The Latest Gaza Escalation/ Israeli Coalition Politics
Jan 18, 2008 | AIJAC staff
January 18, 2008
Number 01/08 #05
As readers will be aware, there has been a dramatic escalation in Israeli clashes with Palestinian terror groups around Gaza in recent days, with 130 rockets fired into Israel in 72 hours, mostly by Hamas, which had previously confined its fire to mortars. Meanwhile, Israeli attacks on rocket and mortar crews have killed 25 Palestinians, the vast majority of them armed combatants. A good account of how this whole affair started on Tuesday, with Israeli forces attacking two mortar crews just inside the Gaza border, and coming under attack from Hamas forces, is in this article.
First up, reporters from Haaretz explain that Palestinians are reporting that Hamas has adopted a new strategy of escalating rocket fire sharply in the hopes of forcing Israel to grant a ceasefire on Hamas’ terms, since Hamas believes Israel does not want to undertake a major ground incursion into Gaza now. The piece also discusses some of Israel’s internal debates about military response strategies to the continuing rocket barrages, abetted and supported by Gaza’s Hamas rulers. For this important report on Hamas’ apparent strategy, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Israeli academic Alex Fishman says the current exchanges risk an unintended slide into larger scale conflict, desired by neither Hamas nor Israel, while Gilad Sharon, son of the former prime minister, argues that the key to ending Gaza rocket attacks is to communicate the right messages to the Gaza populace.
Next up, Eitan Haber, a distinguished Israeli military affairs journalist who also served as the bureau chief to the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, discusses the key points in the argument about large-scale Israeli intervention in Gaza to attempt to stop the rocket and mortar fire. While it seems reasonably clear where his sympathies lie, he does a good job of summarising the key arguments of both sides in the critical debate which had gone on for months even before the latest escalation. For his useful summary, CLICK HERE. Interestingly, the left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz has come down in an editorial on the interventionist side, saying Gaza intervention looks inevitable, and urging that any invasion be tied in to peacemaking efforts with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert said he opposed such an intervention (at least before the current escalation.)
Finally, readers may be aware that the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party, led by the volatile Russian immigrant Avigdor Lieberman, has carried out its promise and resigned from Mr Olmert’s governing coalition. We therefore offer a valuable backgrounder on the political effects in Israel of this development from the British-Israel Communications and Research Centre, BICOM. It postulates that the effects of the resignation may be less than many outside pundits expect, and to read it all, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Israeli commentator Amotz Asa-El has an excellent new article on problems with the current Israeli political system, and the reforms needed to fix them.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Mr Abbas has strongly taken Hamas’ side in the recent clashes, even threatening to resign if Israeli reprisals continue.
- Hamas has been issuing threats about the consequences for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit if Israeli counter-measures are not stopped.
- The Jerusalem Post editorialises that Egypt, with its lax and negligent attitude toward Gaza smuggling, bears some responsibility for the latest escalation. More on that smuggling, including a report that Hamas collects taxes on goods smuggled in, is here and here.
- Israel recently discovered two tons of explosives hidden in a Gaza-bound aid shipment, the second time this has happened in recent weeks. More on Israel’s shifting policy on aid, fuel and electricity into Gaza is here.
- Some facts about Israeli policy on admitting Palestinians into Israel for treatment, with numbers up sharply on last year’s.
- A highly useful “Qassem Calendar” keeping track of the daily rocket fire from Gaza as reported in the media, is here.
- A report that most kids from Sderot, the Israeli town most affected by rocket attacks, reportedly show signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
By Amos Harel, Avi Issacharoff and Yuval Azoulay, Haaretz Correspondents, and News Agencies
Palestinians fired some 40 Qassam rockets and two mortar shells at the western Negev on Thursday, lightly wounding two Israelis and causing several others to be treated for shock. Palestinians said they believe this escalation is part of a new Hamas policy aimed at forcing Israel into a cease-fire.
