The View From Tel Aviv

The View From Tel Aviv

Israel’s attack on Gaza has benefited the current leadership, especially Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in pre-election polling. But do they have an exit strategy?


Reuters Photos
Israel’s Defence Minister Barak surveys a damaged classroom after a rocket landed in a school in Beersheba.

On Thursday morning, New Year’s Day, author Nir Baram got into an argument with an anchorman for the public station Channel l during the morning news. “We Israelis have to change our automatic mindset, which always says that military action will solve our problems,” said Baram. The anchorman responded in the name of the national consensus: “And what about Hamas? I don’t see them changing their mindset!” There’s no question that the overwhelming majority of the Israeli public supports the government’s decision to launch an aerial attack on Gaza, with the aim of “teaching Hamas a lesson.” However, if a ground invasion is launched and Israeli casualties increase, public opinion will change. It’s also clear that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s refrain that there was “no way of solving the problem of the Qassam rockets” was an inadequate answer to the dilemma created by Hamas rocket fire on Sderot and the other southern border towns and kibbutzim.

In many respects, Hamas brought this war on itself by declaring on December 19 that it was not renewing the cease-fire (tahadiya) and by renewing rocket fire even as it maneuvered for a “better cease-fire” from its point of view–primarily, the lifting of the international blockade. It should be noted, though, that lifting the blockade was a part of the June cease-fire agreement that was not implemented by Israel and the international community.

The Israeli government felt it was necessary to act militarily because of pressure from public opinion, the media and the right. After all, we are in the middle of an election campaign. And those are the rules of Middle Eastern life: you can’t show weakness when being attacked. That’s the Israeli mindset that Baram was referring to.

The current military campaign is being led by the trio of Prime Minister Olmert, Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister and Kadima Party prime-minister-candidate Tzipi Livni, with IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi being the fourth spoke in the leadership wheel.

The key player here is Barak (our Barak, not yours). Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israeli history, a man who brought tremendous potential to the prime minister’s office in 1999 only to bring the Labor Party down to its lowest point ever. The party that essentially established the state, and at its height had fifty-one members in the Knesset (out of 120), was only expected to get between eight to eleven seats in the next Knesset, down from nineteen in 2006. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who was considered a failed and discredited leader when his term as prime minister ended in 1999, brought his party down to only twelve seats in 2006, but he has been considered the most likely winner of the February elections.

To turn Barak’s image around, his PR geniuses decided to launch a reverse psychology campaign, with billboards stating, “He’s not nice, but he’s a leader,” and other variations on the theme. Barak is notorious for keeping his cards close to his chest, so nothing can be certain about his motivations. Until recently he wanted to demonstrate that he was the responsible one, withstanding pressure to do something foolhardy, unlike the hotheads on the right. However, once he decided to go ahead with military action, he clearly used deception to draw Hamas into the trap, even appearing a week before the attack on the opening show of the season of our very own version of Saturday Night Live, Wonderful Israel, making a fool of himself.

Olmert was playing the peace card till the last day of his term, hoping to have a public meeting with the Syrians as part of his legacy, alongside far-reaching statements about the need to return to the 1967 borders and divide Jerusalem. Livni was making more hawkish statements, trying to fend off the threat of Netanyahu from the right. And Chief of Staff Ashkenazi, whose low-key persona is a relief after his three hyper-macho predecessors, seemed to be cautiously applying the lessons of the Winograd Commission, which investigated the failures of the 2006 Lebanon War.

After December 19, all of the current leaders–Olmert, Barak, Livni and Ashkenazi–saw a window of opportunity and decided to use it. They also took advantage of the twilight between the end of the discredited Bush administration and the entrance of the Obama administration to act, under the assumption that the international community would find it difficult to intervene rapidly and coherently.

Now Barak’s goal is to demonstrate that he can be both an effective and a responsible military leader, someone you can trust to lead the country. The fact is that he has gained the most from the action so far, nearly doubling the Labor Party prediction, to sixteen seats. As for Olmert, he would like to compensate for his image as a failed military leader stemming from the 2006 Lebanon debacle. Livni is in the weakest position, since she is not seen as leading Operation Cast Lead, as the Gaza offensive is being called, though she may regain credit when we enter the diplomatic phase, and she continues to be considered “a different politician” with a clean, uncorrupt image.

