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Israel chooses cease-fire ... (and then it collapses)

by Shmuel Rosner

July 15, 2014 | 4:00 am

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on July 15. Photo by Dan Balilty

Writing about a cease-fire before it is an established fact can be tricky business. As I write these words on July 15, and update them, rockets are flying, and Israel has started attacking again — in other words, this morning’s attempt at a cease-fire didn’t quite succeed. But we still know that Israel agreed to a cease-fire proposed by Egypt. We know that, despite the understandable grumbles from the right, and from residents of Israel’s south, the Israeli government is set on proving that if a cease-fire does not happen, it will not be Israel’s doing. As the cabinet gathered this morning it really had little choice but to approve the proposed deal. The public was not necessarily supportive of it, surely not all of it was supportive of it, but the deal was in line with the very limited stated goal of the Israeli operation — to stop Hamas’ fire. It is a deal that leaves Hamas with no achievement — it puts Hamas in the tough position of having to explain the wisdom behind initiating this round of violence. It is a frustrating deal, yet one that Israel had to accept.

This short analysis is written under the assumption that the cease-fire will eventually go into effect. And if that doesn’t happen today — I guess it isn’t going to happen today — then perhaps it will happen tomorrow, or in two days. Assuming it will, here are some of the things we can learn from it.

Hamas

Hamas is in a tough place. It has little backing and a lot to worry about. If it was trying to force other players in the region to pay more attention to it, it may have succeeded. But I’m not sure the attention it got is the attention it braced for. Overall, the organization has several choices to make: Does it accept and hold the cease-fire? This is not easy without having achieved anything with which to justify it. Does it attempt to better the situation in Gaza by negotiating a deal? There is a deal that might work to the benefit of both sides. Under such a deal, Hamas disarms and gets rid of its missiles — and Israel eases or eliminates the blockade on Gaza. Of course, the process of disarming will have to be one that is supervised and verified. And the people of Gaza can benefit a lot from it. Yet it isn’t an easy decision for Hamas to make. Hamas with no missiles is a much weaker and more vulnerable organization. It is noteworthy that while Hamas didn’t quite succeed in achieving anything in this round, the command and control capabilities it demonstrated, and its ability to keep showering Israel with rockets, even under heavy fire, were impressive. If you treat this round as a grand rehearsal rather than as a real war, then Hamas didn’t do as badly as it might seem. It is building an army, and this army is getting stronger.

Netanyahu

Earlier this month, I suggested that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a man in a position to handle this crisis better than most, if not all, other Israeli leaders. He proved me right. He has the necessary experience, but also the proper hawkish credentials to be able to act cautiously. Backed by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, the prime minister is strong enough to make the cabinet accept a deal and to withstand the expected criticism from the right. Netanyahu wisely managed the situation in a way that the left-wing opposition supported. He managed it in a way that left the right wing very little room for maneuvering. His coalition has many troubling days ahead, but in the last two weeks Netanyahu has operated impressively. Even his opponents tend to admit as much.

Israel’s Politics

There is one thing Netanyahu can’t escape. Five years ago, when he was still in the opposition, he called for the toppling of Hamas by force, and criticized the policies of cease-fire agreements and uneasy accommodations. The criticism he used back then against the government will now be used against him. Of course, we still need to see some polls to have any certainty about a future pattern, but here’s a likely and somewhat problematic scenario for the prime minister: Overall, he is likely to gain support in the general public as the person best suited to lead Israel. But he is also likely to lose support among right-wing voters, as he has exposed himself to criticism from more hawkish and more bombastic politicians within Likud and in other parties. This is problematic because in Israel a leader has to be able to guard his base first and only then gain the support of the general public. The “public” is going to improve its attitude toward him but isn’t going to vote for him. Likud voters, on the other hand, are essential for him to be able to govern.

Palestinian Politics

One comment about the politics of the Palestinians: It is noble that Egypt, as it was negotiating the deal, treated the Palestinian Authority (PA) respectfully — as if it were the true, legitimate ruler of Gaza. But all parties involved know this is a charade. The PA doesn’t control Gaza. It can only strive to be able to one day control Gaza. Now, think about the deal that Israel might accept — disarmament for easing the blockade. On the one hand, such a deal weakens Hamas militarily. On the other hand, it means that Israel accepts Hamas’ rule in Gaza and is working with it to ease the tension. That is to say: Israel no longer believes it is its role to assist Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas to take back Gaza.

Egypt

Egypt is Israel’s most valuable ally in battling Hamas. And Israel is going to drive this message forcefully to its supporters in Washington — especially the ones that keep grumbling about the undemocratic al-Sisi government.

Iron Dome

The Iron Dome shield is a game changer. At least for now, at least under circumstances that test its abilities (which as yet haven’t strained it to the maximum), this system has made the rockets from Gaza virtually ineffective. Israelis who live in the south do suffer from the barrage, but most Israelis, those who live in the center, know that the Dome protects them, and hence have been much less apprehensive in recent days. They also became more combative because of it: It is much easier to call for a continuation of hostilities when the price civilians pay is so much smaller than the price they paid in previous rounds. What many Israelis say, with some justification, is simple: Why not use the cover of Iron Dome, and the fact that Israel is relatively free to act without having to pay a heavy price in loss of life and property, to take care of Hamas once and for all?

Cease-fire

So why should Israel go for a cease-fire?

First of all, because this is a cease-fire that puts Hamas in a much tougher position than it does Israel. It makes clear that Hamas launched an attack that it couldn’t win. Moreover, it strengthens the hands of the Egyptians and all other players that oppose Hamas. And Israel ends this round with the international community pretty much on its side — this will be even starker if Hamas rejects the deal. And, hopefully, it will teach Hamas a lesson and postpone the next round for some time.

The frustration Israelis feel with the deal is understandable. It is even justified. But right-wing Israelis who reject the deal tend to suffer from a disease similar to the one from which left-wing Israelis suffer. That is, the peace-now virus. Israel cannot decide when a permanent peace will take place. And it cannot decide when the rule of Hamas will be permanently over. There is no “end of Middle East history” solution to Israel’s problems. No silver-bullet remedies. Israel, for many years to come, is going to have to play it day by day. Two years of calm — that’s good. Five years — great. Permanent calm — impossible to achieve. So, the government is going to choose the imperfect cease-fire over the mirage of revolutionizing Gaza. A frustrating choice. A sober choice. And, like the cease-fire itself — a temporary choice.

Rockets fired from Gaza toward Israel. Photo by Reuters

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