Also on Thursday, Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip killed at least five Palestinians, including a senior operative of the Popular Resistance Committees and his wife.
The current escalation began on Tuesday, when the Israel Defense Forces killed 19 Palestinians, mostly armed Hamas operatives. Since then, Palestinians have fired more than 130 rockets and dozens of mortar shells at Israel.
Hamas was responsible for most of Thursday’s launches, and senior IDF officers believe that unless the situation calms down soon, Israel will have to further escalate its military operations.
But Palestinian sources predicted that Hamas would continue the rocket barrages, in an attempt to force Israel to agree to a cease-fire. Hamas, they said, believes that its previous, lower level of rocket and mortar fire allowed the IDF to operate freely in Gaza without Israel paying a serious price.
Moreover, Hamas believes that Israel wants to avoid a major ground operation in Gaza, and therefore, it will have no choice but to call a truce if heavy rocket fire on southern Israel continues. Hamas is currently refraining from firing rockets on Ashkelon lest that reverse Israel’s opposition to a major incursion, the sources added.
However, Hamas officials declined to confirm that the recent escalation represents a new policy. Both organization spokesman Ismail Radwan and Ahmed Yusuf, who is Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s political advisor, insisted that the rockets were merely a response to the IDF operations and the resultant Palestinian casualties.
The IDF currently opposes a cease-fire, arguing that continued military pressure on Hamas will enable Israel to achieve a truce on better terms.
On orders from the government, the IDF is currently refraining from ground operations, focusing instead on aerial assaults. In one such strike on Thursday, Raed Abu el-Foul, a senior PRC operative, and his wife were killed by a missile fired at their car. Two other Palestinians were wounded, Palestinian officials said.
Later, another air strike on a car in Gaza killed an Islamic Jihad operative along with a mother and child who were riding in a donkey cart nearby, Palestinian sources said. A second Islamic Jihad man was critically wounded. The IDF said it had targeted the militants shortly after they fired rockets at Israel.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the IDF on Thursday to more forward with planning a large-scale ground operation in Gaza, but stressed that no such operation has yet been authorized. Barak’s office noted that the army has been planning such an operation for the past several months, so as to be ready for any contingency.
Barak also decided to tighten economic sanctions on Gaza’s Hamas government – inter alia, by reducing the amount of fuel allowed into the Strip. In addition, cargo trucks bringing humanitarian supplies into Gaza will undergo stricter inspections, due in part to the fact that two such trucks were recently found to be carrying material that could be used to make Qassam rockets.
In addition, Barak said that the IDF would “deepen” its military operations against the rocket-launching crews. “It won’t be simple, it won’t happen this weekend, but we will stop the rocket fire on Sderot,” he said, speaking during a tour of the South
Barrages prove Hamas able to stockpile missiles
The barrage of rockets fired at Israel from Gaza this week confirms intelligence assessments that Hamas has upgraded its rocket capabilities over the past few months. The fact it could fire 130 rockets in less than three days proves it has overcome the technical hurdles involved in stockpiling them.
Until a few months ago, Hamas was unable to store Qassam rockets for more than a few weeks, because their launch capability would degrade. Now that this barrier has evidently been overcome, the organization can manufacture and store thousands of rockets, which it can unleash in any future clash with Israel.
Hamas is also thought to have significant numbers of longer-range rockets capable of hitting Ashkelon. It has thus far used such rockets very sparingly, but if its conflict with Israel escalates, that might change.
The organization has also upgraded its launching capabilities: Some of the rockets that hit Israel this week were fired by remote control from buried launchers, which makes it hard for Israeli forces to attack the launch crews. Hezbollah used this tactic extensively during the Second Lebanon War.
Eitan Haber offers all the reasons why we should, and shouldn’t, reoccupy the Strip
The average Israeli goes to sleep these days as his lips whisper a prayer, and with great hope in his heart: To wake up in the morning and hear that the IDF has reoccupied the Gaza Strip, and “Sderot experienced its first quiet night.”
