Friday, December 26, 2014

About diplomatic subversion and pressure cookers

For the first time in years opinion polls indicate the possibility of Netanyahu’s career coming to its end at the March elections, and also on the diplomatic horizon the PM facec increasing storm warnings, with such headlines as: "Europe said 'yes' to Palestine" / "A European Slap in the Face" / "A Black Day for Israel in the Diplomatic Arena". In "Israel Today", nicknamed "The Bibinews", the tone was especially excited: "An anti-Israeli European Blitz/ Fury in Israel: 'They have not learned a thing!'/ PM Netanyahu: 'Six Million Jews Were Slaughtered on The Soil of Europe, We Will Defend Our Country Against Terrorism and Hypocrisy! '"

Conjuring the memory of the Holocaust up in the context of the European Parliament’s recognition of the State of Palestine did not sound very convincing even in Israel. And giving notice of a personal boycott against the Swedish Foreign Minister, whose government has recognized Palestine, did not seem a serious or credible response; nor did the announcement of "reconsideration of relations with Switzerland", in view of the sharp resolutions taken at the convention of countries signatory to the Geneva Convention. And the decision this week of building  several hundred more settlement housing units in East Jerusalem, was only pouring more oil on the flames.

Labor Party leader Yitzchak  Herzog, for the first time considered a serious contender in the Prime Ministerial race held Netanyahu  responsible “for the diplomatic fiasco afflicting the State of Israel, on top of the economic failure". And Avigdor Lieberman – Netanyahu’s Foreign Minister and until recently his loyal partner - voiced a new tune, not unlike Herzog's words: "Netanyahu’s  status quo policy has failed. Without a political agreement, Israel's relations with the European Union will deteriorate, which will result in serious damage to our economy - look at what's going on in Russia because of the EU sanctions. If we do not take the initiative, we face a diplomatic tsunami".

Can one give any credibility to Lieberman’s efforts of reinventing himself, move away from the extreme right and become a centrist leader? That remains to be seen. But what is remarkable is that this is what a shrewd and highly experienced politician considers as the best way to promote his career.

Surprisingly, the one who volunteered to give a bit of comfort to the harassed Prime Minister was none other than Tzipi Livni, Herzog's partner who had just joined with great fanfare the fight for the replacement of Netanyahu. Livni begged US Secretary of State Kerry to postpone, until after the Israeli elections, the crucial UN Security Council vote on the Palestinian draft resolution. She asserted that the adoption of a UN resolution supporting the  Palestinian aspirations for an end to the occupation would help Netanyahu’ s elections campaign, enabling him to mobilize public opinion on the basis of "The whole world is against us".

Is it so? Tzipi Livni herself no doubt remembers the 1992 elections, when  she was still a loyal member of the Likud Party. During that elections campaign, PM Shamir got entangled in a public confrontation with the US President, Bush the father- with the result that the voters turned their backs on him and his party and brought Rabin to power. It is quite possible that such a scenario would repeat itself if after all President Obama finds the courage to confront Netanyahu - and Netanyahu's supporters on Capitol Hill – precisely at elections time in Israel. Israeli voters may have lost all hope of reaching peace with the Palestinians - but only a few of them would be willing to watch with equanimity the loss of the American backing which had  sustained Israel for so many years.

To the Administration, however, Livni's words (and similar urgings by former President Peres) were very welcome. There is no doubt that Obama and Kerry would prefer to delay as much as possible the difficult decision between a veto, which would lead to a confrontation with the Arab World - and a non-veto which would lead to a turmoil on Capitol Hill. Secretary of State Kerry informed the gathered European diplomats that the United States is determined to delay the UN vote until after the elections in Israel.

Did Livni win the gratitude of Netanyahu and his fellows? Well, not exactly. She  actually got torrents of abuse and condemnation, and it was the right-wingers who condemned her approach to the Americans as "an act of diplomatic subversion"...

So, the Americans are determined to wait until after the elections in Israel - but will the Palestinians cooperate? There was a time when Palestinians used to give much consideration to changes and upheavals in the Israeli political system, but nowadays they don’t have a lot of expectations that elections in Israel will yield a better government than the one presently holding power. In any case, many Palestinians are skeptical about President Abbas’ international initiative, and his agreeing to freeze this initiative until mid-March would greatly increase its lack of credibility.

The very unpopular decision to continue maintaining security cooperation with Israel, also after the death of Minister Ziad Abu Ein – killed during the dispersal of a peaceful demonstration by Israeli soldiers -  leaves Abbas no option but to forge forward with his diplomatic offensive. Therefore, it is most likely that immediately after 1 January - when the composition of the UN Security Council changes and more countries supporting the Palestinian positions gain membership – the draft resolution will come to a vote and President Obama will be forced to take a stand, one way or another.

Saeb Erekat, the eternal Chief Negotiator of the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, explained the reasons for the Palestinians’ determination to go on with their diplomatic initiative: " More than 20 years after the beginning of the negotiations, Israel, the occupying power, has continued its illegal colonization enterprise and relentless violations of the human rights of the Palestinian people. Over that period of time the number of settlers has almost tripled and the settlement infrastructure has continued to grow. At the same time Israel's illegal siege on Gaza continues through various measures of collective punishment. The deterioration has been dramatic and this initiative at the Security Council is an effort to redress this situation by reaffirming the rights of the Palestinian people, reaffirming the parameters of a just and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and mobilizing the international community to uphold its responsibilities and to salvage the two-State solution and the prospects for peace”.

