November 7, 2008
Number 11/08 #02
This Update offers some analysis of the origins and strategic implications of the still-ongoing latest round of Israeli-Hamas fighting around the borders of the Gaza Strip, (which continued yesterday with four more rockets fired) the worst flair up since a temporary ceasefire was declared in June. It also continues our coverage of the Middle East policy challenges likely to be faced by the incoming Obama Administration in Washington, with a piece dealing in this case with the imperatives, realities and strategic considerations likely to shape decision making over a revised US approach to Iraq.
First up, Haaretz reporters Amos Harel and Avi Issaharoff explain the thinking behind the Israeli government decision to launch a raid 200 metres into Gaza to demolish a tunnel being built by Hamas in an attempt to replicate their 2006 abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. It makes it clear that Israel had no interest in jeopardising the ceasefire, (and Hamas does not wish to either – at least, not yet) but the alternative of risking another abduction was much worse. The piece also contains some comment on Hamas’ response to Obama’s election. For this essential background to what is now occurring in Gaza, CLICK HERE.
An additional analysis of the Gaza violence by Amir Mizroch, chief news editor of the Jerusalem Post, offers many more details on the strategic dilemmas Israeli decision-makers face with respect to Gaza. He points out that regardless of the ‘kidnapping tunnel” issue, Israeli decision-makers are reluctant to invade Gaza primarily because they have no clear path to get out afterwards, but in the meantime are watching Hamas get stronger, both militarily and politically, and turn the strip into the “world’s largest terrorist base.” He then further discusses the state of negotiations over Gilad Shalit. For all of this analysis, CLICK HERE. Another interesting piece related to Israel’s efforts to get back Shalit comes from Haaretz’s Amir Oren.
Finally, Washington Institute for Near East policy military analyst Michael Knights offers a detailed look at the current situation in Iraq, and the considerations the Obama Administration will have to make as it re-shapes policy there. Knights discusses the onoing importance Iraq potentially has for US interests, the reasons favouring a phased withdrawal but also the reasons for care and caution about the pace and method of the draw-down. Finally, he discusses the US and international role in Iraq’s political development, and especially the milestone elections due to take place next year. For this valuable guide to the strategic realities behind US policy-making in Iraq, CLICK HERE. Also commenting on how Obama should handle Iraq is Israeli columnist Ari Shavit. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government says they are confident that the Obama Administration will not withdraw forces overly quickly.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Obama was congratulated by Israeli President Shimon Peres, and reportedly spoke to acting Israeli PM Ehud Olmert.
- Some more interesting Middle East reaction to Obama’s victory, from Iran, the Taliban, and various individuals including leading Muslim Brotherhood-linked cleric Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi.
- Both the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz published editorials hailing Obama’s victory. The Israeli papers are also full of other interesting commentary on the victory, of which a few examples are here, here, here, and here.
- More on the current state of Hamas-Fatah relations as they prepare for a meeting planned for Nov. 9 in Cairo.
- US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly wants to leave the Obama Administration a document setting out the current state of Israeli-Palestinian agreements and disagreements.
- The Bank of Israel predicts continuing Israeli economic growth, despite the global financial crisis.
- An analyst specialising in the subject argues that “antisemitism” is a better term than “anti-Semitism.”
By Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz Correspondents
Haaretz, Nov. 5, 2008
The decision to take action to expose the tunnel west of the fence on the border of the Gaza Strip Tuesday night was justified and reasonable, even if it had been possible to predict the results: six Palestinians killed, heavy rocket fire on Sderot and a direct hit on the center of Ashkelon. It is hard to see what other choice Israeli leaders had. Such an operation may put the continued cease-fire in danger, but if Hamas had succeeded in its plans to abduct another Israel Defense Forces soldier using the tunnel, the situation would have been infinitely worse.
At least Israel has learned the lesson of the Gilad Shalit abduction. In cases where the Shin Bet security service passes on specific information on a planned attack, a “ticking tunnel” as the IDF called it yesterday, a preventative operation is approved a few hundred meters inside Palestinian territory. Without such operations it would be very difficult to prevent another abduction.
Despite Wednesday’s escalation, there are still moderating factors that could prevent the complete collapse of the lull, or tahadiyeh in Arabic.
