Commentary Magazine


Topic: Gaza cease-fire

Unsatisfactory Cease-Fire Won’t Doom Bibi

Even before his acceptance of cease-fire terms that brought down criticism him on his head from across Israel’s political spectrum, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity had dropped precipitately from the across-the-board backing he received at the height of the fighting in Gaza. But those thinking that dissatisfaction with his acceptance of what amounts to a draw with Hamas will hasten the end of the current government or cut short his time in office are mistaken. The choices facing Netanyahu’s critics are as constrained as those that were facing the prime minister when he swallowed hard and allowed Hamas to issue bogus boasts of victory today.

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Even before his acceptance of cease-fire terms that brought down criticism him on his head from across Israel’s political spectrum, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity had dropped precipitately from the across-the-board backing he received at the height of the fighting in Gaza. But those thinking that dissatisfaction with his acceptance of what amounts to a draw with Hamas will hasten the end of the current government or cut short his time in office are mistaken. The choices facing Netanyahu’s critics are as constrained as those that were facing the prime minister when he swallowed hard and allowed Hamas to issue bogus boasts of victory today.

The big drop in Netanyahu’s popularity in a poll published yesterday indicated unhappiness with the reality that Israel faced in Gaza. Netanyahu’s decision to scale back offensive operations against Hamas weeks ago after the Israel Defense Forces destroyed the tunnels it had found was not rewarded with an end to the fighting. The massive missile barrage from Hamas in the last week that caused two civilian deaths was seen as a setback for Netanyahu’s policy of restraint.

Though international public opinion blasted Israel for hitting Hamas targets hard and causing civilian casualties in Gaza, Netanyahu’s public understood that his attempts to avoid a massive escalation in the fighting until he was dragged into it by Hamas attacks was the result of his trademark cautious behavior. But taking out the tunnels didn’t end the rocket attacks or undermine Hamas’s hold on Gaza. With his right-wing coalition allies calling for a re-occupation of Gaza in order to enforce the demilitarization of the strip that Israel needs to really ensure calm, Netanyahu finds himself branded as a right-winger abroad but also denounced as a centrist temporizer at home by many of his erstwhile allies.

The unhappy truth about the conflict is that nothing short of an all-out war to eliminate Hamas will guarantee that Israel won’t face another round of fighting anytime the Islamists choose to up the ante in the conflict. It’s also true that so long as Hamas is still left in charge there, any talk of a two-state solution in the West Bank is also effectively shelved. Despite his threats of going back to the United Nations to force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank without a peace treaty, the fighting demonstrated anew the irrelevance of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Even if Israelis were willing to believe Abbas is a credible peace partner—a dubious assumption even in the best of times—no Israeli government of any political stripe would ever give up that more strategic territory so long as there was a chance that it would mean another, larger and more dangerous Hamasistan on the country’s doorstep.

Abbas survives in the West Bank solely due to Israeli security protections for him. The notion that the PA can parachute into Gaza and ensure that construction materials aren’t used to build Hamas tunnels or to prevent it from bringing in more arms is ludicrous. Notwithstanding the promises of the United States and other sponsors of the cease-fire, the only thing it guarantees is that Israel will soon be facing another conflict with Hamas under perhaps less favorable circumstances than those that exist today.

But those who are blasting Netanyahu for his cowardice today must also realize that a decision to deal with Hamas once and for a while would incur a higher price than most Israelis are currently willing to pay, including many of those grumbling today about the prime minister’s choice. Taking down the Islamists would certainly cost the IDF hundreds of lives and result in thousands more Palestinian casualties, not to mention increasing Israel’s diplomatic isolation and worsening the already tense relations with the Obama administration. And that’s not even considering the cost of being forced to reassume the administration of Gaza and dealing with what would almost certainly be an ongoing terror campaign by Hamas and other Islamist groups.

Would it have been worth it? It’s easy to answer that question in the abstract since answering yes provides the only logical path to a better chance of calm as well as to a two-state solution. But Netanyahu can hardly be blamed for hesitating to pay such an egregious price in blood and treasure.

