while the country’s collective nerves are frayed by the constant rocket attacks, life is going on pretty much as normal. Crowds are out in the evenings in the cities (an outdoor showing of The Wizard of Oz at the capital’s old train station went on without incident) and there was the normal bustle at the Mahane Yehuda market prior to the Sabbath. There’s also little doubt that in spite of their endemic political divisions, most Israelis are behind their government’s decision to hit Hamas hard in pursuit of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s goal of “sustainable quiet.” The launch of ground operations against Gaza was rendered inevitable after Hamas’s repeated rejections of cease-fire offers and its raising the ante with an infiltration attack. But this sequence of events validates the widespread recognition that so long as Hamas remains in power in Gaza, the violence will resume sooner or later even if the Islamists eventually agree to stop shooting.

It is in that context that the administration’s attempt to both back Israel’s right of self-defense while also maintaining a critical stance about the loss of civilian lives in Gaza must be regarded.

While Israelis deeply regret the loss of lives in Gaza, the notion that their army isn’t doing enough to prevent non-combatants from being killed doesn’t resonate here. No army is perfect, but few here doubt that the Israel Defense Forces’ highly restrictive rules of engagement are both limiting the army’s ability to strike at will against Hamas positions as well as keeping casualties to a minimum. Americans who are inclined to be judgmental about the IDF’s actions should think about the similar dilemmas often faced by U.S. forces in Afghanistan when fighting the Taliban and its allies or when drone attacks are launched at terrorist targets and ask themselves how they would feel about their troops being second-guessed by foreign leaders the way State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki is speaking about Israeli efforts.

But leaving aside the administration’s hypocrisy, the bigger problem is Washington’s attempt to limit Israeli actions to, in Secretary of State Kerry’s words, “precise actions” against tunnel infiltrations that leave in place a terrorist infrastructure that will ensure that more attempts to inflict large-scale atrocities on Israelis–the goal of Thursday’s cross-border raid–will continue.

Back in April when the administration declined to oppose the Palestinian Authority’s decision to strike an agreement with Hamas rather than Israel, it pretended that the Islamist terror movement could be rendered irrelevant by the peace process. But now we see that so long as Hamas retains the power to plunge the country into a new war every time it wants to better its position, stability, let alone peace, is impossible. Nothing short of actions that will force Hamas’s disarmament will enable Kerry to realize his dream of brokering peace. Yet the U.S. continues to act as if limiting Israeli actions to superficial pinpricks against the terrorists’ strongholds and arsenal will enhance the cause of peace. Perhaps Kerry and President Obama believe their clinging to an equivocal stance about Gaza will enable the U.S. to be an “even-handed” broker in the future. But if there is anything that we have learned in the last month, it is that so long as Hamas’s power remains intact, America’s pretensions about peace are exposed as pipe dreams.

It’s not clear if the current operations will realize Netanyahu’s goal of quiet. But the contrast between Washington’s mixed messages about self-defense and the reality of Israel’s security dilemma illustrates how clueless the administration is about the situation. As much as Netanyahu has tried to avoid open fights with the U.S., there are no illusions here about the country’s need to ignore the State Department’s criticism if there’s a chance that the IDF can substantially reduce Hamas’s ability to terrorize Israelis.

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Does Obama Want 20 More Gazas?

Speaking today, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed not to cease Israel’s military operations against Hamas terrorists until his country’s people are “assured of quiet” as they coped with a weeklong rocket barrage from Gaza. But in explaining his position, he raised an important question that transcends the immediate confrontation: does the U.S. really expect Israel to tolerate a situation in which this battle will be duplicated on the West Bank?

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Speaking today, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed not to cease Israel’s military operations against Hamas terrorists until his country’s people are “assured of quiet” as they coped with a weeklong rocket barrage from Gaza. But in explaining his position, he raised an important question that transcends the immediate confrontation: does the U.S. really expect Israel to tolerate a situation in which this battle will be duplicated on the West Bank?

Though the United States has expressed its support for Israel’s right of self-defense against a ceaseless rain of rockets aimed at its civilian population, the Obama administration remains resolute in refusing to draw any conclusions from these events.

As I noted earlier this week, the administration began the week by issuing a scathing denunciation of Israel’s government delivered by a top White House staffer in person at an Israeli forum. Even as the Islamist group’s rockets were landing all over the Jewish state, Philip Gordon, the White House coordinator for the Middle East praised Hamas’s Fatah partners in the Palestinian unity government and blasted Israel’s leaders for the lack of peace. He urged Israel to give up the West Bank as part of a two-state solution that would end the conflict.

As it happens, most Israelis agree that this would be the best option. But the reason why there isn’t much support for Washington’s suggestions is directly related to this week’s events. As Netanyahu stated, Israel’s current no-win situation vis-à-vis Hamas in Gaza is the result of a decision to take America’s advice about the value of territorial withdrawal. In 2005, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pulled every last Israeli soldier, civilian, and settlement out of the strip in a vain effort to make progress toward peace. While few Israelis have any desire to retake Gaza, they understand that Hamas is creating what is, for all intents and purposes, an independent Palestinian state in all but name.

In Gaza, Hamas has not only created a terrorist fortress where they can hide behind a large civilian population. It has dug itself innumerable tunnels where it stores armaments such as the missiles it shoots at Israeli cities as well as more than 1,200 more crisscrossing the border with Egypt.

As Hamas has proved this week, Israel’s attempts to limit the damage that the group can cause are complicated by their ability to increase the range of their rockets while also depending on the Jewish state’s reluctance to engage in an all-out war with its attendant suffering to root out the terrorist threat. But most Israelis assume that sooner or later, Hamas will stop shooting and they can get back to their normal lives.

But unless a sea change in Palestinian opinion happens that would make it possible for their leaders to accept an end to the conflict and a recognition of the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, it’s difficult to imagine how any Israeli government could possibly agree to the American request that it replicate the Gaza experiment in the far larger and more strategically located West Bank.

