December 19. 2008
Number 12/08 #06
The six month long Israel-Hamas ceasefire, originally negotiated by Egypt, is officially to end today, though in fact there has been enough violence in recent weeks to say it ended effectively in November. (Wednesday saw more than 20 rockets fired at Israel, with three people injured, and some IDF airstrikes on weapons factories in response.) Hamas says it will not renew the Tahdiya (“calm”) as it calls it. This Update offers some history of the ceasefire and some analysis of what might happen now.
First up is a piece written for the US Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) by analyst Tally Aharony. She explains the circumstances of the ceasefire, the claims of both sides and the politics of the recent actions by Hamas and other Palestinian groups. She also offers some advice to the incoming US Obama Administration to be prepared to temper hopes for peacemaking if violence breaks out, and to concentrate on shaping the violence so the outcome allows progress toward a two-state solution. For Aharony’s complete analysis, CLICK HERE. An additional analysis of the ceasefire and its consequences comes from an Israeli journalist Alex Fishman, in a two part series, here and here.
Next up, Jeffrey White, military specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, looks at Israel’s military options assuming the ceasefire’s end leads to escalating violence against Israeli communities. He analyses three options for Israel – a return to the limited strikes that occurred before the ceasefire went into effect, a major but limited operation, or a large-scale assault in Gaza designed to break Hamas’ military power – and looks at the pros and cons of each. He suggests that whatever happens is unlikely to finally resolve the situation. For this look at Israel’s difficult strategic dilemmas, CLICK HERE. A report that Hamas fighters are preparing for a battle after the ceasefire is here. Plus, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak says the ceasefire was not a mistake for Israel.
Finally, on a different topic, Israeli academic Dr. Jonathan Spyer looks at the instant canonisation given in the Arab world to the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at US President Bush, and what this says about Arab political culture. He says it is symptomatic of a political view that “sees all events through the prism of a wounded sense of nationalism, and a furious resentment against the West and Israel” and notes that it is particularly telling that the journalist in question, Muntadar al-Zeidi, was a Shi’ite, and it was the Iraqi Shi’ites who were most empowered by the US invasion. He concludes that the regional desire for reform sparked by the war seems today to be all but gone. For his full argument, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Spyer’s colleague at the GLORIA centre in Herzliya, Dr. Barry Rubin, discusses why Westerners misunderstand regional politics.
Readers may also be interested in:
- A good analysis of what may be ahead for the Palestinians in terms of Hamas-Fatah relations, given the expiration of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ term on January 9.
- A Jerusalem Post editorial on recent demonstration in which Hamas included a skit featuring a character dressed as captive IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, pleading in Hebrew for his freedom.
- A report that the Palestinians were given US$1.7 billion in aid over the last year.
- A visiting journalist, as well as a UN official, confirm that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, contrary to reports, and there is ample food.
- Israel’s long election campaign rolls on, with the ruling Kadima party holding its primaries earlier this week. Some analysis of Likud’s primary results and prospects are here, while a similar analysis of Kadima is here.
- The latest poll shows Likud’s lead over Kadima narrowing.
- Two good pieces on Israel’s problems with the Arab peace initiative from Israeli Ambassador to Britain Ron Proser and top academic Dr. Asher Susser.
- Some holiday reading on the Middle East.
by Tally Aharony
FPRI e-notes December 2008
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which has been a top foreign policy priority for U.S. administrations since 1948, is about to be shaken up. On December 19, the so-called tahdiya, or calm, is set to expire. With both sides clamoring to reach a consensus on the potential utility, if any, of renewing the ceasefire, a host of other impending events loom on the horizon that will greatly affect the conflict; namely, the end of Mahmud Abbas’s term as president on January 1, the Obama administration’s taking office on January 20, and the commencement of Israeli general elections on February 10. With additional members being appointed to President-elect Obama’s foreign policy team daily, the group will need to hit the ground running in order to digest and then react to outcomes of these fast approaching dates. Their implications are both critical and far-reaching.
The Egyptian-brokered informal ceasefire began on June 19 and was set to last for a period of six months. The terms of the exceedingly unofficial agreement dealt with some of the vital issues plaguing the Palestinians, including reestablishing the influx of supplies to Gaza and granting access to the Rafah border crossings. For Israel, the calm meant some respite for the southern communities that were bearing the brunt of the hostilities. However, one of the most disturbing aspects of the calm is that it has allowed Hamas time to regroup, to plan its takeover of the Palestinian premiership, and perhaps most alarmingly, to arm itself for the next wave of violence against Israel and anyone else who stands in its way.