Israel has no interest in renewing the fighting now. Official spokesmen were careful on Wednesday to describe the paratroopers’ operation as a “surgical strike” to remove a specific threat. They emphasized the importance of the cease-fire. Leaders including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are all against waging a major military operation in the Gaza Strip now.
Hamas currently seems to be interested in strenghtening its hold on Gaza. Only a few hours after the rockets were fired on Israel the organization issued a statement saying it still supports the tahadiyeh and that it had asked Egypt to help restore calm to the region.
Hamas wants to complete its defenses before another round of fighting, which it expects may happen in a few months. However, it seems Hamas leaders were willing to sacrifice the cease-fire for a major strategic success such as another abduction. This is not the only example: Last week the Shin Bet released for publication the fact that it has stopped a Hamas militant who had infiltrated into the Negev in an attempt to kidnap a soldier and smuggle him back into Gaza.
On the other hand, Hamas is also forced to respond to the IDF operation. It cannot accept six fatalities among its forces quietly. That is why it needed to restore the balance of terror on Wednesday and set a price for the next time: If Israel continues its attacks on Gaza, then Israel will be attacked too. Nevertheless, the general feeling of commentators in Gaza is that Hamas’ top priority, in addition to the renewed talks with Fatah in Cairo next week, is to maintain its hold in Gaza.
In some way the renewed fighting and the return to the headlines in the Arab media will help Hamas in next week’s negotiations and provide them a position of strength, as they are once agains portrayed as the leaders of the Palestinian struggle and opposition while Fatah is painted as a Zionist agent.
But Hamas was worried no less on Wednesday by the American elections. Even while fighting was underway in the middle of the Gaza Strip, its spokesmen were busy formulating a first response to Obama’s election. The relatively restrained statements about the president-elect seem to indicate that someone in the organization hopes Obama will agree to talk to Hamas despite its radical positions.
It would be interesting to know if in Chicago, just before the end of his moving speech, one of Obama’s aides took the time to find out where Dir Al-Balah is and what was actually happening there. It is more than likely that his aides did not bother the president-elect with the matter, even though he still vaguely remembers his visit to the incredible “Qassam Museum” in Sderot a few months ago. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is certainly not the most important thing on Obama’s mind at the moment. Anything that develops along the Gaza border over the next few weeks is still the problem of the Bush administration, but the forecast is not very rosy. While in Chicago they are hoping and preparing for a change, in Gaza they are still stuck in the past. It won’t be Obama’s problem for another six weeks.
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THE JERUSALEM POST , Nov. 6, 2008
It’s telling that neither Hamas nor Israel has announced the end of the tahadiyeh. Hamas said the cease-fire was “teetering” and vowed to respond to the latest attack, but it has no interest in sparking a war with Israel that would threaten its hold on the Gaza Strip.
In Hamas’s mind, digging a tunnel under the border through which its fighters can crawl to an IDF position, kill and/or kidnap Israeli soldiers and take them back to Gaza is not a violation of the cease-fire, whereas an Israeli preemptive reaction to that is.
But despite the recent flare-up, both sides have an interest in maintaining the cease-fire and averting an escalation.
For Israel it is important to let communities in the area enjoy their first taste of normal life in more than seven years. A return to war with Hamas would immediately bring down sustained rocket fire on these communities and public pressure would again mount, either for another cease-fire or for a swift and decisive military victory in Gaza. Another cease-fire would look pretty much like this last one, and a swift military victory in the Gaza Strip is a fantasy.
The IDF is capable of taking down the Hamas leadership, but will never truly succeed in eradicating the movement from the Gaza Strip entirely. Invading Gaza to kill the Hamas leadership and uproot its military infrastructure can be done. It will be costly, and soldiers will die and the home front will bleed, but the Hamas regime can be taken down. The real problem will come afterward: Does Israel want to rule and care for Gaza’s 1.2 million hungry, angry people? Does the IDF want to be bogged down trading death with guerrilla fighters in the narrow streets of Gaza indefinitely? How long will the Israeli public maintain support for such a mission? And, haven’t we been here before? Didn’t we just leave Gaza?
But the longer Hamas is allowed to stay entrenched in Gaza and build its army, the harder it becomes to dislodge.
In the meantime, Gaza is drifting slowly away from a two-state solution. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas clumsily lost control of the strip last July, and has been trying to get it back ever since. There are social, economic and political processes happening in Gaza that he can’t stop. There is now a third generation of Gazans who have known nothing but struggle. Poverty, hunger and radicalization are rampant in Gaza, and Hamas uses this to consolidate its rule there.