Oh, dreams are beautiful, because reality is harsh and painful: Gaza will remain stuck like a bone in Israel’s throat for a long time to come apparently. Even a military magician like Ehud Barak has not yet been able to find the formula to make Gaza disappear like a rabbit in a hat.
Almost two million people are looking up to the Gaza skies every morning: Some wish to bless every Qassam rocket fired at Israel, while others are searching for our Air Force choppers, a signal that something bad is about to happen to someone in the Strip.
Now that President Bush’s plane has departed from Ben Gurion International Airport, many Israelis began the countdown: Very soon we shall see salvation for the tens of thousands who are suffering, really suffering, from Gaza’s existence in its current format: Hamas and Qassams.
For convenience sake only, we collected the various reasons, motives, and excuses for a “Gaza operation – yes or no.” Here they are, right before you, below:
Because a sovereign state cannot allow seven consecutive years of Qassam fire on its communities and residents
Because Ariel Sharon – who saw the Qassams start to explode in Sderot and around Gaza during his tenure by the way – promised our people that if the disengagement will be implemented, no more Qassams will land here. Well, what happened?
Because 14 people died so far in the years that saw thousands of rockets fired at Israel.
Because the anti-Qassam system will be ready only in about three years and even then there is no certainty that it would be able to destroy these primitive warheads.
Because if we wait longer, the launchers would be able to boost their range and reach Kiryat Gat and Ashdod
Because the passage of time enables Hamas to organize like an army, and its military resistance would be more intense later and cause more casualties on our side.
Because Hizbullah is quiet, for now.
And why not?
Because ever since Ehud Barak became defense minister, 300 terrorists were killed in counter-terror operations. During the same timeframe, four soldiers died, including one in an accident. Meanwhile, one woman was wounded.
Because there is nobody in Israel who knows what will happen the day after a wide-scale operation in Gaza: Will we occupy the entire Strip? Will we go back to controlling the almost two million Arabs living there? Will we stay there for a year? Two years?
Because Qassams were fired at Israel even when the IDF controlled Gaza. Who can guarantee that they will not continue to explode in Israeli territory once the IDF reassumes its control?
Because reoccupying the Strip will impose a great burden on the entire defense establishment, on the IDF, and particularly on the reserve forces.
Because occupying Gaza will boost Hamas in Judea and Samaria as well, possibly allowing the group to take control of it. Many people will be joining existing Hamas supporters in that case, arguing that Hamas is fighting and doing things while the Palestinian Authority merely talks.
Because occupying Gaza will bring about the complete and final collapse of dialogue and the peace process and turn back the wheel 15 years, when Israel was ostracized by the international community
And the last point, but in fact the first one, and the most important one: Because the occupation of Gaza would lead to dozens of killed IDF soldiers, and possibly many more. When we return from Gaza, and bury the dozens or maybe hundreds of our dead, the plot will revert to its starting point: Qassams on Sderot, and dozens or hundreds of “our best sons” who are no longer with us.
A recent example of this: Hizbullah regained the strength it had before the Second Lebanon War, and some say it even grew a little stronger. Yet in 161 homes in Israel there is someone missing – someone who will never return, and no commission of inquiry will bring them back.
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The announcement made this morning by Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman that his party is quitting the coalition came as little surprise to those who have closely followed Lieberman’s recent rhetoric. Indeed, it seemed as if most of Lieberman’s efforts were directed at preparing the ground for this morning’s announcement, which primarily pointed to the recent progress in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians as the reason for the party’s decision. However, despite the relative predictability of the announcement, many were asking this morning whether Yisrael Beiteinu’s resignation marks a first crack in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s coalition. The following analysis assesses the possible implications that the latest developments may have on the stability of the government and the potential risks these changes pose to the progress of the peace process.
