Q. Did anyone "win" last week's fighting in Gaza? Q. How will the Sarkozy era in France affect Israel?
Q. Did anyone "win" last week's fighting in Gaza?
A. Hamas appears to have won its battles with Fateh, inflicting nearly all of the dozens of casualties registered last week before the latest ceasefire took hold on Saturday. This is a significant development, insofar as the latest round of fighting began as a Hamas response to the entry into the Gaza Strip of additional Presidential Guard units loyal to Fateh leader and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who had been trained and armed under an American-sponsored program led by General Keith Dayton.
In other words, the outcome so far of the American effort to beef up the non-Islamist forces in the PA as a counter to Hamas has been more bloodshed and a Hamas "victory".
That Hamas emerged with the upper hand in Gaza surprised few observers. Still, it is a striking achievement given the huge overall numerical preponderance of forces loyal to Fateh. On paper at least, against Hamas' "Executive Force" in Gaza of over 5,000 well-trained, well-armed, highly motivated and extremely brutal troops--trained to deal with Fateh forces as if they were "non-believers"--Fateh (in Gaza and the West Bank) has 3-5,000 in the Presidential Guard, another 30,000 in the police, security service and civil defense, a similar number in another three units--the semi-commando Force 17 (from which the Presidential Guard were drawn), a naval force and a military intelligence unit--and 5,000 more in a general intelligence unit. But most of these Fateh forces are poorly trained and armed and some have worked hand-in-glove with the al-Aqsa brigades and other splinter groups carrying out terrorist attacks. And most are deployed unchallenged by Hamas in the West Bank, not the Gaza Strip.
Nor are all Hamas personnel in Gaza of a uniform cloth. Hamas too features splinter groups and commanders who are more and less militant. Indeed, last week's fighting brought to the fore the current commanders of the Hamas military wing, who apparently oppose the unity government led by PM Ismail Haniyeh and are not even under the firm command of the more extreme Damascus-based Khaled Meshaal. Then there are any number of breakaway groups and clan-based warlords with tenuous affiliation to Hamas.
Still, the internal disarray within Hamas and the disagreements among its leadership pale alongside the weakness displayed by Fateh. Abbas' hesitations and weak leadership skills are by now well known. Last week's fighting went so poorly for Fateh also because Abbas' man in Gaza, National Security Adviser Muhammad Dahlan, was hospitalized in Cairo after a back operation. Add to this Egypt's seeming lack of capability to stop the smuggling of ordnance by Hamas from Sinai to Gaza in tunnels under the border. President Husni Mubarak commented last week that "with Hamas [there is] no way"; the most his representatives in Gaza could contribute was a shaky ceasefire. That left Israel as the only force in the region that could conceivably eliminate Hamas' growing para-military presence. Many moderate Gazans actually spoke out and encouraged a major Israeli incursion last week.
But the Olmert government was understandably wary of launching a sweeping military offensive into Gaza despite the Qassam rocket barrages that Hamas aimed at Sderot in an effort to distract everyone from the internal fighting in Gaza. Olmert doesn't enjoy the confidence of the Israeli public and is deterred by the severity of the Winograd commission's findings against launching another military adventure. His defense minister, Amir Peretz, has announced he will resign after the Labor party primaries, which he will almost certainly lose. And new IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi is wary of committing large forces to an invasion of a strategic "black hole" in the absence of a workable exit strategy. Hence the public accepted the government's "proportional" pinpoint military response to the Qassam attacks with a degree of equanimity.
Not so the public response to the shabby condition of Sderot's shelters and the town's poor capacity to absorb the sort of heavy rocket attack it experienced last week. Here the public saw an obvious parallel with the lack of preparedness of northern Israel for Hezbollah's katyusha attacks last summer. Undoubtedly, the lack of air conditioning and toilets in Sderot's shelters and absence of reinforced roofs on its homes should have been dealt with by the Sharon government when Qassams first began falling six years ago. But the Olmert government too had every reason, since last summer, to take decisive steps, and didn't. It was left to Russian immigrant billionaire Arkady Gaidamak, with his populist political flair, to energize Olmert and Peretz by once again bussing rocket attack victims to vacation hotels and, this time, offering to spend NIS 50 million of his own money to begin fortifying Sderot's roofs.
