This week, Alpher discusses military stagnation and attrition, how the Israeli public is viewing Netanyahu and Yaalon's caution, last week's promise by Netanyahu of a "new political horizon" and his release of a report that Hamas had planned an intifada and a power grab on the West Bank, the talk of a new and dramatic proposal from Abu Mazen, and a UN option, and where this bewildering catalogue of diplomatic and military initiatives leaves us.
(Monday, August 25, day 49 of the Gaza conflict)
Q. The Gaza war continues to offer a new agenda for discussion every week. Now it seems to be the issue of military stagnation and its mirror image, attrition.
A. The collapse of 10 days of ceasefire last week seemingly ushered in a new phase of warfare between Israel and Hamas.
Israel escalated its air attacks, included targeted assassinations of senior Hamas military operatives and destruction from the air, of entire multi-story buildings that served Hamas's military needs. Artillery and ground forces were not deployed, in an effort to reduce Gazan civilian casualties.
For its part Hamas, its stores of medium and long-range rockets by now largely depleted, concentrated on a concerted mortar and short-range rocket campaign against the kibbutzim bordering the Strip, leading to their virtual evacuation by Israel. Israel, Hamas discovered, has no technological answer to the mortar fire, which is impossible to intercept and provides no early warning.
Hamas also sought to boost morale and to intimidate doubters by publicly executing 25 "spies" and "collaborators" accused of helping Israel target senior military commanders. The dead were most probably ideological opponents or common criminals, though Israel undoubtedly does recruit Palestinian sources in Gaza. The West Bank-based Palestinian Authority condemned the executions, noting that some of those executed had been incarcerated for three years and that none had enjoyed due judicial process. It observed that the killings were "reminiscent of the summary executions carried out by Wahhabi militant groups [read: ISIS] in other parts of the Middle East".
The evacuation of Israeli civilians and shooting of Palestinian collaborators appear to be signs of a war of attrition. From Israel's standpoint, this in turn reflects a growing awareness among the public that, while tactical intelligence (e.g., tunnel and target location) is excellent and even improving, strategic intelligence, meaning an understanding of how the Hamas leadership thinks and makes decisions, is poor. While the Israeli political and military leadership and friendly media commentators continue to tell the public that the huge damages that are being inflicted on the Gaza Strip will soon cause Hamas to ask for a new ceasefire and to agree to Israel's and Egypt's conditions for permanent quiet, the Hamas leadership seemingly doesn't get the message. On the contrary, it celebrates every minor injury it inflicts on Israel, ignores or glorifies the destruction inflicted on the Strip and promises ever more vengeance for the death of its senior commanders. The evacuation of kibbutzim located on sovereign Israeli territory is understood by Hamas as a particularly galling setback for Israel.
Q. In this context, is Netanyahu and Yaalon's caution still being roundly praised by the Israeli public?
A. Less and less. After all, that caution has been translated into transient and non-strategic war objectives that have changed weekly for a month and a half (Netanyahu's latest: "so we can sleep soundly at night") and military tactics that may have eliminated the attack tunnels, pinpointed the location of Hamas commanders and inflicted huge damage, but have not had the projected cumulative effect of defeating Hamas or at least deterring it for a prolonged period and imposing on it the disarmament of the Strip. The aforementioned absence of accurate strategic intelligence regarding Hamas's decision-making is increasingly obvious to the public. It tragically dictated the government's and military's call during the long ceasefire to residents of the Gaza perimeter to return to their homes, only to expose them to massive mortar fire that ultimately took the life last week of a four-year old at Kibbutz Nachal Oz.
One upshot of this situation is growing discussion of the option Netanyahu and Yaalon seemingly wisely ignored at the outset of the war: some sort of ground offensive, either massive or by commando raids, into the heart of the Strip with the objective of either upsetting Hamas's "equilibrium" or conquering the entire Strip. Obviously, the two Israeli leaders would prefer to avoid this risky option and hope that Israel's latest escalation will suffice to end the war. Yet both their words and their actions seemingly do not confront the intelligence establishment's lack of understanding of how Hamas functions and why Gazans seemingly support it. Some commentators are increasingly comparing Hamas's strategic behavior to that of North Vietnam in its prolonged, painful and ultimately successful wars against the French and the US.