Yisrael Beiteinu joined the coalition in October 2006 in an attempt by PM Olmert to broaden the coalition and solidify parliamentarian support for his government following the Second Lebanon War. In order to provide Lieberman with a role that would not compromise his affiliation with strong security and defence policies, a new Ministry for Strategic Threats was established, focusing mainly on the Iranian nuclear threat. The addition of Yisrael Beiteinu to the coalition presented PM Olmert with some challenges from his main coalition partner, the Israeli Labour party. One of the party’s leading figures, Ophir Pines-Paz, resigned from the government and the party faced strong public criticism for sharing the cabinet table with Lieberman’s party, which traditionally holds strong right-wing positions. However, the government’s urgent need to stabilise the coalition in light of diminishing public support for its leaders, forced a compromise that paved Yisrael Beiteinu’s path into the coalition.
PM Olmert’s motivations to push for Yisrael Beiteinu’s addition to the coalition were clear: in addition to extending the support base of the government to 78 Knesset members, PM Olmert was able to fracture the opposition block led by Likud, and supported by right-wing factions and ultra-Orthodox parties. Avigdor Lieberman’s incentives were, however, less clear. To many it seemed that Lieberman was risking more than he could possibly gain by joining an unpopular government affiliated with pragmatic and moderate views on the Palestinian issue. Moreover, Yisrael Beiteinu promotes a strong liberal-secular agenda that appeals to the large Russian-immigrant population in Israel. Joining a government with the orthodox Shas party meant the party’s chances of promoting civil marriage or easing restrictions on immigration imposed by the religious establishment were highly questionable. Immediately after joining the coalition, Lieberman and his party became the target of criticism from Likud spokespeople, who accused Yisrael Beiteinu of providing the government with a political lifeline and losing its ideological backbone.
Yisrael Beiteinu indeed had a lot to lose. The party presented an explicit right-wing agenda, advocating territorial plans according to which Israeli Arab towns adjacent to Palestinian Authority areas would be transferred to the Palestinian Authority, and only those Arabs who felt a connection with the State of Israel and were loyal to it would be allowed to remain. These stances were deemed extreme even by Israeli leaders such as Ariel Sharon who were traditionally affiliated with the centre-right. However, Lieberman was successful in garnering broad public support in the 2006 elections, in which his party won 11 seats. Joining a coalition that, in fact, promoted a centre-left ideological line jeopardised Lieberman’s public image as a direct and uncompromising politician.
Surprisingly, it was the release of the US National Intelligence Estimate on the Iranian nuclear weapons programme that indirectly broadened the political fissure between Yisrael Beiteinu and Olmert’s coalition. While highly contested by Israeli strategists and only partially adopted by the American administration, the report had nonetheless challenged the domination of the Iranian nuclear threat at the top of Israel’s public agenda. Lieberman, whose ministerial responsibilities focused mostly on the Iranian issue, faced a new reality: while intense work was still taking place to prepare Israel to deal with the immense strategic threat posed by Iran, the revived Israeli-Palestinian talks rapidly took over the national and international headlines. The international summit in Annapolis marking the reopening of official negotiations, and PM Olmert’s repeated statements reiterating Israel’s commitment to a two-state solution based on the land-for-peace formula became key catalysts in this process. The launching earlier this week of talks on the core issues of the conflict, including the status of Jerusalem, the borders of the future Palestinian State and a resolution to the Palestinian refugee problem marked the defining moment that could no longer be dismissed as “futile attempts.” The initial negotiations that took place with the encouragement of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been stepped up to the point in which Lieberman was compelled to acknowledge the new reality and quit the coalition.
Lieberman’s announcement was thus almost inevitable. As is the case in events of this sort, speculations were made on a possible last moment postponement of the announcement following the events in the Gaza Strip and a possible escalation with Hamas. However, Lieberman carefully listened to PM Olmert’s statements made earlier this week at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, clarifying that Israel will not initiate a large-scale military operation in Gaza and will only act directly against rocket launching cells and their senders. In this sense, Olmert indirectly singled to Lieberman that the government under his leadership will not change its fundamental policy and will avoid any action that could counter the negotiations with the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas.