This repeat performance of Olmert government incompetence constituted Hamas' real achievement in this round against Israel.
Q. How will the Sarkozy era in France affect Israel?
A. At the level of broad strategic policy toward the Middle East, the French political tilt in favor of the Arabs will almost certainly not change. Every government since de Gaulle, including during Francois Mitterand's socialist years, has maintained the overall pro-Arab prejudice in French policy, reflecting France's colonial past in the Middle East and its cultivation of close relations with the third world. But there are some intriguing innovations in Sarkozy's platform and selection of ministers that could affect Israel and Israel-related issues in interesting ways.
Beginning with France's foreign relations, one innovation is Sarkozy's generally positive attitude toward the United States--a rarity in French politics. This opens the possibility of American and even American Jewish influence on French Middle East policy, within the overall framework of French-American relations.
On the other hand, Sarkozy does not bring with him the baggage of Jacques Chirac's close friendship with murdered Lebanese billionaire and former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Chirac was predisposed because of that assassination to take a hostile attitude toward Syrian President Bashar Asad, Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian parties in Lebanon, thereby--at least in the case of Lebanon, and leaving aside frictions brought on by French participation in UNIFIL--putting France in the same camp with Israel and the moderate Lebanese Sunnis and Christians.
A warming of French-Syrian relations under Sarkozy could of course help usher in a peace process. But it could also place France at odds with Israel over Lebanese issues. Then again, Sarkozy could also maintain the Chirac line on Syria; the coming debate in the UN Security Council over the formation of an international court to arraign and try Hariri's assassins will provide an early indication. So could the changing American attitude: the US appears to be softening its line on Syria, and reportedly now agrees that Israel negotiate with it.
Sarkozy's appointment of the socialist Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister offers no clear indication regarding specific policies toward Israel, though Kouchner is generally well thought of in Jerusalem. On the other hand, the rumored appointment of former foreign minister Hubert Vedrine to handle the Israel-Arab file could point to a continuation of the French pro-Arab tilt. As foreign minister under an earlier Chirac government, Vedrine was considered hostile by Jerusalem.
Paradoxically, under Chirac France in recent years improved its strategic cooperation with Israel. This was at least in part a reflection of French unease over militant Islam and Muslim immigration issues. Sarkozy's tough policies toward domestic militant Islam will presumably favor continuation of this direction of relations in the security field, including cooperation against Islamist terrorism.
Sarkozy, an opponent of Turkish membership in the European Union, has proposed a "Mediterranean Union" as an alternative format for France to engage Turkey as well as the Arab states and Israel economically. But Jerusalem has an interest in Turkish EU membership, both to bolster its own relations with Ankara and to pave the way for closer Israel-EU relations. Moreover, as a veteran of a number of informal attempts to gather representatives of the Mediterranean littoral states into a consultative mechanism, I can testify that Sarkozy's idea is a non-starter: the only thing all Mediterranean states have in common--from Albania to Syria, from Libya to Israel, from France and Spain to Palestine--is olive trees.
Turning to domestic issues, Sarkozy's resolute law and order platform is good news for French Jews, who expect a stronger hand against Muslim extremism and anti-Semitism inside France. True, fewer may now make aliyah to Israel; but the overall welfare of French Jews and European counter-efforts against anti-Semitism are a far stronger Israeli interest.
Finally, Israeli right wing circles and their supporters in the US who prefer President Bush's brand of laissez
faire regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have a knee-jerk reaction against almost any French, or for
that matter European, attempt to weigh in on peace process issues. This should not be allowed to obfuscate our
judgment of Sarkozy's policies. Moderate, balanced French initiatives should be welcomed.