Olmert's toughest test

The Gaza crisis is threatening the Israeli leader's domestic credibility -- and could short-circuit his West Bank withdrawal plan.


Aluf Benn
July 1, 2006 2:30PM (UTC)

Last September, Gen. Aviv Kochavi, commander of the Israel Defense Forces' Gaza Unit, oversaw the evacuation of the last IDF troops from the Gaza Strip and symbolically locked a gate in the fence surrounding the densely populated Palestinian territory. Israel left Gaza after 38 years of occupation, taking away its settlers and forces, never to come back. This week, Kochavi commanded his units to cross the Gaza border once again, this time in the opposite direction. Less than 10 months after Ariel Sharon's "disengagement" was carried out smoothly and bloodlessly, Israelis and Palestinians are once again locked in a violent standoff in Gaza.

War is back, and it has put Israel's new government to a tough leadership test. Both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and defense minister Amir Peretz are new to their jobs and, unlike their predecessors, lack military experience. The public is carefully evaluating their handling of the crisis: Are they capable of defusing it and restoring the relative calm that Israel has enjoyed in recent months, or will the situation deteriorate further? Can Olmert and Peretz, despite their civilian background, give the public a sense of security and rein in their generals? With Sharon in power, Israelis knew they had a seasoned battlefield commander at the helm. The new team has yet to prove itself.

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For Olmert, the fresh round of violence is bad news, as it jeopardizes his plan to withdraw Israel's settlements from 90 percent of the West Bank territory and "realign" within a new boundary. Olmert's realignment plan, aimed at preserving Israel's Jewish majority over a smaller territory, has been modeled after Sharon's Gaza pullout: a unilateral Israeli move, supported by the United States and other international players, but leaving the Palestinians out of the process and presenting them with a fait accompli. Presenting his plan before the March 28 election, Olmert has turned it into the raison d'être of his rule. But if Gaza once again becomes a battleground -- despite Sharon's pledges to keep it out of the conflict -- then the Israeli public will be reluctant to leave the West Bank, a move that could bring Hamas and other terrorist groups within firing range of Israel's population centers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Moreover, if Olmert fails to convince Israelis of his leadership abilities, they won't follow him to the new border.

This week's round of violence was triggered by an attack launched by Hamas militants against an IDF position near Kerem Shalom, a kibbutz on the Israeli side of the border, early on Sunday. Reaching their target through a tunnel they'd dug underneath the fence, eight Hamas fighters took an Israeli tank crew by surprise. They killed two of its members and abducted the third, Cpl. Gilead Shalit, taking him back with them to the Palestinian side. The Hamas group lost two people in the six-minute shootout. It was one of the most daring, and most successful, Palestinian attacks recently waged against Israeli forces, and it imitated similar Hezbollah operations in Lebanon, when Israel occupied a "security zone" there.

For Israelis, abduction is the worst consequence of enemy activity. A long-held national tradition calls for making every effort to "bring our boys home." In the past, Israel has gone out of its way to gain the release of its POWs and hostages -- either through commando raids like the 1976 Entebbe operation or, more recently, through generous prisoner-exchange deals. Even Sharon, who opposed any concessions to "the Arabs," behaved differently when Israeli prisoners were in enemy hands.

As expected, Hamas demanded that Israel release prisoners in exchange for information on Shalit -- once again, copying a time-tested Hezbollah tactic. But Olmert rejected the plea and decided to fight back, launching a series of military actions meant to force the Palestinians to release their prisoner. So far, however, they have achieved nothing. (In a statement released Saturday, Hamas made its position explicit, demanding that Israel release 1,000 prisoners and end its Gaza offensive in exchange for Shalit's freedom.)

Following a 48-hour waiting period, Olmert ordered the IDF to seal off Gaza and capture a small Palestinian area adjacent to the attacked Israeli position. Next, Israeli jets aggressively flew over Syrian President Bashar Assad's palace in Latakia, Syria, causing a sonic boom. The flight was meant to persuade him to pressure Khaled Mashaal, the hard-line Damascus-based leader of Hamas, to release the abducted soldier. Then, on Wednesday, Israel's security forces rounded up 64 Hamas politicians in the West Bank, including eight Palestinian ministers and 23 Parliament members, as bargaining chips. On Thursday, Olmert halted an IDF plan to invade the northern part of Gaza, meant to suppress Palestinian rocket attacks against Israel. He allowed, however, further air attacks against installations in Gaza, including its only power station. The latter attack, along with an embargo against fuel, cut off electricity to half the strip's 1.4 million people, about half of whom are children, and led the U.N. aid chief to warn that Gaza faced a humanitarian crisis. Hamas has ignored the pressure so far, refusing to release any information on Shalit and waiting for an Egyptian mediating effort to mature.