Gaza has turned into the world’s largest terrorist base. It has not, as some wished, become the Middle East’s Singapore. Like Singapore, Gaza has an outlet to the sea and nice beaches. That’s where the comparison starts and ends. It’s even starting to act like other terror bases in the world. Like al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the world is always on alert for new attacks when Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri tapes are broadcast on Arab channels and Web sites. In the Gaza Strip, it has become Muhammad Deif who is the harbinger of things to come.
Deif, long at the top of Israel’s hit list, resurfaced Tuesday to warn of new attacks. He probably knew what he was talking about.
There is no doubt that Hamas is growing stronger. It is hard to put a finger on exactly how many tons of explosives, anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets are being smuggled into the strip in tunnels under the Egyptian border. But while Hamas is rolling in impressive amounts of munitions, the threat posed by Hamas is a fraction of that of Hizbullah in Lebanon. Four tons of explosives here and there, or even 14 tons, are not going to change the balance of forces much between the IDF and Hamas.
Hamas is fortifying and training, but so is the IDF. So with one eye on the Hamas buildup in Gaza, Israel has another eye firmly on Hizbullah, which is now four times stronger than it was at the end of the Second Lebanon War. Its rockets, assumed to number at least 40,000, can now reach Dimona and Yeruham.
Another reason neither side wants to break the cease-fire is the prisoner exchange issue. There is still no formula for the release of Gilad Schalit, and breaking the cease-fire will not help return the Israeli soldier home.
As of this writing there was no real progress on the prisoner release talks and they have been effectively suspended. What has gone before has been something like this: The Egyptians come to the Israelis with a list of prisoners Hamas wants freed. It’s a tough list, making it very hard for any Israeli government to release these people. Israel swallows the bitter pill and says OK, just release Schalit. The Egyptians go back to Hamas, who at the last minute adds more names to the list.
Lately, however, there seems to be some confusion on the Hamas side as to whether Israel has officially rejected Hamas’s demands to release 450 heavy duty terrorists. They think Israel has said no, but they haven’t heard an official “no” from the Egyptians. This could be an Israeli tactic to keep Hamas confused, wear them down and lower their price.
The names on the Hamas list, according to senior Israeli officials, are “horrendous,” and include men who have been sentenced to over 30 consecutive life sentences; in other words, men responsible for the deaths of many Israelis.
Whatever the truth is, Israeli tactics do not seem to be lowering Hamas’s asking price, and there are some within the defense establishment questioning its effectiveness. Prisoner release negotiations are being run out of the Prime Minister’s Office. Hamas, for its part, has turned Schalit into an insurance policy against Israeli military strikes and isn’t going to let him go without a massive prisoner release and security guarantees.
But the longer it holds out, the more pressure it will come under from the families of Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails. Meanwhile, the assessment is that Schalit is alive, but that his health is deteriorating.
The cease-fire is in its fifth month and its official end date is December 18. If and when it ends, it will likely be Hamas which decides to do it. Hamas sets the rules of the cease-fire game. It decides when and where to fire rockets; it decides where to dig tunnels to kidnap soldiers or infiltrate Israeli border communities. Israel keeps a close eye and reacts where and when it needs to. Israel will want to keep the calm along the southern border for as long as it can, to allow the towns and kibbutzim to enjoy normal lives, and to focus on the much larger threats from the north (Hizbullah), northeast (Syria) and farther east (Iran).
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November 5, 2008
When Barack Obama assumes office on January 20, 2009, the president-elect will face many pressing issues. The strategic case for careful and active management of Iraq policy, however, remains strong. Iraq has at least 115 billion barrels of proven oil reserves (9.3 percent of the world total) and borders Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. This vital Middle Eastern country could become a terrorist thoroughfare and the scene of future regional wars or it could become a stable and prosperous U.S. ally. What matters now is not how U.S. presence in Iraq started, but how it will change in the next four years. It may be far more economical to finish stabilizing Iraq under the relatively favorable present conditions compared to the unknown and potentially unfavorable situation of the future. Iraq retains the potential to contribute to U.S. policy objectives in the Persian Gulf region and the broader Islamic world. It could yet emerge as a strong democratic state at the center of the Middle East.