On Monday, new reports from Cairo appeared to indicate that yet another ceasefire might be in the offing. It would postpone renewed negotiations for a month while emergency aid is allowed into the Strip. In parallel, and somewhat along similar lines, Israel's inability to achieve a decisive outcome to this war has led it to consider the option of reaching agreements with Egypt and Abbas's PLO but not, other than a tacit ceasefire, with Hamas. This would leave Israel free to initiate new military action whenever it sees fit and leave Hamas bereft of any sort of achievement that it can show its constituency in Gaza that would correspond with its constant strategic goal of removing the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the Strip.
Q. Last week, too, Netanyahu publicly promised a "new political horizon" and released a report that Hamas had planned an intifada and a power grab on the West Bank.
A. The new political horizon, which was not detailed, was apparently Netanyahu's way of deflecting criticism from all quarters. To the hawkish political right within his own Security Cabinet, the prime minister was seemingly signaling that he had alternatives to collaborating with them. With centrist ministers Lapid and Livni, both actively promoting regional and international "umbrella" initiatives, Netanyahu was trying to play catch-up. Toward Cairo, Ramallah, Washington and Brussels, he was reassuring.
Not to be outflanked, Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman, one of Netanyahu's right-wing critics but increasingly heavy with surprises, hastened to go on prime-time TV where he welcomed the Arab Peace Initiative and declared himself ready to divide Jerusalem. Lieberman was seemingly positioning himself strategically in the hawkish camp for war and the dovish camp for peace. His message was that when the fighting does end an election season may begin in Israel, replete with accusations and counter-accusations about the running of this war.
The timing of publication by Israel of revelations of Hamas's violent plans for the West Bank reflected a different set of objectives. Last Monday, the government revealed it had arrested 93 Hamas operatives in 46 Palestinian villages and cities in recent months, thereby allegedly thwarting a Hamas plan to start a violent new intifada directed as much against Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority as against Israel.
The details of this plot remained murky. The timing of the revelation appeared to be a signal to Abbas that his Hamas negotiating partners in Cairo could not be trusted. It was also a signal that Israel itself could not trust Hamas as a partner in a ceasefire agreement, and that Netanyahu had been right to reject the Palestinian unity government that emerged back in April and that signaled the demise of John Kerry's peace initiative. At the more strategic level, Netanyahu sought to portray Turkey, which shelters Saleh Aruri, the Hamas leader who from Ankara coordinated both the kidnapping of the three yeshiva students and the West Bank plot, as a state sponsor of terrorism along with Hamas's other backer, Qatar.
Not surprisingly, the West Bank coup revelations did indeed sow discord among the PLO's joint delegation in Cairo. Fueled by tougher Israeli negotiating terms that reflected Netanyahu's inability to ignore the hawks in his Security Cabinet, the outcome last week was renewed warfare.
Q. There's also talk of a new and dramatic proposal from Abu Mazen, and a UN option.
A. Abu Mazen (PLO and PA leader Mahmoud Abbas) has promised something dramatic ("but not a declaration of war against Israel", he joked with an Egyptian TV interviewer) but has offered no details. His initiative for an "unconventional solution" reportedly will have something to do with the United Nations and a timetable for Palestinian statehood. However impractical it may prove given Abbas's lack of control over Hamas and Gaza, it will presumably be designed to portray Netanyahu (correctly) as having no viable strategy for a two-state solution.
The idea of a United Nations Security Council resolution is only a bit more concrete. It began with discussions among Germany, France and Britain that now reportedly include the US. According to some reports, the resolution will only take final shape after a ceasefire is reached in Cairo, as a means of supporting such an agreement. It allegedly supports a PA return to Gaza, international controls over armaments there and over the movement of people and goods in and out of the Strip, extensive Gazan reconstruction, and renewed Israeli-PLO peace talks based on the 1967 lines.
Mention of the 1967 lines will not please Netanyahu. Accordingly, he may be inclined to acquiesce in Gaza arrangements that leave Hamas firmly in power as a means of preventing the emergence of a viable new peace process. On the other hand, the resolution does not specifically award Hamas with those air and sea ports that constitute the core of its strategic war objectives. And while Israel will be hard put to totally reject such a UNSC resolution in view of US backing, Hamas can in effect reject, ignore or bypass it by hiding behind Palestinian Authority acceptance.
Q. So where does this bewildering catalogue of diplomatic and military initiatives leave us?
A. As of Monday afternoon Israel time, without a clear resolution of any sort.