The exact nuance of the term tahdiya has been articulated time and again in the Arab and Western media over the past months, and has even been spelled out by Hamas’ leadership. The Movement perceives the temporary cessation of violence as being a period of calm. They place much less weight on this type of agreement than the other term often used recently, hudna, which implies a truce between Islamic and non-Islamic entities similar to the seventh-century Treaty of Hudaybiyya. According to Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, tahdiya is merely “a tactic in conflict management.” Mashal has made a point to reassure Hamas supporters that this period of calm was a means to achieve its goals and should be understood as a tactic in its arsenal of resistance. Mashal has argued that “at the negotiating table, since Israel holds all, or most, of the cards, Israel will not give us anything. It [Israel] is not naïve, and will not give anything out of generosity. But in the face of resistance, in the battlefield, Israel will be forced to do so.” Citing other instances in which Israel had retreated as an apparent result of Islamic resistance, including Southern Lebanon and Gaza, Mashal concludes that only “the balance of power on the ground forces Israel to do so.” 
Nevertheless, neither side seems to have been happy with how the tahdiya played out. For its part, Israel’s leadership has been vocal about its view that the calm has not served Israel’s interests. What’s more, citing what it views as egregious violations of the agreement, Israel has reported 109 rockets and 97 mortar shells being fired at Israel just since November. Following a closed-door meeting regarding the situation in Gaza on December 9 between outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Israeli media began reporting a slew of comments vowing that Israel would not only defend itself against ongoing attacks but hit back hard.
Hamas argues that Israel has not held up its end of the bargain, citing the scant trickle of supplies into Gaza, the unchanged status of Rafah, as well as incidents of Israeli retaliation such as the IDF operation in November, which destroyed a tunnel near the border and killed Hamas operatives in the process.
Even the Arab media and Palestinian terrorist groups are wondering what Israel has gained during the last six months of purported calm. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad website published an article on December 10 arguing that, similar to the Palestinian resistance movements, Israel has spent the time “strengthening its fortification in the south” so as to “launch an attack on the Gaza Strip.” The group has issued statements adamantly refusing to extend the tahdiya because of “recent Israeli aggression,” and because “the Palestinian interests have not been realized, as well as the needs of the citizens.” The group echoed this same sentiment in its December 9 meeting with Hamas in Gaza. Alternatively, Hamas leader Khalil al-Hayya, opting for an uncharacteristically diplomatic line, said that the extension of the tahdiya is “subject to a comprehensive assessment of the Palestinian factions.” It is possible that Hamas’ comments reflect its obligations vis-à-vis Egypt within the framework of the floundering national reconciliation talks; obligations that the PIJ simply does not have.
Notwithstanding that there was never much of a lull in the violence to begin with, the approach of the tahdiya expiration date is shifting the strategic scheming of the Palestinians and the Israelis into high gear. It is improbable that outgoing President Abbas will be able to affect what unfolds in any way, considering that Hamas has already made it clear that it will no longer accept him as a legitimate leader as of January 2009. The likely outcome is that in Hamas’ anticipated power grab, tensions will again flair up between Hamas and Fatah, undoing what minimal progress the Egyptians made and once again paralyzing the Palestinian national project. This will by no means amount to a drop in violence aimed against Israel, and so will increase the likelihood of both an American diplomatic response and an Israeli military response. However, both the U.S. and Israel are in the midst of their respective changings of the guard, which at the very least stalls any definitive action from either of the two until this process is complete. Likewise, the degree of response from the Israeli side depends heavily on which of its candidates wins out and their subsequent ability to keep the government from collapsing long enough to make a decisive and practical response.
The question remains whether any of the possible outcomes of the impending timeline includes a revived peace process scenario. Both the Palestinians and the Israelis would need to elect leaders that were legitimate spokespersons for their respective peoples and could therefore deliver on promises and compromises made at the negotiating table. Obviously, on the Palestinian side, there is still the sticky issue of Hamas’ avowed non-recognition of Israel, even in the unlikely scenario of national reconciliation.