Speaking for President Obama, Gordon said that Israel is wrong to deny Palestinians sovereignty over the West Bank as well as security and dignity. But the problem here is not Israeli reluctance to give up territory. They have done it before and, if given any reasonable assurance that it will not come back to haunt them, may do it again. Yet somehow no one in the administration thinks that what happened in Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal should inform their opinion of what would follow if they were to give up control of security in the West Bank. As Netanyahu rightly said, there is every possibility that, despite the administration’s faith in Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s dedication to peace, all such a withdrawal would mean is the creation of 20 more Gazas.

Israel’s critics see Netanyahu’s repeat of his pledge that he would not give up security control of the territory west of the Jordan River as intransigence. But it is a position that has majority support in Israel because, whether they like Netanyahu or support the settlements, they have seen what happens when Israel gives up territory to Palestinian groups that are still pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state or entrust their security to others.

More than any settlement or any statement by Netanyahu or even the clear reluctance of Abbas to sign a peace deal despite the blandishments of Obama, the rockets from Gaza are killing hopes of achieving a two-state solution in the foreseeable future. Gaza is not just a daunting military problem for Israelis or a challenge to those who wish to see the Palestinians live in peace without being pushed into destructive wars by Islamist leaders who are bent on fomenting more violence and opposing any progress toward reconciliation. It is a preview of what an independent Palestinian state would be. The rockets and the refusal to devote Palestinian resources to any effort but perpetuating the conflict is a guarantee that peace isn’t possible in the near or perhaps even the long term.

Though most Israelis long for peace and would pay dearly for it, the next time Obama chooses to reiterate his demand for an Israeli withdrawal, he should think about what happened this week. The citizens of the Jewish state will never allow the creation of another Gaza, let alone 20 more.

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Obama’s Mixed Middle East Messages

President Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and offered to help mediate a cease-fire with Hamas that was accompanied by a statement of support for Israel’s right to self-defense. But Israel is not jumping at the proposal. And, as much as Israelis would love for the rocket attacks from Gaza to stop, that reluctance is well founded.

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President Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and offered to help mediate a cease-fire with Hamas that was accompanied by a statement of support for Israel’s right to self-defense. But Israel is not jumping at the proposal. And, as much as Israelis would love for the rocket attacks from Gaza to stop, that reluctance is well founded.

It’s still not clear if the Israeli ground operation that many have suggested is inevitable will actually take place. In a rare press conference held today, Netanyahu played his cards pretty close to his vest, merely saying that he will continue Israeli operations against Hamas terrorist bases in Gaza “until all quiet is restored to Israeli citizens.” But the assumption is that while the characteristically cautious Netanyahu is deeply reluctant to send troops into Gaza—a move that would likely cause casualties on both sides to spike—he also knows that merely letting Hamas stop shooting and then declare victory is not in Israel’s interest either.

Though Gaza is being pounded hard by strikes aimed at silencing the rocket attacks that have rained down by their hundreds on Israel in the last week without causing a single fatality, Hamas may well emerge as the victor in this exchange if it is allowed to exit the conflict with its rocket arsenal and infrastructure intact. More importantly, if, thanks to U.S. diplomacy, Hamas is allowed to remain inside the Palestinian Authority government and strengthened by its stance defying Israel, then the result will make it even less likely that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas will ever summon the will to break with the Islamists and make peace with the Jewish state.

The irony here is that even though Hamas is clearly losing the military battle in this contest of Israeli air power and missile defense against the terrorist rocket launchers, it believes it is winning the political battle. In its isolation after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and the sealing of the Gaza smuggling tunnels by the new military regime in Cairo, causing a severe cash-flow problem, Hamas was forced to embrace unity with Abbas’s Fatah. That exposed them to criticism from Palestinians who said they had given up the struggle against Israel but also offered the group a chance to strengthen its organization in the West Bank.

In the wake of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas operatives, Israel rounded up many of the group’s members on the West Bank. Hamas then stepped up the missile fire from Gaza that had never really stopped completely even after the latest cease-fire brokered by Egypt and the U.S. in 2012. But by starting what appears to be a new war, the Islamists have regained their credibility among Palestinians as the address for violence against Israelis, a quality that has always served as the principal credential for any party seeking their support.

That means Hamas gains ground—at least in a political sense—vis-à-vis Fatah no matter whether the Israelis invade Gaza. If the Israelis don’t strike back on the ground and a cease-fire leaves Hamas’s infrastructure and arsenal intact, it can claim victory. But even if the Israelis do attack and take out much of their armaments, they can also claim that they stood up to the Israelis and strengthened their claim of being a better exponent of Palestinian nationalism than Fatah in an environment that will have become more radicalized.

Where does the United States fit into this?

The problem with the president’s expressions of support for Israel is that they have also been accompanied not only by calls for “restraint”—which are rightly interpreted as a not-so-subtle demand that the Jewish state’s armed forces stand down—but by continuing ambivalence about Hamas’s presence in the PA government. Just this week Obama praised Abbas, who embraced Hamas as his partner in April, while pointedly snubbing Netanyahu. The U.S. has refused to cut aid to the PA even though U.S. law demands that it be shut down due to the Fatah alliance with Hamas.

While the Palestinians don’t need encouragement from the U.S. to cause them to embrace radical positions that make peace impossible, the mixed messages from Washington, including today’s offer of mediation with a group that even Obama’s State Department still classifies as a terror group, heightens Israel’s sense of isolation and makes it harder for the Jewish state to deter Hamas terror.

Deterrence is the key word here since the Israelis understandably have no appetite to a return to control of Gaza or even of toppling Hamas since they worry about which radical group would replace it. However, the goal of making it more difficult for Hamas to launch strikes such as the ones that have paralyzed Israeli life the past few days remains.