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The Kerem Shalom attack was a tactical surprise, which embarrassed the IDF commanders. In fact, however, those on both sides of the Gaza fence expected an escalation. In recent weeks, as the situation deteriorated, the only questions were how and when it would explode.

From Israel's perspective, the Gaza pullout should have taken the narrow strip of land with its inhabitants out of the conflict. Sharon withdrew to the "Green Line" marking the pre-1967 border and opened a crossing between Gaza and Egypt, overseen by European monitors. He warned that Israel would retaliate heavily for any cross-border terror attacks, as they would no longer be considered a fight against occupation, but a breach of Israel's sovereignty.

The Palestinians, however, were less impressed by this rhetoric. While Hamas, the strongest Palestinian group, held to a cease-fire, smaller groups fired their primitive Qassam rockets at the Israeli border town of Sderot, which became a new front line. Merely 40 miles south of Tel Aviv -- a daily commuting distance for many Americans -- the small "developing town" is considered here as a distant peripheral area. Since there were hardly any Qassam casualties, the rest of the country paid little attention to Sderot's predicament. The Israeli economy has been booming, tourism has returned to its pre-intifada levels, and international rock stars like Roger Waters have recently given concerts in Israel. A long-awaited sense of normalcy was back in the air this summer.

Nevertheless, the political framework was not stable. Back in January, important developments occurred on both sides. Sharon fell into a coma, leaving power to the less popular and less experienced Olmert in the midst of an election campaign. Shortly afterward, Hamas won the Palestinian legislative election, splitting power in the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) between the moderate president, Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) and a Hamas Cabinet headed by Ismail Haniyeh. Hamas, the Palestinian arm of the Islamic Brotherhood movement, has called for Israel's destruction and has stood against the now-defunct peace process.

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Olmert reacted to the Hamas victory with tough rhetoric meant to fend off his right-wing election rivals while avoiding military action and trying to win international support. The international community has demanded that the new P.A. government recognize Israel's right to exist, refrain from terror, and abide by past P.A.-Israel agreements. Olmert believed that Hamas, craving international legitimacy and stripped of financing, would keep the cease-fire. He also viewed its victory as vindication for his unilateral West Bank plan. He believed that with Hamas in power, the world would readily accept Israel's argument that there was "no partner" on the other side. All he needed, thought Olmert, was to win the Israeli election and reach a quick understanding with the Western powers over his realignment plan.

From the Palestinian perspective, things looked different. Sharon's Gaza pullout, while nominally an achievement of the intifada, was seen as an Israeli trick to get rid of a troubling area while keeping the West Bank. Israeli sanctions against the Hamas government -- withholding tax revenues and arranging an international-aid boycott -- were seen as a "policy of starvation" meant to bring it down. Olmert's unilateralism in the West Bank was seen as a brutal effort to draw a border without Palestinian consent while keeping Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank under Israeli control.

Abbas has reacted to the dual challenge of the Hamas victory and Olmert's plan with unlikely courage and political shrewdness. He has made a successful effort to outflank Olmert in the West, creating a consensus against unilateral Israeli moves while trying to force Hamas into a joint, more moderate platform drafted by Palestinian leaders imprisoned in Israel. The Hamas government previously rejected all pressures to modify its anti-Israel stance, but this week it agreed to a watered-down version of the prisoners' platform.

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Olmert's Kadima Party failed to win a decisive electoral victory and has to share power with the Labor Party, headed by Peretz, the defense minister. From the beginning, the Olmert-Peretz partnership has been shaky, and both politicians have tried to outmaneuver the other. Taking advantage of his partner-rival's lack of military credentials, Olmert distanced himself from the Qassam attacks, leaving the defense minister to deal with them -- and be hit by media and political criticism of his inexperience. A resident of Sderot, Peretz has a personal stake in halting the Palestinian rockets, which targeted his home. But the military failed to deter the Palestinians, making the sleep-deprived Peretz the target of his angry hometown neighbors.

Olmert, however, has failed to promote his realignment plan aggressively since his Cabinet's swearing-in on May 4. He has traveled to Washington, London and Paris, only to meet fatigued, politically weak leaders, lacking enthusiasm for risking political capital by plunging into the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To his surprise, the "world" was not enthusiastic about his unilateral West Bank withdrawal. More pressing issues like Iraq, Iran and domestic politics dominate the current global agenda. Olmert was told to negotiate with Abbas rather than go it alone.