Nor should anyone imagine that this dismal result will — poll numbers withstanding — result in the collapse of Netanyahu’s government or a new election in the short term that might produce a new prime minister. There is no reason to believe that Netanyahu’s rivals on the right will be so foolish as to leave the Cabinet since that will leave the path open for the prime minister to assemble a new, more centrist government. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economics Minister Naftali Bennett will continue sniping at Netanyahu and will score points with their own followers as well as Likud voters who are disappointed that the prime minister won’t follow his own arguments about Hamas to their logical conclusion. But beyond venting their spleen at him, the PM’s right-wing critics have few options.

Just as important, nothing that has happened this summer altered the basic equation of Israeli politics of the last few years. For all of the grousing thrown in his direction, which is in part the function of dissatisfaction with the choices facing the country and the prime minister’s personal unpopularity, Netanyahu’s positions represent a clear consensus of Israeli public opinion. As much as most Israelis would be happy to be rid of most of the West Bank, few believe it makes sense to leave it in the absence of a Palestinian decision to end the conflict that Hamas’s survival makes impossible.

Even more to the point, no one either in the government or outside it emerged this summer as a credible alternative to Netanyahu. He remains the only possible choice for prime minister even if few people like him and even fewer are happy with the alternatives he must choose between.

Those who would like Israel to have easy answers to an ongoing security threat—whether by accepting more concessions or by taking out Hamas—are dissatisfied with Netanyahu. That’s a group that includes most Israelis. But at the same time most Israelis also understand that his answers are probably the lesser of a number of possible evils.

Even if Hamas really does observe this cease-fire, the coming months will be rough for the prime minister. But talk about re-occupying Gaza or a bold stroke that will make peace possible is just that: talk. The reality of the Middle East is such that Netanyahu’s unsavory choices are the only viable ones for a nation whose only real option remains doing what it must to ensure its survival until the day when its enemies are prepared to make peace. As such, the unheroic and cautious Netanyahu is still the only realistic choice to go on leading Israel for the foreseeable future.

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A Draw Can’t Be Called a Hamas Defeat

Viewed objectively, the celebratory gunfire and ritualistic declarations of victory emanating from Hamas today after it accepted a cease-fire with Israel are pure bunk. Hamas’s decision to launch a new round of fighting in Gaza turned out to be a disaster from a military perspective as well as from the point of view of the suffering Palestinians who paid the price for this folly in blood and destruction of their homes. But their boasts are not entirely foolish.

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Viewed objectively, the celebratory gunfire and ritualistic declarations of victory emanating from Hamas today after it accepted a cease-fire with Israel are pure bunk. Hamas’s decision to launch a new round of fighting in Gaza turned out to be a disaster from a military perspective as well as from the point of view of the suffering Palestinians who paid the price for this folly in blood and destruction of their homes. But their boasts are not entirely foolish.

Though Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu may have had little real choice but to go along with the formal end of hostilities, by emerging from 50 days of battle with its hold on Gaza intact, Hamas has ensured that its misrule over the strip and permanent block of any hopes of peace will continue.

Netanyahu’s decision to accept the cease-fire will be bitterly debated in Israel, but even his angriest critics will have to admit that the concessions given Hamas are minimal. The terms, which allow a slight increase in humanitarian aid and material into Gaza and an expansion of the zone allowed Gaza fishermen from three to six miles are more or less a rehash of the 2012 agreement that ended a previous round of fighting. The blockade of Gaza has not been lifted. Nor has Israel promised to allow the Palestinians to build an airport or seaport. Those requests will be discussed in negotiations that are supposed to take place next month in Cairo and will be placed alongside the Israeli demand for the demilitarization of Gaza. That means neither side will get what it wants, making the war, for all of Israel’s military achievements and the catastrophic impact on Gaza’s population, largely a draw.

That’s nothing for Hamas to brag about. It started the hostilities when its members kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers and then fired over 4,000 missiles at Israel during the past 50 days with little to show for the expenditure of much of its carefully assembled arsenal. While much of Israel’s population had to spend much of the last few weeks scurrying back and forth to shelters, Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system effectively neutralized the rocket threat. Hamas also lost the complex network of tunnels along the border on which it had expended so much of the money that poured into the strip from foreign donors. Instead of being able to use the tunnels to pull off a mass atrocity inside Israel as they had hoped, they wound up being destroyed when Israeli forces invaded the strip.