The Obama administration has strengthened security ties with Israel and been generous with military aid, a point that has re-emphasized the importance of the Iron Dome system. But it has accompanied that help with constant criticism and diplomatic maneuvering that has made it clear that Netanyahu cannot count on Washington’s support if he seeks to significantly weaken Hamas in Gaza.

Moreover, so long as the administration refuses to pressure Abbas to cut ties with Hamas, it is impossible to expect the so-called moderates of Fatah—whose members have joined in the launching of rockets from Gaza at civilian targets in Israel—to reject the Islamists or their determination to keep the conflict simmering. Indeed, it is a given that any cease-fire with Hamas will be followed by renewed American calls for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and other concessions. Rewarding Hamas for terror won’t convince either side to take risks for peace. In exchange for real peace, most Israelis would be willing to make painful sacrifices. But the latest bout of terrorism and the barrage of hundreds of rockets aimed at Israeli cities understandably make most citizens of the Jewish state reluctant to replicate the independent Palestinian state in all but name that exists in Gaza in the West Bank.

Palestinians can be forgiven for thinking Obama’s mixed messages give them no reason to make their own hard decisions about embracing peace.

Israelis can also draw conclusions from America’s ambivalent attitude toward Hamas. While it’s not clear that any Israeli strike on Gaza will restore a sense of deterrence, Netanyahu would be wise not to base a decision about his country’s security on any assumptions about how to retain the good will of the Obama administration. Either way, they are very much on their own.

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Even the Media’s Corrections Are Deceptive

Earlier this week I wrote about the thoroughly dishonest and ignorant editorial in the New York Times on the recent abduction and killing of four teens in Israel. The Times strove for moral equivalence since the victims included Jews and an Arab. To review: the Times editorial wrongly accused Benjamin Netanyahu of a delay in condemning the killing of an Arab teen and the editors took a Netanyahu quote that denounced the desire for vengeance and claimed it meant Netanyahu was doing the opposite and inciting vigilante terrorism. After wide condemnation, the Times corrected the editorial. Sort of.

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Earlier this week I wrote about the thoroughly dishonest and ignorant editorial in the New York Times on the recent abduction and killing of four teens in Israel. The Times strove for moral equivalence since the victims included Jews and an Arab. To review: the Times editorial wrongly accused Benjamin Netanyahu of a delay in condemning the killing of an Arab teen and the editors took a Netanyahu quote that denounced the desire for vengeance and claimed it meant Netanyahu was doing the opposite and inciting vigilante terrorism. After wide condemnation, the Times corrected the editorial. Sort of.

Here is the Times’s correction of just one of the falsehoods the editors pushed:

An editorial on Tuesday about the death of a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem referred incorrectly to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to the killing of Muhammad Abu Khdeir. On the day of the killing, Mr. Netanyahu’s office issued a statement saying he had told his minister for internal security to quickly investigate the crime; it is not the case that “days of near silence” passed before he spoke about it.

But in reality the way the editorial now reads is not all that much better. Here is the initial, false sentence, as pointed out immediately by CAMERA’s Tamar Sternthal:

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, after days of near silence, condemned that killing and promised that anyone found guilty would “face the full weight of the law.”

Sternthal had made it clear that even the Times’s own reporting showed this to be wrong; Netanyahu had spoken up days earlier. Yet here is how the corrected sentence now reads:

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel condemned that killing and promised that anyone found guilty would “face the full weight of the law.”

Notice the problem? The editorial still uses Netanyahu’s condemnation days after the murder instead of his earlier statements on the crime, leaving the reader to come away with the same mistaken impression. The Times’s new version of the editorial is closer to the truth, but still not all that close. The Times editors’ allergy to the truth is inexcusable: they should pop a Claritin, endure the hives, and be honest about Israel.

But that’s not the end of the objectionable content in the Times’s faux correction. The correction makes no mention of the other, arguably greater mistake on the Israeli poem, and the editorial still includes that line. It’s one thing to get the date of Netanyahu’s condemnation of the attack wrong; that’s bad, especially because it shows the Times editors don’t read their own (or any other) newspaper. But there is a dangerous aspect to the editors’ pernicious misreading of the poem.

To put this in simple terms: Netanyahu read a poem that denounced earthly vengeance and vigilantism. The Times editorial claims the poem encourages earthly vengeance and vigilantism. This is a serious slander of Netanyahu, the poet, and the Israeli people. It includes Netanyahu in a group of Israelis the Times accuses of displaying vicious anti-Arab bigotry and violent tendencies, when in fact the prime minister was criticizing them in a bid to lower the temperature and promote restraint.

Only the New York Times can so blithely add a “correction” to its own false claims that muddy the waters even more and further concretize a dishonest narrative that tosses a match into a tinderbox. And the really dispiriting aspect to this is that we can expect more of the same. The desire of the leftist media to perpetuate a lie that the Israeli and Palestinian leadership are morally equivalent will only produce more hateful anti-Israel propaganda now that Hamas and Fatah have joined in their unity government.

That’s because Hamas is guilty of even more terrorism and anti-Semitism than Fatah is, so if the media want to equate the Israeli leadership with the Palestinian leadership they’ll have to drop Israel to Hamas’s level. And they’ll be taking their cues from Washington, apparently. While the State Department recently offered the laughable nonsense that America’s leaders “have no evidence that Hamas plays any role in the interim technocratic government,” other countries are taking a more serious approach to foreign affairs and recognizing reality.

In a Times of Israel story about how several Western countries have been more supportive of Israel during this crisis and possessed a greater degree of moral clarity than the Obama administration, we read the following tweet from Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird:

The new Palestinian government must exercise its authority in #Gaza and bring an immediate end to Hamas’s rocket attacks on #Israel

I don’t know whether the New York Times editors are getting their information from the Obama administration or the White House is getting its information on the conflict from the Times, but there’s a quite delusional feedback loop here. And it helps explain why even the Times’s corrections warrant their own corrections.