Al-Jazeera touched on this matter in its April interview with Mashal, arguing, “You say frankly: We are ready for a Palestinian state on the land occupied in 1967, within a certain settlement, but we will not recognize Israel. To tell you the truth, it is difficult to accept such an equation. Israel is unlikely to give it to you.” Mashal responded by saying that while some Palestinians and Arabs adhered to “the equation of recognizing Israel in advance” and “discussed normalization of relations, coexistence, etc… what was the result?” These statements are, in essence, a balancing act between the group’s still unwavering stance of non-recognition and deliberately vague language about potential recognition as a long-run bargaining chip. In the meantime, there are still unfulfilled aspects of the tahdiya to argue over, specifically, prisoner exchanges that would swap hundreds of Palestinian convicts for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who Hamas has held captive since June 2006. The likelihood of this negotiation coming to fruition diminishes every day.
And how should the United States proceed regarding the possible evolution or further degradation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? President-elect Barack Obama has made it clear that this issue will be a high priority, and many analysts are speculating about the possibility that he will name a Middle East Envoy as part of his cabinet. While designating such a position would demonstrate both seriousness of purpose and a commitment to the issue, the incoming administration may want to hold off on issuing any major policy statements until it sees how the chips fall. The United States cannot act as arbiter or broker of peace when there are no participants at the table. However, if the Administration is not afforded the luxury of time to formulate a measured policy because a major brawl has broken out between the Israelis and the Palestinians, then it is imperative for it to make its voice heard loud and clear. Many believe that time is running out for a possible peace agreement and perhaps even for a two-state solution. In the event of an escalation in Gaza, the new Administration should be prepared to shape the violence so that, when the fighting ends, both the formation of a Palestinian unity government and a further advance toward a two-state solution are facilitated.
- ^ “Interview with Head of the Political Bureau of the Hamas Movement, Khaled Mashal: Tahdiya with Israel,” Al-Jazeera Channel, April 26, 2008, aljazeera.net.
- ^ “News of Terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” Israel Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration Center (IICC), December 2-9, 2008, www.terrorism-info.org.il.
- ^ “Olmert and Livni and Barak Met Today to Discuss the Future of the Tahdiya with Gaza Strip,” Qudsway: The Official Website of the Islamic Jihad in Palestine, December 10, 2008, www.qudsway.com.
- ^ “‘Jihad’ Rejects Extending the Tahdiya with Israel in Gaza,” Dar Al-Hayat, December 3, 2008, www.daralhayat.com.
- ^ “Hamas and Islamic Jihad Meet to Discuss the Future of the Tahdiya with Israel,” Moheet: Arabic News Site, December 10, 2008, www.moheet.com.
- ^ “Interview with Head of the Political Bureau of the Hamas Movement.”
Tally Aharony is a research fellow at FPRI. She also instructs Civil Information Management Training Courses on behalf of K3 Enterprises to operational and tactical Civil Affairs Forces, Human Terrain Teams, and U.S. Special Operations Forces assigned to various commands, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
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By Jeffrey White
December 18, 2008
(This PolicyWatch is the second in a two-part series examining the situation in Gaza as the December 19 expiration date of the Israeli-Hamas ceasefire approaches. The first part focused on the challenges the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would face in undertaking any large-scale action; the second looks at the IDF’s choices, and their implications, regarding the scope and duration of a potential incursion. Read the companion PolicyWatch, “The Challenges of Israeli Military Action in Gaza,” here)
According to press reports, the IDF has already presented the Israeli cabinet with several military options for a Gaza invasion and has indicated that it is ready to act, pending a government decision. Opinion among military and civilian officials on the necessity and efficacy of military action is divided, and for good reason: many serious implications exist for such an engagement, and a clean and beneficial outcome is not a certainty. Israel’s relationship with the region and beyond would be seriously complicated, as would intra-Palestinian affairs.
The military plans under consideration probably envision three basic scenarios. First, Israel could return to the same level of military action it conducted prior to the ceasefire, which involved air and artillery strikes against high-value targets and immediate threats, raids by special forces, and small incursions. This strategy inflicted losses on armed Palestinian elements; made it more difficult for them to train, equip, and operate; and presented their leadership with a continued unsettling threat. The operations, however, led to IDF casualties and did not prevent Palestinian rocket and mortar fire on military and civilian targets inside Israel. Although a return to this approach would be unlikely to fundamentally alter the situation, it could contain Hamas’s expanding military power and perhaps decrease the group’s popularity, since such activity would inevitably make life even more difficult for Gaza’s population, for which Hamas would receive some of the blame.