But any Israeli claims of victory are just as hollow as those of Hamas.

Even a slight loosening of the blockade will inevitably mean that Hamas will be able to replenish some if not all of its supply of rockets and other armaments. Nor can anyone in the international community, let alone in Israel, have the slightest confidence that any safeguards put in place will prevent the construction materials that will be allowed into Gaza for rebuilding homes, schools, and other civilian structures won’t instead be used to restore Hamas’s military infrastructure, including command center bunkers, rocket storage facilities, and the infamous tunnels.

All of which means that the next time Hamas decides that the time is right for more fighting, Israel will be right back where it was two months ago. Even if the Israel Defense Forces improves its ability to detect tunnels and Hamas doesn’t figure out a way to defeat the Iron Dome, that is hardly an encouraging prospect for an Israeli people drained from a summer of conflict. A draw isn’t a victory for either side, but any result that leaves Hamas standing and ready to start fighting again when it chooses can hardly be called a defeat for the terrorists.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the implications of this result for both Netanyahu and the future of the conflict.

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Truce? Hamas Must Be Defeated

Late on Thursday, the announcement of a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire between Israel and Hamas burnished hopes for the beginning of the end of this latest round of fighting in the region. Though many in Israel believed that it was not time to let up the pressure on Hamas, the Netanyahu government decided to accede to the proposal put forward by the United States and the United Nations. But that decision has been rendered moot by the decision of Hamas to use the cover of the cease-fire to launch a suicide attack on Israeli forces that led to the possible kidnapping of a soldier.

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Late on Thursday, the announcement of a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire between Israel and Hamas burnished hopes for the beginning of the end of this latest round of fighting in the region. Though many in Israel believed that it was not time to let up the pressure on Hamas, the Netanyahu government decided to accede to the proposal put forward by the United States and the United Nations. But that decision has been rendered moot by the decision of Hamas to use the cover of the cease-fire to launch a suicide attack on Israeli forces that led to the possible kidnapping of a soldier.

No one who knows a thing about Hamas could have been surprised by this action. The entire purpose of this Islamist terror group is violence aimed at killing Jews and to further their ultimate goal of destroying Israel. But this incident, which blew up the truce and led to an intensification of the fighting, should make it clear that the understandable desire to halt the bloodshed cannot be discussed separately from the equally urgent need to eliminate Hamas and demilitarize Gaza.

Israel’s initial position toward Hamas once this conflict began was to say that it would give Gaza “quiet for quiet.” But it quickly learned that Hamas was not interested in quiet as it continued to bombard Israel with thousands of rockets even though almost all of them were being neutralized by the Iron Dome missile defense system. Even more, the discovery of the massive system of tunnels aimed at infiltrating the border and producing murders and kidnappings of Israelis made it clear that the rockets were merely one element of a strategic threat to the country that could no longer be ignored or tolerated.

Hamas’s refusal to stop shooting and the tunnels persuaded a reluctant Prime Minister Netanyahu that Israel had no choice but to invade Gaza. But despite the drumbeat of criticism aimed at Israel because of the casualties created by Hamas’s decision to hide behind Palestinian civilians, there has been no indication that Netanyahu is prepared to push forward and eliminate Hamas once and for all. Indeed, even today after the news about the truce violation and abduction, his government may still have no appetite for a costly continuation of the offensive aimed at decapitating or eliminating Hamas’s hold on Gaza altogether.

But the collapse of this cease-fire in this particular manner should put an end to a diplomatic process championed by Secretary of State John Kerry that seemed to aim at allowing Hamas to remain place and to even contemplate further political concessions to the Islamists in subsequent negotiations. Going forward, the kidnapping makes more such attempts at cease-fires unviable.

If they really are holding a live Israeli hostage, Hamas may well be inclined to seek another cease-fire while they can declare victory. But the U.S. should not be complicit in that scheme. The White House should stick to its initial response to the kidnapping that rightly declared that the captured Israeli be returned immediately. If that doesn’t happen, this should be the signal for Israel to intensify its offensive, not to slacken off.