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The Misleading Blood Feud Narrative

Today’s escalation of fighting in the Middle East is provoking the usual calls for restraint from the West and the usual talk about cycles of violence from the international media. But as long-range missiles are being launched at Israeli cities to indiscriminately kill or maim the country’s citizens, Americans should be asking themselves why Hamas is doing this.

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Today’s escalation of fighting in the Middle East is provoking the usual calls for restraint from the West and the usual talk about cycles of violence from the international media. But as long-range missiles are being launched at Israeli cities to indiscriminately kill or maim the country’s citizens, Americans should be asking themselves why Hamas is doing this.

This is, after all, the same Islamist group that the Obama administration assured us was on its way to being a partner for peace. Though the United States still rightly classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization, the administration refused to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority after its leaders signed a unity pact with the group. The assumption was that Hamas would come under the influence of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and that there was no need for the U.S. to pressure him to cut ties with terrorists.

But Hamas had other ideas. Its members kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers. Since then it has not only sought to mobilize Palestinians to obstruct Israeli forces searching vainly for the youngsters and then exploit the murder of a Palestinian teen by Jews into the excuse for a third intifada. More importantly, it has used this violence as the rationale for breaking a two-year-old cease-fire with Israel along the border with Gaza by beginning a large-scale missile barrage with some of the projectiles aimed at major Israeli cities.

This is represented by much of the media coverage as just another instance of a tit-for-tat exchange in which both sides are equally culpable. That impression is strengthened by President Obama’s demands for Israeli “restraint” and his implicit criticism of the Jewish state’s democratically elected government accompanied by praise for Hamas’s erstwhile partner Abbas.

But lost amid the rush to moral equivalence are some basic facts about Hamas and why it chooses to keep attacking Israel.

The first is that while the Western media and the foreign-policy establishment continues to speak as if Israeli settlements and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s supposed intransigence are the primary obstacles to peace, the fact remains that Hamas’s goal remains Israel’s destruction. Its ideology is geared not toward the eviction of Jews from the West Bank or the creation of a Palestinian state there, or in Gaza (where it still rules the strip in what is an independent Palestinian state in all but name). What it wants is the end of the Jewish state and the eviction and/or slaughter of its population.

That is why its operatives target Jewish children and its missiles are aimed at Israeli cities where, if they get through the country’s defenses, can cause the maximum amount of harm.

The point here is that if Hamas really wanted to maintain a cease-fire with Israel, they could have committed themselves to avoiding violence and chosen not to up the ante with Israel once the killing of Muhammed Khdeir might have made it more difficult if not impossible for Netanyahu to order a large-scale assault on Gaza. Instead, it went big, shooting more missiles into Israel than have been fired in years as if their goal was to goad the prime minister into an assault on the terrorist enclave.

At this point, criticisms of Netanyahu and Israel are clearly irrelevant to the unfolding events. It’s clear that although many in his government were in favor of devastating attacks on Hamas or even re-taking the strip that Ariel Sharon abandoned in 2005, the prime minister had no interest in escalating the fighting. But no government of any country can tolerate the kind of attacks on its civilians that Hamas is undertaking with its missile barrage.

For Hamas, such attacks are not a tactic or a means to an end. Though the media narrative of this conflict has become one of a senseless blood feud between angry people on both sides, it should be remembered that the Palestinians cheered the kidnapping of the Israeli teens and treat captured terrorists as heroes. The Israeli government condemned and arrested those responsible for the attack on the Arab teen. Hamas believes “resistance” to the presence of Jews in the country is integral to Palestinian or Muslim identity. Nothing short of a complete transformation of the group and of the Islamist movement could make it possible for them to engage in genuine peace talks with Israel.

Americans believe in compromise and think any difference can be split between two parties given a certain amount of good will. But there can be no compromise with Hamas’s ideology or its actions. Its only goal is death and destruction. Anyone who forgets this in order to sustain an “even-handed” approach to the Middle East conflict that sees both sides as somehow morally equivalent is ignoring the truth.

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The Media’s Make-Believe Bibi

One of the lessons of the past week’s unrest in Israel, one would think, is the importance of news outlets getting their stories right before leveling explosive accusations. In the case of reviewing events that have already happened, that becomes much easier. So it’s all the more disconcerting that the editorial board of the New York Times chose to pronounce its collective judgment on the recent murders without, apparently, consulting even its own newspaper. If the editors of the New York Times don’t read the New York Times, the paper is in worse shape than we thought.

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One of the lessons of the past week’s unrest in Israel, one would think, is the importance of news outlets getting their stories right before leveling explosive accusations. In the case of reviewing events that have already happened, that becomes much easier. So it’s all the more disconcerting that the editorial board of the New York Times chose to pronounce its collective judgment on the recent murders without, apparently, consulting even its own newspaper. If the editors of the New York Times don’t read the New York Times, the paper is in worse shape than we thought.

But someone has to read the Times, and that someone turns out to be CAMERA’s Tamar Sternthal. In the Times of Israel today, Sternthal calls attention to a dramatic–and demonstrably false–series of claims made by the Times’s editors:

Subtitled “Can Israeli and Palestinian Leaders End the Revenge Attacks?”, the editorial ought to have been particularly precise in reporting the leaders’ respective words and deeds. And, yet, the author/s grossly erred: “On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, after days of near silence, condemned that killing and promised that anyone found guilty would ‘face the full weight of the law.’”

Netanyahu did not remain silent for days concerning the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir. The Israeli prime minister spoke out against the killing of Abu Kheir (sic) from July 2, the very same day of the murder.  As The Times’ own Isabel Kershner reported: “On Wednesday, after the body of the Palestinian teenager was found in the woods, the prime minister called on Israelis to obey the law, and asked investigators to quickly look into what he called ‘the abominable murder.’”