President-elect Obama faces a challenge that no modern occupant of the White House has faced: namely, disengaging from the occupation of an important country that, unlike Germany, Japan, and Korea, has not achieved full stability. The hasty disengagement of European imperial powers from their mandates and colonies during the mid-twentieth century demonstrates the kind of destructive legacy often left by withdrawal strategies that overlook their repercussions in the newly independent states. Like the European nations, the United States will be judged for decades according to how it discharges its responsibilities during this critical disengagement period. And especially since the Arab world has been victim to previous abrupt retreats, “Do no harm” must be a guiding principle of a responsible withdrawal strategy.
Important national interests are driving the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq. Most importantly, Iraq’s sovereign government has expressed a desire to reduce the profile and role of the U.S. military since capable Iraqi forces under federal government command are already leading the security effort in most provinces. From a U.S. perspective, it is important to alleviate the strain on the U.S. armed forces, reduce casualties and expenditures associated with the Iraq war, and free up military capacity for other war zones (Afghanistan) or as a deterrent in other areas (Iran, North Korea, or China).
Balanced against these considerations, the United States also has a strong strategic imperative to negotiate for continued military access and influence in Iraq. There are arguably few places in the world that need a U.S. military presence more than the unstable parts of Iraq. This fact is often overlooked as the U.S. role has diminished in areas where integrated Iraqi security forces and provincial councils consisting of the right ethnic and sectarian blend have emerged.
In other areas, the U.S. military needs to finish its job as an honest broker and peacemaker. Focus should be maintained through well-resourced mentoring, training, and Provincial Reconstruction Team programs in areas where representative government and security forces are still not in place (for example, in the multiethnic Ninawa and Kirkuk provinces, and in the sectarian and ethnic melting pot of Diyala province). Although it may seem logical to move the residual U.S. military presence to Iraq’s borders to deter foreign intervention, peace enforcement remains critical in several heavily populated areas.
Iraq’s Election Year
The president-elect will be building relationships with the Iraqi leadership at a very tense time in the Iraqi political calendar. Fresh out of his election cycle, the new U.S. president needs to be aware of the pressures that Iraqi leaders face in 2009 as they approach their own provincial and national elections. For this reason, Obama should not expect too much from the outgoing Iraqi administration and must keep in mind that Iraqi leaders are likely to be especially uncompromising in public and multilateral settings throughout 2009. Iraq is experiencing familiar post-colonial dynamics, as its politicians lean toward hyper-nationalism and reflexive resistance to U.S. initiatives, at least in public and especially during the upcoming election year.
As a result, Washington’s strategy toward Iraqi leaders should be broad-based, forward-looking, and behind closed doors. The next Iraqi prime minister will probably head a diverse coalition due to the increasing fractionalization of Iraq’s political scene. Since the distribution of seats in provincial councils will likely broaden at the local level, the U.S. government should build contacts with Iraq’s established, as well as its emerging, political factions. The new administration should carefully survey Iraq’s evolving political landscape, closely assess the results of provincial elections, support political polling, and meet with a broad range of political figures.
Guiding Iraq’s Political Development
If the United States and the international community disengage from Iraq’s political development, the country stands a good chance of slipping back into two of the most negative aspects of its recent political tradition — authoritarian military rule and adversarial Arab-Kurdish relations. Therefore, diplomatic efforts should focus on the following: ensuring fair elections and ongoing reform of the elections process, including support for a permanent Iraqi elections law (the current provincial elections law only covers the 2009 elections); bolstering civilian control over the military and providing ongoing support to the civilian prime minister; and supporting national unity by encouraging Iraq’s leadership and the United Nations to tackle the Kirkuk and Kurdish Regional Government expansion issues in a phased manner over the next four years (U.S. forces working in these dangerous multiethnic areas are currently operating in a policy vacuum).
Normalizing Iraq Policy
With the U.S. election now over, the new administration should seek to normalize its Iraq policy as a strategic issue. Iraq is a country of tremendous political, economic, and military significance, and deserves serious ongoing U.S. commitment as well as creative diplomatic and military policies. Iraq can still be a win, a loss, or a draw for the United States.
Michael Knights is a Boston-based Lafer international fellow of The Washington Institute, specializing in the military and security affairs of Iraq, Iran, and the Persian Gulf states