That will probably result in more condemnations of Israel by an international community that pays lip service to the concept of self-defense but thinks that virtually any such efforts by Israel are always wrong. In particular, the United Nations and UNRWA, its agency that is solely devoted to serving the Palestinian refuges—and which has played a major role in perpetuating that longstanding problem—will continue to blame Israel and even, as an UNRWA official did yesterday speaking to the UN Security Council, call for an end to the isolation of the Hamas-run strip.

The point here is that the futility of these cease-fires and Hamas’s determination to perpetuate the conflict and to use it solidify their hold on popularity among Palestinians makes the diplomatic discussion irrelevant. The suffering in Gaza and Hamas’s ability to hold the entire Jewish state hostage with its rockets and tunnels will not come to an end until Hamas is stripped of its power and weapons. Nor will any talk of a two-state solution and an end to the conflict is possible until that happens.

Those who claim there is only a political solution to the problem fail to understand that in the absence of a military solution it won’t be possible. Until something happens that will eliminate the Palestinian force that is determined to keep the conflict red-hot and is prepared to sacrifice their own people in order to advance that objective, there is no point to those who criticize Israel for not creating a Palestinian state. Though it has been blockaded by Israel, Egypt, and the international community since the 2007 coup that brought Hamas to power there, Gaza has functioned as an independent state for all intents and purposes since then. Its government’s sole objective has been to fight Israel, pouring its scarce resources into rockets, tunnels, and other military expenses while—despite Hamas’s reputation as a “social welfare organization”—doing virtually nothing to better the lives of its people. So long as it is allowed to stay in power that won’t change and, no matter how many cease-fires or negotiations John Kerry sponsors, peace will never happen.

Pressing on in Gaza will be costly and will be brutally criticized by the international press, the U.N., celebrities on Twitter, and every other conceivable venue. No one should think that Hamas’s duplicity and belligerence—amply demonstrated by today’s brutal cease-fire violation—will create much backing for an Israeli effort to finish the job in Gaza. But finish it they must or be faced with the necessity of starting over at some point in the near future. Despite publicized fears of something worse following this genocidal group, that is a myth. Anyone who really cares about the people of Gaza or peace should realize that and sit back and let Israel end the Hamas nightmare once and for all.

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“Unacceptable?” Israel Must Press On

Today the White House raised the pressure on Israel to stop fighting in Gaza by terming the shooting at a United Nations school yesterday as “totally unacceptable.” White House spokesman Josh Earnest’s joining the international media pile-on is another demonstration of the administration’s determination to box in the Israeli government.

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Today the White House raised the pressure on Israel to stop fighting in Gaza by terming the shooting at a United Nations school yesterday as “totally unacceptable.” White House spokesman Josh Earnest’s joining the international media pile-on is another demonstration of the administration’s determination to box in the Israeli government.

The criticism may have played a role in Israel’s decision to accept a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire scheduled to begin tomorrow. But it’s not clear whether Hamas will hold its fire. Nor is there any assurance they won’t resume shooting rockets or using the tunnels that remain in their control when it suits their purpose. When they do, Prime Minister Netanyahu should not be deterred from continuing the campaign.

Earnest’s condemnation was intended to raise the heat on Israel to agree to an immediate humanitarian cease-fire even though it has been Hamas that has been the one vetoing cease-fires and continuing to fire rockets at the Jewish state since the start of the fighting. But in doing so he was echoing most of the talking heads on television and liberal pundits who keep telling us that the Israeli counter-attacks against the Islamist terror movement are “disproportionate” or pointless. Stories such as those that highlight Palestinian casualties are becoming the leads of every news program with talking heads constantly asking what Israel could be accomplishing.

But even though the attacks on Israel are becoming more vituperative, sentiment in Israel is still solidly behind Netanyahu’s policies. Today, Isaac Herzog, the opposition leader in the Knesset restated his support for the ongoing military offensive against Hamas rocket launching and terrorist tunnels:

“The decisions that were taken so far were responsible and focused,” Herzog said during a conference call with reporters. “I hope they will bring an end to the fighting.” …

“There is a national consensus in Israel as to the justification of this operation for a few reasons,” he said. First, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acted with restraint, seeking to avoid conflagration. “We tried to contain [the conflict]. And Hamas, for its own strategic reasons, decided to flare it up.”