Netanyahu again denounced the murder Thursday, July 3 at the home of American Ambassador Daniel Shapiro during the July 4th celebration.

In criticizing the anti-Arab incitement that followed the deaths of the three kidnapped Israeli teens, the Times writes that “some Israelis gave in to their worst prejudices.” The editorial includes Netanyahu in this: “Even Mr. Netanyahu referenced an Israeli poem that reads: ‘Vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created.’”

Sternthal points out that the Times editorialists are slandering Israel here; the poem means the exact opposite of what the Times says:

Thus, The Times’ cites Netanyahu’s recitation of a line from Chaim Nachman Bialik’s poem “The Slaughter” as an indication that, he, like the crowds chanting “Death to Arabs” also gave in to his “worst prejudices.” In fact, Bialik’s lines, and Netanyahu’s quotation of them, are widely understood as a call for heavenly justice and a rejection of human vengeance for the killing of a small child.

Why would the Times fabricate such an explosive accusation, especially knowing the role that anti-Israel propaganda plays in violence against the Jewish state? Is it ignorance or malice? With regard to the poem, because of its historical and religious connections, the answer is probably ignorance. But if the editors want to plead ignorance on the slander that Netanyahu didn’t speak out against the murders in a timely fashion, it would require them to admit they don’t read their own paper. That’s certainly possible: as editors at the paper, they must know that the Times’s Israel reporting usually leaves readers misinformed, and they want to avoid that fate.

But another explanation is that this is merely the inevitable result–albeit a dangerous one–of the moral equivalence to which the press devotes itself when the subject is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Times editors understand that an accurate recitation of events paints the Palestinian leadership in more morally ambiguous territory than Netanyahu’s response. So they pretend Netanyahu had the same response.

In fact, the current crisis is further demolishing the leftist media’s caricature of Netanyahu, and they don’t appear quite sure how to react. The truth would be nice, of course. But that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. So they project the Bibi of their fevered imagination onto the page. Not only has Netanyahu denounced the gruesome, evil murder of Khdeir, but he’s also been the voice of moderation with regard to the fact that the Palestinians of Gaza have stepped up their rocket war against Israel.

As the Jerusalem Post reported yesterday on a contentious Israeli Cabinet meeting:

Following days of rockets on the South and riots in Jerusalem and among segments of the Israeli-Arab population, Netanyahu opened the weekly cabinet meeting saying on camera what was needed now was to act “with composure and responsibly, and not with “militancy or rashness.”

“We are working on several fronts at the same time” he said. “Last night we acted against numerous Hamas targets in Gaza, and the objective of all those actions is to return the quiet and security to the citizens of the South. Experience proves that at such times we must act responsibly and with equanimity, not hastily. We will do whatever is necessary to restore quiet and security to the South.”

This is perfectly in keeping with the restraint Netanyahu has shown throughout his premiership. But it conflicts with the make-believe Netanyahu who appears in fictional accounts passed off as news reporting in the Western press. The Times editors had some harsh words for this make-believe Bibi. But he’s still the only Bibi they’re willing to acknowledge.

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For Netanyahu and Lieberman, Breaking Up Is Easy to Do

The first thing to understand about Avigdor Lieberman’s move to dissolve his party’s pact with Likud over the correct response to Gaza is this: it’s not about the correct response to Gaza. Or anything else about Gaza. The Gaza Strip is close to irrelevant to the split between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, though it does serve as a convenient pretext.

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The first thing to understand about Avigdor Lieberman’s move to dissolve his party’s pact with Likud over the correct response to Gaza is this: it’s not about the correct response to Gaza. Or anything else about Gaza. The Gaza Strip is close to irrelevant to the split between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, though it does serve as a convenient pretext.

This is Lieberman’s second departure from Likud. He was close to Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1990s, managing his campaigns and soon becoming an incredibly influential figure once Netanyahu won the premiership the first time around. Then Lieberman tapped into the Russian immigrant community’s desire to have its representation in the Knesset more closely align with its demographic muscle. (The community also matured politically, having integrated without completely assimilating.) He formed a party to do just that.

Lieberman became a kingmaker by eventually garnering 15 seats in the Knesset in 2009–enough to make or break a coalition but not enough to lead one. Lieberman is both politically shrewd and hugely ambitious, so when he hit Yisrael Beiteinu’s ceiling he went back to the Likud, this time with an embarrassment of electoral riches.

The point was to eventually become prime minister. Netanyahu is a decade older than Lieberman and, crucially, so are Likud’s brightest and most experienced contemporaries. Lieberman understood that he’d have to wait out Bibi but that was probably it. As the last election showed, there are younger, bright stars in the Israeli political solar system, but they formed their own parties. Lieberman would have real competition in the future, but not from within Likud.

So why leave Likud (again)? Lieberman must have seen signs either that he wouldn’t inherit Likud after all or that it wouldn’t matter. The most likely answer is that it was a combination of the two, but more the latter. Lieberman has seen that there is still no serious challenge from the left; it’s other center-right or right-wing parties breathing down Likud’s neck. That means that if he can pull enough votes away from Likud, there is suddenly no real frontrunner, and there might be enough of a vacuum for another party to win now (or soon) instead of waiting out the Likud old guard.

The Likud-Beiteinu union was always an engagement that never turned into a marriage. And it was designed that way. Lieberman obviously learned plenty from his time as Netanyahu’s right-hand man: the two are by far the most politically adroit figures on the Israeli scene. They are not without flaws, of course, and this latest maneuver from Lieberman exposes his greatest weakness: he is a brilliant political operator behind the scenes, but will never have the charismatic command not only of a Yair Lapid or even Naftali Bennett but of any number of politicians who may crop up in the future.