Second, Israel could undertake a larger but still relatively limited operation, with deeper and longer penetration into the Strip, using stronger ground elements combined with intensified special forces and air attacks on high-value personnel and infrastructure targets. Such operations could reduce the threat from rockets and mortars, while eliminating more terrorist leaders, fighters, and infrastructure. This option would have longer-lasting military consequences for Hamas and other armed organizations, but would be only partially effective if Hamas and others retained their core leadership, organization, and military capabilities. This kind of offensive would risk a “rolling” political-diplomatic crisis for Israel, Western states, and moderate Arabs. Under this scenario, Hamas and the other organizations would make every effort not only to defend themselves, but also to intensify attacks inside Israel.
The third option would be a large, multiple brigade- or division-level operation with equivalent, stepped-up action by other forces, involving deep if not complete penetration of the Strip, with the intention of breaking Hamas’s military power and weakening its grip on Gaza. This could involve prolonged occupation of at least some territory, and extensive efforts to rake out terrorist organizations and their infrastructure. Although the most challenging from a military standpoint, this kind of operation would offer the best prospects for long-term security improvements in southern Israel. Of course, this option would entail the greatest political complications and risks, and could lead to an escalation of military tensions with Hizballah in Lebanon. It would also require a clearly defined exit strategy.
Current discussions in Israel seem to be focusing on larger operations, rather than a return to the status quo prior to the ceasefire.
The IDF appears better prepared for action than it did in summer 2006: it has new means and methods for irregular opponents, including improved equipment, tactics, and organization for urban combat; it has enhanced intelligence capabilities and countertunneling equipment and units; and it has had plenty of time to plan and prepare. In all likelihood, the IDF’s performance in Gaza would substantially exceed what was seen in Lebanon. Finding a workable exit strategy that does not reverse its military gains, however, could be more difficult to attain.
The outcome of a Gaza invasion would most likely be messy. The longer the IDF stays, the more it will be subject to popular resistance and international pressure to withdraw. A protracted invasion would also strain Israel’s relationship with the United States, other Western nations, moderate Arab states, and the Palestinian Authority (PA). If the IDF leaves too quickly or is only partially successful, however, Hamas could reestablish itself or Palestinian factions could renew their power struggle. Worse yet, an invasion of Gaza could further radicalize Palestinian politics, boosting violent elements and weakening those supporting negotiations with Israel.
Nevertheless, an Israeli invasion may precipitate several positive outcomes. Depending on which option Israel chooses, a resumed offensive in Gaza would reduce the rocket and mortar threat to southern Israel, while Hamas and other violent Palestinian factions would find it more difficult to expand their military power. Also, the value of breaking Hamas’s hold on Gaza should not be dismissed — a prospect that currently seems unlikely. This probably cannot be achieved without IDF intervention, and resultant conditions might allow the PA to reassert itself in Gaza, though the PA cannot be seen as the handmaiden of an Israeli invasion.
An Israeli invasion, or the imminent threat of one, could also cause Hamas to modify its behavior. Hamas has shown that it will adapt to survive, and might make tactical modifications aimed at preserving the organization — reducing or halting rocket and mortar attacks by its own forces and by other terrorist organizations, and reducing tensions with the PA — rather than shift its strategy or goals.
A major IDF operation in Gaza would dramatically change the military and political dynamics in Israel and in the region in uncertain ways. A successful operation, one that achieves its goals and provides an effective exit strategy, would be politically advantageous for the Israeli government and reduce the diplomatic fallout. Failure, however, would be a political disaster for Israel and all those supporting the peace process, much to the advantage of Israel’s enemies — Hamas, Hizballah, Syria, and Iran. These concerns explain why some in the IDF and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have argued for caution.
Caution, nonetheless, comes with its own costs and risks. Life for Israelis within range of Palestinian rockets is difficult, and as Hamas and other organizations acquire longer-range rockets, the number of settlements subject to bombardment will grow. Hamas and the other terrorist elements are seeking to extend their capabilities and presence all the way up to the perimeter fence, forcing the IDF into a more defensive posture. Hamas will continue to expand its military capability and deepen its control in the Strip, and will remain a political, if not military, threat to the PA.
Whether Israel will carry out a major operation in Gaza in the near term is uncertain. Although many are pressing the IDF to act soon, at the moment caution seems to be the watchword. Whatever happens, military action in Gaza is not likely to be surgical or final. Hamas’s entrenched position, literally and figuratively, rules out quick and easy military solutions, while large operations carry serious complications and risks, with no guarantee of success.