In the short term, one of the political outcomes of the operation is that for the first time since the elections were declared, the center-left combination of the Kadima, Labor and Meretz parties, backed by the Arab parties, is predicted to gain a majority of Knesset seats. If that happens, Livni, not Netanyahu, would become prime minister. But public opinion can be very fickle, particularly if the number of Israeli casualties goes up.

There are a number of original sins that led to this moment. One was the fact that the Sharon government insisted on carrying out a unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005, instead of negotiating and handing over the keys to Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. This enabled Hamas to claim that its policy of “resistance” forced Israel to leave the Strip, while Abbas’s policy of negotiations had not produced results. The second was the fact that the Israeli government gave in to the Bush administration’s insistence that Palestinian elections be held in January 2006, despite Israeli and Palestinian Authority reservations about the timing and possible outcome. The result was the Hamas victory. The third original sin is that after the elections, Israel and the international community did not try to engage the democratically elected Hamas government, even if there was no guarantee of success. And the final sin was the fact that Hamas carried out a coup against the PA in Gaza and played a game of chicken with Israel with the Qassam missiles.

It should be clear that it is impossible to “overthrow” Hamas in Gaza. It is also impossible to bring back kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit via military action. A massive ground invasion would probably endanger his life, and also create the possibility of getting drawn into another Lebanon-like swamp.

Not all Israelis supported military action. On Saturday night, the day the aerial bombardments began, a demonstration was organized in Tel Aviv, just by e-mail and word of mouth, protesting the military action and calling for an immediate cease-fire and a return to negotiations. It drew more than l,000 participants.

On Tuesday evening, the Israeli PeaceNGO Forum, a coalition of over seventy groups that work for peace and coexistence, met in Tel Aviv to formulate its position–most appropriately, in the Society for a Beautiful Israel building next to the Yarkon River. It resolved to issue a three-point declaration:

1) to call for an immediate Israeli unilateral ceasefire, without regard to how Hamas reacts, in the spirit of an op-ed that was published in both Ha’aretz and the New York Times by leading Israeli author David Grossman (whose voice carries special moral authority because his youngest son was killed on the last, unnecessary day of the 2006 Lebanon War);

2) to declare that the killing of innocent civilians, on both sides, is a moral crime, and to identify with the suffering of the populations in Gaza and in the Israeli south;

3) to simultaneously call for a renewal of the peace process, based upon the Arab Peace Initiative, as the only alternative.

An ad announcing the initiative will be published in Ha’aretz on Friday, the daily read by Israeli decision-makers, and members of the forum will take buses to the south hoping to reach a hill that overlooks both Gaza and Sderot, where they will issue the declaration in the presence of local and international media representatives to give it the broadest possible exposure–that is, if the army doesn’t stop them first because it is a closed military zone.

It was also decided that representatives of the forum will meet with the ambassadors of the United States, Russia, the European Union, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey to call upon them to act as facilitators to end the violence and resume negotiations. Their counterparts in the Palestinian Peace NGO forum, a coalition of about forty organizations, met Wednesday in Ramallah and will also issue a statement. Another quarter-page ad on the front page of Ha’aretz by the veteran Peace Now movement will declare in bold letters “Now is the time to stop!”, accompanied by a warning to Barak, Livni and Olmert “not to repeat the mistakes of the second Lebanon War…”

At a Thursday evening meeting of the Israeli Council for Peace Initiatives, a forum of leading Israeli academics, security figures, industrialists, media people and activists, it was noted that there are times when a crisis situation shatters the inertia that affects many of the players in a particular context, and it can even lead to major constructive transformations and initiatives.

Thursday’s targeted killing of a Hamas leader, and the increased firing of rockets from Gaza at the southern Israeli cities of Beersheva, Ashkelon and Ashdod, are a dangerous escalation of the hostilities.

Amid the growing cacophony of violence, a powerful counterpoint was heard in Jerusalem Thursday evening opposite the prime minister’s residence, when a group called Another Voice from Sderot called for an immediate cease-fire, for the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians. Among the placards they carried were two which read “Free Israel” and “Free Palestine.”

It is to be hoped that sanity will prevail, on all sides.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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