In a parliamentary system, that charisma is less important than in a presidential system, and the ability to operate behind the scenes correspondingly more beneficial. But it is far from clear that it would be enough, in Lieberman’s case. The other potential mistake Lieberman is making has to do with the shifting math of seats in the Knesset. He should not assume that Likud’s vote total will remain stagnant at the number of seats it holds when he officially departs the party.

Likud has the advantage of brand. It’s true, this hasn’t helped Israel’s Labor Party. But the country is center-right, and so is Likud. That means Likud has the ability to attract politicians and voters in a way that other parties don’t: witness, for example, Lieberman’s ceiling at Yisrael Beiteinu, and the consistent disintegration of new parties. It’s also possible that Likud could win back voters who left when the party merged with Lieberman.

In that respect the union between the two parties may have been holding back both leaders. Netanyahu was losing out to voters who liked Lapid’s big-tent message and Bennett’s Anglo relatability more than Lieberman’s gruff polarizing rhetoric and shifting alliances. Lieberman, in turn, may have seen others threatening to do what he thought couldn’t (yet) be done: eclipse the establishment figures while they were still in power, and while he had tied his fortunes to them.

It’s an amicable split, as far as these things go, and it is unlikely to shake up Israeli politics at the moment. The real test will be the next election. In the meantime, it’s quite possible the public will barely notice the breakup of its largest political party.

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Not the Time to Split Over Gaza

Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has announced his party’s split from the joint Likud-Beitenu list that Prime Minister Netanyahu headed at the last election. The move isn’t entirely unexpected and Lieberman’s party will remain in the coalition. Nevertheless, the timing is hardly helpful. Allegedly it was an argument over how to respond to the ongoing Hamas rocket fire from Gaza that forced the split. By all accounts Lieberman has been pushing for a large scale operation and possible reoccupation in Gaza, whereas the prime minister has been cautioning restraint. Under different circumstances Lieberman’s call for a large scale response might seem highly warranted, and it may be that Hamas leaves Israel with no other option. Yet given the critically fragile situation that Israelis now face within the rest of Israel it seems hard to imagine that now is the time to initiate a major ground offensive in Gaza.

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Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has announced his party’s split from the joint Likud-Beitenu list that Prime Minister Netanyahu headed at the last election. The move isn’t entirely unexpected and Lieberman’s party will remain in the coalition. Nevertheless, the timing is hardly helpful. Allegedly it was an argument over how to respond to the ongoing Hamas rocket fire from Gaza that forced the split. By all accounts Lieberman has been pushing for a large scale operation and possible reoccupation in Gaza, whereas the prime minister has been cautioning restraint. Under different circumstances Lieberman’s call for a large scale response might seem highly warranted, and it may be that Hamas leaves Israel with no other option. Yet given the critically fragile situation that Israelis now face within the rest of Israel it seems hard to imagine that now is the time to initiate a major ground offensive in Gaza.

In recent years Israel has had two minor wars with Hamas in Gaza; the first, in 2009, involved ground troops in addition to airstrikes but today it is difficult to see what strategic benefit has been achieved by either of these smaller operations. It must be clear now that the only way to bring a definitive end to the rocket fire from Gaza would be a full scale invasion that would topple Hamas. But such an operation would be no small or easy undertaking and managing the aftermath—even if with the cooperation of Fatah–would likely be equally as challenging.

While the above action may eventually prove inevitable for Israel, there are a number of ongoing security concerns that Israel cannot afford to neglect right now, and most immediately there is the matter of the widespread unrest currently playing out among its Arab population. There has of course been talk of a third intifada. The numbering here seems to fall a little short, however. Indeed, long before the establishment of the State of Israel, the local Arab population was engaging in violent uprisings against both non-Muslim British rule and the growing Jewish presence in the area as was the case in 1920, 1929, 1936-9, and 1947. The pattern continues to this day. But what is particularly alarming about the violence of recent days is that it has for the most part concerned not the Palestinians of the West Bank, but rather Israel’s Arab citizens. These are people with full accesses to the ballot box should they wish to express dissatisfaction, and while many still suffer real economic difficulties (as do the ultra-Orthodox and Ethiopian Jews) there have in recent years been some serious efforts on the part of the Israeli government to integrate this group into the wider Israeli economy.

Right now Israel’s priority has to be about restoring calm with this group. That means treading a fine line that involves using enough force to restore law and order and to resist the violence of the mob, but without being so heavyhanded as to further inflame an already volatile mood. It is safe to say that a reoccupation of Gaza and the civilian casualties that this would unavoidably involve would do nothing to help this incredibly fragile situation. And of course the casualties that would result from engaging Hamas–with its war crime tactic of hiding behind civilians–could also greatly weaken Israel’s standing with its jittery Western allies. As we saw during Israel’s efforts to try and find the three Israeli teens who had been kidnapped—and as we now know, murdered—in the West Bank, the international community was allowing Israel’s security forces precious little room for maneuver. After the Obama administration put out the word that Israel sabotaged the peace negotiations with settlement building and as such was inviting another intifada, the mood among diplomats could all too quickly become a cold: “told you so.”

And Israel finds herself all the more reliant on international goodwill given that the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program now appear to be reaching a crucial stage. Having been forbidden by the Obama administration from carrying out a strike on Iran while that was still a realistic possibility, it now appears that there is nothing other than the rickety diplomatic track standing between the Jewish state and the nightmare of life with a nuclear Iran. Nor is Iran Israel’s only pressing security concern in the region. The ongoing civil war in Syria has seen increased instability along the Golan Heights as well as the threat of Hezbollah becoming armed with some of the Assad regime’s most devastating weaponry. And now added to that is the threat of ISIS infiltrating Jordan, thus creating a renewed threat along the entirety of Israel’s eastern border.

With all of these factors in play it is difficult to fathom how Avigdor Lieberman can seriously think that now is the time for redeploying in Gaza. This split from the Likud has been in the cards for some time and is no doubt a move informed as much by party politics as anything else. Yet Gaza hardly seems like the issue to split over, and now is certainly not a particularly wise moment to be adding to Israel’s instability.