Lieberman’s resignation provides a rare moment of clarity in the Israeli political landscape. In more than one sense it helps crystallise the agenda on which Olmert’s government will base its actions in the foreseeable future, namely, a continuation of substantial talks with the Palestinians including the highly sensitive core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For Olmert, a coalition of 67 MKs who will back this agenda is worth more than a conflicted coalition of 78 MKs.
However, the coalition is far from providing the prime minister with unlimited credit. Shas continues to strongly oppose any compromise on the core issues and will not hesitate to vote against the coalition if these matters are brought to the decision of the Knesset. Shas Chairman Eli Yishai has outspokenly rejected any Israeli compromise in Jerusalem and has repeatedly called for tougher military action in Gaza. Indeed, Shas is likely to find itself at the frontline of opposition criticism. While Lieberman remained in the coalition, Shas could present their joint participation as a restraining force that prevents the government from making substantial compromises. Now that Yisrael Beiteinu has left the coalition, Shas will be placed at the centre of the public attention and its voters will observe its actions carefully. In the past, Shas was able to follow a pragmatic political strategy and even be part of Yitzhak Rabin’s government during the Oslo Accords. While fearing a backlash from their right-leaning constituency, the party is likely to prolong its participation in the coalition until the very last possible moment, i.e., until Olmert publicly presents the negotiation results on the core issues. And this, as even the most optimistic assessments suggest, may take some time.
During the press conference in which he announced his resignation, Lieberman was asked about a possible union with Likud. A political alliance of this sort would bring together Lieberman and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu ten years after the former resigned his position as Director-General of the Prime Minister’s Office during Netanyahu’s premiership. Although Lieberman denied that such an alliance is imminent, both leaders approved reports that they have met in recent months several times and discussed Yisrael Beiteinu’s participation in the government. At this point in time, Lieberman is unlikely to give up the political capital he gained since the launching of his independent political career. Lieberman rightly assesses that a leading ministerial role is secured for him in any future Likud government, and a joining of forces with Netanyahu would not provide him any substantial advantage.
The various scenarios of regrouping in the opposition are also likely to affect Israeli Labour leader Ehud Barak, who faces a substantial political obstacle with the release of the Winograd Committee’s final report on the handling of the Second Lebanon War. While running for Labour chairmanship last spring, Barak told Labour voters that he would “reconsider” the party’s participation in the government once the final investigation report was released. The committee is expected to publish its final findings in two weeks time and Barak will be called to announce the party’s future in the coalition. Lieberman’s resignation enables Barak – who does not favour Labour quitting the coalition at this time, consequently bringing forward early elections – a way to present his party’s participation in the coalition as worthy and responsible. Barak knows he cannot be seen as the direct instigator of general elections, which, according to all recent polls, predict an overwhelming victory for Likud. One of Barak’s close allies, Benjamin Ben Eliezer, already indicated that Lieberman’s resignation obliges Labour to sustain the government and support the advancing peace process.
Those expecting Lieberman’s resignation to cause a political earthquake are likely to be disappointed. PM Olmert still holds onto a parliamentary majority and can also rely on some support from Meretz MKs, who will provide the government with a political “safety net” on issues relating to the diplomatic process. The negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are also likely to progress and are now the key pillar on which the government rests. Olmert will use the leading figures in his government to present a balanced and cautious image: Haim Ramon is likely to set the tone regarding compromise with the Palestinians, only to be balanced by Barak’s vigilant security perspective and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s support for a cautious handling of the diplomatic front with the Palestinian negotiators.
In a sense, without Yisrael Beiteinu around the cabinet table, Olmert now envisions a draft of the final-status agreement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as his political legacy: If successful, this agreement can provide him with the agenda with which he can face the Israeli public. To that extent, Lieberman’s resignation may in fact mark the moment in which the peace process moved toward a new, and decisive, stage.