Israelis understand that criticism of their tactics is a distortion of reality. Hamas fires on Israelis from the proximity of homes, schools, mosques, and areas where civilians are taking shelter. The notion that the use of these human shields should require Israeli troops to hold their fire when terrorists are shooting at them or launching rockets is unsupportable. Nor is it a standard that the White House or the Pentagon would impose on U.S. troops in action in Afghanistan or anywhere else. Despite the calls from the White House for Israel to live up to higher standards, the Israeli army’s rules of engagement are every bit as stringent as those of the U.S. Armed Forces.

But in spite of the opprobrium Israel should push on specifically because the assertion that its efforts are accomplishing nothing is false.

Even Israel’s critics claim that it has the right to defend itself. But the notion that it should stop fighting before all the terror tunnels that Hamas has dug are discovered and destroyed or while the Islamists are still in possession of an arsenal of thousands of rockets gives the lie to the lip service being paid to that right.

It’s not clear whether Netanyahu will push on and seek to demilitarize Gaza even though that is the only way this issue will ever be resolved. But for Israel to pull back now simply because Western critics think too many Palestinians are being killed is to grant Hamas an undeserved victory. Israelis rightly think that the only reason the Palestinian casualty toll is so high is because Hamas has done everything it can to sacrifice their compatriots.

By focusing almost exclusively on Palestinian casualties rather than the tactics of Hamas, the West is granting impunity to terrorists. The death toll, like the blockade the international community has imposed on Gaza since the 2007 Hamas coup, is solely the fault of the Islamist movement. The shooting, like the isolation, can be ended as soon as Hamas surrenders in the same way that any war ends. Stopping before that moment comes won’t bring peace. Indeed, it will retard efforts to create a two-state solution since the only lesson from such an outcome will be to convince Israel than any more territorial withdrawals will create more such Hamasistans.

As difficult as it may be to watch the pictures coming out of Gaza, the suffering there will only end once and for all once Hamas lays down its arms. To the extent that the U.S. and the international community place obstacles in the way of that outcome with pressure on Israel, the more blood will be shed in the long run.

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Obama and Ceasefire: A Little History

As the controversy over John Kerry’s bungled efforts to negotiate a ceasefire continues, we should look back on the last time America spoke of such things.

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As the controversy over John Kerry’s bungled efforts to negotiate a ceasefire continues, we should look back on the last time America spoke of such things.

On November 21, 2012, Israel agreed to an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire that concluded the eight-day Operation “Pillar of Defense,” which Israel began after a day on which Hamas launched 100 rockets at Israel. President Obama made a phone call to Bibi Netanyahu that day. This is part of the White House “readout” of that phone call:

The President made clear that no country can be expected to tolerate rocket attacks against civilians….The President commended the Prime Minister for agreeing to the Egyptian ceasefire proposal – which the President recommended the Prime Minster do – while reiterating that Israel maintains the right to defend itself. The President said that the United States would use the opportunity offered by a ceasefire to intensify efforts to help Israel address its security needs, especially the issue of the smuggling of weapons and explosives into Gaza. [emphasis mine]

Well, that went well, didn’t it? Between the ceasefire in 2012 and the outbreak of hostilities in 2014, Hamas made or smuggled in thousands of new rockets and went even more hog-wild with the tunnels. And how did Hamas go hog-wild with the tunnels? With cement that the United States, among others, insisted Israel allow into Gaza for humanitarian reasons in January 2014. That’s not America’s fault, but it’s worth noting that the president made an explicit promise to “intensify efforts to help Israel address its security needs,” and clearly did not follow up on that promise.

The last sentence of the phone-call readout from 2012 was this: “The President said that he was committed to seeking additional funding for Iron Dome and other U.S.-Israel missile defense programs.” And indeed, in 2014, the United States did authorize $235 million over three years for Iron Dome. The administration deserves commendation for that, but Iron Dome money is a no-brainer—Iron Dome is effectively a real-world testing ground for American missile defenses, and would be cheap at twice the price.

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