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Will the Jewish Terrorists Be Released for Peace?

The arrest of Israeli Jews for the murder of an Arab teenager in Jerusalem has unleashed a wave of cheap moral equivalency. Some of it is obviously pure demagoguery: those who call for the destruction of the houses of these suspects will not ask that for the house of the Israeli Arab arraigned yesterday for the terrorist murder of a 19-year old Israeli girl, Shelly Dadon, three months ago.

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The arrest of Israeli Jews for the murder of an Arab teenager in Jerusalem has unleashed a wave of cheap moral equivalency. Some of it is obviously pure demagoguery: those who call for the destruction of the houses of these suspects will not ask that for the house of the Israeli Arab arraigned yesterday for the terrorist murder of a 19-year old Israeli girl, Shelly Dadon, three months ago.

Several points should be borne in mind in considering Israel’s treatment of the accursed murders. To be clear, the accused deserve, and are receiving, broad and unconditional condemnation–not because they do not help Israel, but because they are evil.

1) Prisoner swaps. We know Israel will never ask for these Jewish killers to be released as part of a peace deal. This is because Israel recoils with revulsion from their act. They are no one’s heroes.

Indeed, one can imagine the outrage from the Palestinian side if the Israeli government insisted on springing these Jewish terrorists as a “sweetener” to open peace talks. Apart from the new trauma of the victim’s family, the Palestinians could say this does not seem like a government serious about peace, if freeing murders is part of the peace process. That outrage is what Israel has been going through over and over as it released scores of savage murderers per Mahmoud Abbas’s request.

A useful initiative for Prime Minister Netanyahu now would be to offer to make a joint statement with Abbas, that neither would ever seek the release of either set of killers.

2) Pensions. Israel will never pay pensions to the killers. The prime minister will not take photos with them, or do anything other than condemn them. The glib questions making the rounds–will Israel knock down the Jewish terrorists’ houses–rather avoids the question that home demolitions are in part a way of offsetting the generous financial benefits Palestinian terrorists receive.

3) Finding the killers. The fact that during a massive three-week hunt for killers of the three Jewish boys, the authorities also managed to hunt down the killers of the Arab boy proves how seriously Israel takes crime against anyone, Jew or Arab. Indeed, the apprehension of the Jewish terrorists coincided with the arrest of an Israeli Arab for murdering a Jewish girl–three months ago. These cases take time, and the one involving the murder of an Arab boy got full priority.

4) Community support. The fact that the killers of three Jewish boys have hid out for three weeks shows they have a base of support, an organization: people to keep their secret, feed them, etc. Jewish killers had nowhere to hide because there is no Jewish community that accepts this.

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Understanding Israeli-Palestinian Stability

Lost in the well-deserved criticism of President Obama’s call on Israel to exercise restraint in the face of terrorist violence emanating from two of its borders is a clear-eyed assessment of the status quo. “I also urge all parties to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation,” the president said. It echoes claims from the New York Times’s lead Israel reporter that Israeli self-defense had “destabilized” the region’s politics. Of course it’s risible to make that claim against Israel, but more importantly, it assumes the existence of a delicate balance that on all counts merits preserving. It shouldn’t.

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Lost in the well-deserved criticism of President Obama’s call on Israel to exercise restraint in the face of terrorist violence emanating from two of its borders is a clear-eyed assessment of the status quo. “I also urge all parties to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation,” the president said. It echoes claims from the New York Times’s lead Israel reporter that Israeli self-defense had “destabilized” the region’s politics. Of course it’s risible to make that claim against Israel, but more importantly, it assumes the existence of a delicate balance that on all counts merits preserving. It shouldn’t.

To be sure, several aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s status quo are the status quo for a reason: both sides see them as advantageous or at least better than the alternatives. And the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli boys engendered cooperation from Mahmoud Abbas, which is another reminder that Abbas’s Fatah, for all its faults, is preferable to groups like Hamas, which would replace Fatah if it fell from power in the West Bank. But the statement about restraint mainly concerned Israel’s battle with Hamas. And it is here that the conflict presents a status quo that deserves to be shaken up.

As Haviv Rettig Gur writes in the Times of Israel, the Jewish state’s sense of humanity and defense of the value of each and every life will remain consistent no matter how often Hamas takes advantage of the fundamental decency of the Israeli people. And that’s the way Israelis want it:

Yet while the costs of past exchanges became stark and agonizing, Israelis also know that if push had come to shove, if the teens had turned out to be alive and out of the reach of Israel’s security services, and if Hamas had demanded the release of terrorists in exchange for the boys’ safe return, then Israel’s leaders would have found it nigh unbearable to leave them in enemy hands.

For Hamas, the collapse of this kidnapping has not changed the fundamental strategy. The “success” of the Shalit operation — successful in the sense that Palestinian prisoners were released — along with the sheer scale of the public outpouring of grief over the most recent murders, have assured Hamas that the effectiveness of kidnapping has not abated. Palestinian politics has yet to reach the point where critics of Hamas can safely point out that its belligerency has spelled a decade of ruin for Gaza’s economy and society.

As the leaders of Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other groups have said openly in countless glorying speeches following previous prisoner exchanges, kidnappings lay bare Israel’s weak underbelly, its whimpering, distraught obsession with its missing boys.

This weakness, Israel’s enemies have argued, has strategic significance. The skewed math of Israeli-Arab prisoner exchanges are a sign of Israeli decline, of slackening Israeli morale in the face of Arab persistence and endurance. Israelis may be militarily powerful, but their threshold for pain is low. Even the inflicting of relatively little pain — how many Israelis have died in rocket attacks, Palestinians often ask — can achieve meaningful gains toward the broader goal of Israel’s eventual destruction.