Jeffrey White is a defense fellow at The Washington Institute, specializing in the military and security affairs of Iraq and the Levant.
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THE JERUSALEM POST, Dec. 16, 2008
US President George W. Bush’s visit to Iraq this week reflected the mixed legacy of his presidency. The Iraq invasion is likely to be remembered as the defining issue of the Bush era and recent events show real progress in the country.
At the same time, the flying shoes that greeted the president at his joint press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Sunday, and the instant canonization of the shoe thrower as the latest poster child for Arab “defiance” show the extent to which the prevailing regional political culture that the invasion was supposed to help end remains alive and kicking – in Iraq as elsewhere.
Iraq appears on the way to uneasy stability. There has been an estimated drop of 80 percent in attacks by insurgents since March. Last month, Iraqi civilian deaths were the lowest since the US invasion, 290. These figures reflect the relative success of the US troop surge. No less important a contributor has been the sahwa (awakening) movement in the provinces of Sunni Arab central Iraq.
The new US-Iraqi security pact marks the start of the final act of the US occupation. The pact calls for all American troops to be withdrawn by the end of 2011. The first stage is set for next year, with the withdrawal of US forces from Baghdad and other major cities.
As the US begins to draw down its forces in Iraq, the emergent political order in the country is one of Shi’ite domination and interethnic tension. Yet the tensions are being played out – for the moment – within the framework of a working political system based on democratic elections. If this system can hold during and after the US withdrawal, it will represent a significant achievement. It will mean that for the first time since decolonization, one of the main countries of the Arab world will be under democratic rule. Thus far the credit side of the ledger.
As the US president’s reception in Iraq indicates, however, deep problems remain. Muntadar al-Zeidi’s flying shoes are the latest semi-comic emblem of a particular, familiar political culture with deep roots in the Arab world. This outlook sees all events through the prism of a wounded sense of nationalism, and a furious resentment against the West and Israel. This outlook currently finds its active political expression mainly through movements of Islamic revival, but it is not confined to them or solely produced by them. Indeed, to a great extent the rise of Islamism is a product of this political-cultural ambience, rather than the other way around.
This political culture sanctifies anti-Western fury, and continues, half a century after decolonization, to see the Arabs as hapless victims of the West. As a result, it gives its greatest honor and respect to those who are able to articulate a sense of furious resentment. If this can be accompanied by the successful application of political violence, then popular deification is assured.
The tremendous popularity of Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrallah, and even the non-Arab Mahmoud Ahmedinejad among broad masses of Arabs is a product of this political culture. Zeidi and his shoes will henceforth form a very tiny presence in its pantheon.
It is this political culture that is capable of producing the curious spectacle of the furious demonstrations against Bush by members of the Iraqi Shi’ite community in the past days. Much may be legitimately criticized about the conception and execution of the invasion of Iraq. But it is an empirically undeniable fact that the individual more responsible than any other for the enfranchisement and elevation to power of the Shi’ites of Iraq is George W. Bush. That is to say that the man who has established a situation in which the Iraqi Shi’ite Zeidi is able to work freely as a journalist, worship freely as a Shi’ite and vote freely as a citizen was the same one whom Zeidi chose to hurl his shoes at.
The probable lesson the US and its allies will take from the Iraq invasion is that ambitious projects for the reform and reshaping of the Arab world are not worth undertaking. Regional order, or something approaching it, will once more be maintained through “off shore balancing” in the form of relations with existing, imperfect but stable regimes in the region, such as the National Democratic Party regime in Egypt and the Saudi monarchy.
A Shi’ite regime of one kind or another is likely to emerge in Iraq in the coming years, and the key issue will be whether it allies with the US-dominated existing Arab order, or with Iran.
But the combination of post-9/11 rage and genuine desire for reform that powered the US invasion of Iraq of 2003 is, for better or for worse, gone. The strange spectacle of an Iraq now closer to democracy than any other Arab state, into which the chief architect of its liberty must steal like a thief in the night, and in which he is subjected to insults by a member of the very community he brought to power, is its problematic legacy. It is also the latest evidence of the astonishing hardiness and longevity of that peculiar political culture of self-righteous fury that bestrides the Arabic-speaking world, and that constitutes perhaps the single largest barrier to its rational and mature development.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.