Responding to the external pressure, he diluted his plan. Instead of pledging to draw "final borders," as he did before the election, he spoke now about "temporary security lines." These are less threatening to the Palestinians, perhaps, but also less appealing to Israelis. Back home, he hesitated to release any detailed planning of his realignment. And the ongoing stream of rockets from Gaza eroded the basic tenet of his policy, namely, Israel's ability to leave its occupied territories and "throw away the keys."

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All the while, Olmert and Peretz have put the brakes on military confrontation with the Palestinians. They rejected pleas by the military command to eradicate the Qassam launchers by invading northern Gaza. Anonymous "military sources" advocated "restoring deterrence," a well-beaten euphemism for using brute force. Peretz and Olmert refrained, but they authorized pinpoint air strikes against suspected operatives involved in rocket production and deployment. Hamas personnel, however, remained off-limits, as Olmert struggled to keep the cease-fire.

Three weeks ago, both sides escalated their attacks. Several Israeli air strikes failed to hit their targets, killing innocent civilians in Gaza. Hamas retaliated, but then stepped back while its military wing was digging the underground crossing to Kerem Shalom. Olmert refused to sanction a massive military operation on June 21, arguing that it would prompt Hamas to join the smaller groups and make matters worse. Sunday's attack in Kerem Shalom, and Shalit's abduction, ended his hesitation. "We will retaliate," vowed Olmert, pending a last-minute effort to stall the army. On Tuesday, he let it loose, only to slow down the offensive on Thursday. The halt caused an uproar in military circles, eager to "finish the job" against the Qassams and perhaps deliver a death blow to the Hamas government -- goals far beyond the stated one of "bringing Shalit back home unharmed."

During its operation, code-named Summer Rain -- a nonexistent natural phenomenon in an arid land -- Israel has enjoyed relative freedom of action. The rest of the world looked the other way. The American government issued token calls for Israeli restraint, but off the record it blamed the Palestinians for bringing the crisis upon themselves. The fact that Israel's "massive retaliation" was less costly in civilian life than the previous weeks' "pinpoint" operation impressed the Americans. Moreover, the current round of hostilities appeared more like a gang war than a serious national struggle. The international community has more pressing problems to deal with.

How will it end? Judging by experience, such periodic outbursts of hostilities often conclude with a new cease-fire, which also includes prisoner exchange. A possible deal could be halting the Qassam launches in return for a freeze on Israeli assassinations ("targeted killings"). Egypt is promoting such a deal and is trying to bring in Mashaal, the Syrian-based Hamas leader, who is calling the shots among the Palestinians -- since both Abbas and Haniyeh, the Hamas premier, have shrugged off responsibility. It may take a while, though, to broker a deal and restore calm.

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It may not be enough, however, to save Olmert's plan for the West Bank. Appearing before the Knesset on Tuesday, the Israeli leader pledged to fight terror and seek a Palestinian negotiating partner with the same zeal. His commitment to a negotiated deal appears less than sincere, however, and more like an effort to please the Americans and go through the motions of peacemaking before going it alone. Nevertheless, the recent experience in Gaza has undermined the premise of Sharon's disengagement, namely, that the new border would deter, by its sheer legitimacy, further attacks against Israeli territory. The West Bank realignment, under which Israel wants to keep about one-tenth of the occupied territory to itself, lacks even the international de facto legitimacy of the Green Line in Gaza.

Israel's more acute problem, however, is the lack of a credible Palestinian authority that could take care of post-withdrawal security. Under the current circumstances, Abbas is too weak and Hamas too reluctant to take responsibility. And a security vacuum invites trouble, as Gaza has shown.

Olmert faces a choice among several bad courses of action in the West Bank: maintaining the territorial status quo, which puts Israel's Jewish identity at risk, given the higher Palestinian growth rate; reaching a new understanding with Abbas, and indirectly with Hamas, an attempt that failed in Gaza; trusting Jordan to prevent weapons smuggling to the West Bank; or withdrawing the settlements and keeping the military in place, thus keeping the occupation and risking a Lebanon-style guerrilla war. None of these is appealing, and all of them - except the status quo, which Olmert has pledged to change -- demand strong leadership and popular support. Hence the crucial importance, for Olmert, of ending the current crisis in a dignified way.


Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.

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