And here you have a concise explanation of why Hamas, and any of its peer groups who operate along those lines, must be defeated. It is one thing to counsel restraint when overreaction risks empowering the wrong forces. Israel does not want the PA in the West Bank to fall, and it will take care to ensure it does not bring Abbas down and create the vacuum Hamas has been waiting for–to do Hamas’s work for it, essentially.

But arresting and/or deporting Hamas leaders and operatives in the West Bank does the opposite: it clears space for Fatah and takes some of the heat off of Abbas. Hitting Hamas targets in Gaza provides the necessary contrast, and disrupts the terrorist group’s ability to plan and carry out its anti-Israel strategy, which consists almost entirely of committing war crimes.

The status quo, then, is really two different prevailing sets of circumstances. There is some stability worth keeping with regard to Israel’s relationship with Abbas’s West Bank government. And striking back at Hamas can keep it that way: “It’s clear that the terrorists came from areas under Palestinian Authority control and returned to territories under Palestinian Authority control,” Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said, as quoted by CNN. Hamas’s presence in the West Bank is destabilizing; Israel is trying to remedy that.

Then there is the stability between Israel and Hamas. In this case, the stability itself is not worth preserving. Hamas will keep trying to kidnap, torture, and murder innocent children. Israel will keep searching for them, trading terrorists for them if need be. Hamas will see the compassion as weakness. Lather, rinse, repeat. Those calling for restraint now to preserve stability are missing the vital point that Israel’s tough response is the only thing that can maintain stability where it is worth saving, and upend the status quo that fosters the murder of innocents.

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Not the Moment for “Restraint” Against Hamas

In a sentiment that was echoed across the Israeli political spectrum, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed today that “Hamas will pay” for the murders of three Israeli teenagers kidnapped two weeks ago. What exactly Netanyahu meant by this phrase isn’t yet known. But given the track record of both Israel and the Palestinians and the efforts by President Obama to head off any tough action by Netanyahu, the leaders of the terror group may not exactly be shaking in their boots.

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In a sentiment that was echoed across the Israeli political spectrum, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed today that “Hamas will pay” for the murders of three Israeli teenagers kidnapped two weeks ago. What exactly Netanyahu meant by this phrase isn’t yet known. But given the track record of both Israel and the Palestinians and the efforts by President Obama to head off any tough action by Netanyahu, the leaders of the terror group may not exactly be shaking in their boots.

In the wake of the discovery of the victims’ bodies, anger against the Islamist terror group is widely felt and it is likely that Netanyahu’s government will have wide political leeway to hit Hamas hard, both in the West Bank and Gaza. But the question facing Israel is not so much whether to launch air strikes at Hamas headquarters or to round up even more of their supporters. Rather, it is whether if, after an interval of a week or two, Hamas is still functioning and is still part of the ruling coalition of the Palestinian Authority. If, after absorbing a pounding from the Israeli army, the Islamist movement’s leadership can claim that it not only shed more Jewish blood but also survived another Israeli counterattack, then despite all of the fearsome rhetoric coming out of Jerusalem, Hamas will have won.

President Obama’s condemnation of the deaths of the three Israeli teens was appropriate but it was accompanied by the standard call for “all sides to exercise restraint.” Which is to say that the U.S. is making it clear to the Israelis that anything beyond a minimal retaliation that will not make a difference will be condemned as worsening the situation. But, like all past efforts to enforce restraint on Israel, such counsel merely ensures that this tragedy will be played out again and again.

It must be understood that while the gruesome crime committed against three teenagers may damage Hamas’s already shaky reputation in the West, the willingness of the group to commit this atrocity may increase its popularity among Palestinians. In the last year, Hamas’s political stock has fallen as the cash shortfall caused by its rift with Iran and the closing of smuggling tunnels to Egypt undermined its ability to maintain local support. Where once it was seen as a viable alternative to the Fatah kleptocracy that rules over the West Bank, it is now seen as merely an Islamist version of the same corrupt model. Its willingness to maintain a rough cease-fire with Israel along the border with Gaza also robbed it of its mantle as the standard-bearer of the struggle against the Jewish state. It was for these reasons that it was forced to sign a unity agreement with Abbas’s Fatah.

Should a determined Israeli offensive take out some of its leadership and undermine its capacity to function, perhaps that decline will continue. But Hamas and its backers also know that violence has always been the main factor legitimizing Palestinian political parties. Should the kidnapping lead to another round of violence in which Hamas could portray itself as the true defender of Palestinian honor, then the incident could give it a new lease on life even as its members duck for cover.

That may incline some to counsel Israelis to avoid what in the past has been considered a “disproportionate” response to Palestinian provocations. Since Israeli attacks may actually undermine Abbas and boost Hamas, some (especially in the United States) may advise Netanyahu to make some noise but then get back to business as usual as quickly as possible lest a new counter-terror campaign serve to create a new generation of terrorists.

While that line of reasoning may sound logical, it would be a mistake. Israel needs to do more than launch some symbolic strikes that will do nothing to assuage Israeli anger while doing nothing to deter Palestinians from emulating this horrific deed. Nothing short of a stroke that will decapitate the leadership of this group will convince the Palestinians that Hamas has made a mistake.

As a poll I discussed last week showed, the vast majority of Palestinians want the struggle against Israel to continue but they don’t want to personally pay the price of that conflict. Making the vast majority of Palestinians pay for Hamas’s outrages would deepen their bitterness against Israel and lead to charges of collective punishment. But if, instead, Israel makes Hamas’s leaders pay in such a measure as to make it difficult if not impossible to carry on then perhaps Netanyahu can thread the needle in between an escalation and a weak non-response.

It may be that Israel’s options are limited by political realities and Hamas’s ability to withstand attacks. But no matter what choices Netanyahu makes, “restraint” will be merely an invitation for Hamas to repeat this crime again in the future.

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