The Palestinian street does not hold high expectations from the international community and expects even from whatever government will be formed in Israel. More and more young people - most of them "loners" who do not belong to any organization and therefore it is hard for Israel's security services to find them – have come to the conclusion that the only way to get their people free is to take up arms. Last night there was another such case, near the settlement of El-Matan in the northern West Bank. Ayala Shapira, an 11-year old girl, was hit by a Molotov cocktail thrown from an ambush at the car in which she was traveling with her father. She managed to jump out of the burning car and was taken to hospital in a critical condition, suffering from severe burns to her upper body and face. Even if the doctors manage to save her life, she can  be expected to undergo a long and painful rehabilitation process. Evidently she would never again look like the smiling photo prominently published in today’s newspapers this morning, and it would take a long time before she could again attend the enhanced Mathematics Class for Gifted Children.

The El-Matan settlement was established in 2000, officially defined as “a neighborhood " of the older settlement of Ma'ale Shomron; therefore, the road connecting Ma'ale Shomron to El-Matan – where the Molotov was thrown - is considered by the settlers as “an internal artery of Ma'ale Shomron". El-Matan was established without any authorization from the Ministry of Defense or any other government agency, a blatantly illegally act even according to the highly permissive rules of the Israeli military government. It was one of the illegal settlement outposts which PM Sharon was supposed to evacuate, back in 2003 (so he promised ...) On the same year that Sharon pledged to the Americans to evacuate El-Matan, the child Ayala Shapira was born there.

The definition of El-Matan as an illegal settlement outpost was until yesterday no hindrance in the life of the girl and her family - especially as the government of Israel did not show even the slightest inclination to evacuate it – on the contrary, the government transferred ample funds to finance its continuing  growth. In 2012 the idea was raised of legalizing El-Matan by defining it as “an artists’ colony" (though its inhabitants are not artists…) At the time the idea sparked sharp protests in Israel and abroad ("The settlers make the task of giving legitimacy to outposts into a real art. What kind of art can flourish in a manifestly illegal outpost?" Asked Peace Now’s Yariv Oppenheimer). Now, when the front pages filled with reports about the calamity which struck Ayala  Shapira and her family, this idea might surface again.

"This was not the act of a criminal. We are at war and the one who threw the Molotov cocktail is a soldier among those who fight against us" is how Avner Shapira,  the girl's father, is quoted in today’s papers. In this much one can certainly agree with him - even if disagreeing with his further remarks regarding "total impossibility of ever reaching peace" and “the need to conduct all-out war against the terrorists".

Earlier this week, another front of the same war heated up several times -  the border of the Gaza Strip, still bleeding from the harsh summer. A missile was shot from the Gaza Strip into Israel and caused no damage or casualties, and a few days later a Palestinian sniper shot and wounded an Israeli soldier near the border fence. In both cases, Hamas denied any connection to the acts, attributed them to rogue organizations and announced its determination to maintain the ceasefire. In both cases the Israeli government and its armed forces placed responsibility upon Hamas and took punitive measures accordingly - the bombing of a concrete-producing plant in the first case, the killing of an important Hamas operative in the second. In both cases commentators repeated the same formulations: "Both sides, Israel and Hamas, do not want to reach an all-out escalation - but they may be drawn to into it against their will." Such formulations also appeared in the press just before the flare-up in the summer, dubbed "Operation Protective Edge" which ended with the razing of entire Gaza neighborhoods  and the death of some 2100.

By any measure, the war has left the Gaza Strip an open sore which no one is seriously trying to treat. Only a fraction of the donations promised for reconstructing Gaza arrived in practice, and only a trickle of building materials get past the walls and barriers. The mechanism which was set up at the demand of Israel, under which the United Nations must closely oversee the distribution of construction materials "to avoid their getting into Hamas’ hands" has become a constant source of black marketing and wild profiteering. An international activist who was recently in Gaza told me that the price of a bag of cement in Gaza has risen to four times more the price before the war - far beyond the reach of many Gazans whose homes were destroyed.

Officially,  the Gaza Strip is under the authority of the Ramallah-based "Palestinian Consensus Government". In practice, except for a single highly publicized meeting which its ministers held in Gaza, that government has no real presence in the Gaza Strip, and Hamas retains de-facto power. It is highly uncertain whether President Abbas has any  desire to embark on a struggle – certainly political, possibly military as well - to achieve some tangible control over the Gaza Strip or parts thereof.

The fine talk about "An arrangement" aimed at achieving a fundamental solution to the problems of Gaza was shelved, and the world's attention shifted at record speed to other problems. The negotiations in Cairo were supposed to give the Palestinians a forum where they could air all claims and grievances, demand an end to the siege and even the opening of air and sea ports in Gaza. During the war, Hamas leaders have expressed great doubt whether the Israeli government would indeed conduct such negotiations (that was one of the main reasons for prolongation of the fighting). These doubts proved completely justified.

The Cairo negotiations were cut off two days after opening. Instead, the Egyptian President General Sisi – Netanyhau’s not-so-secret ally – hastened to tighten the siege on Gaza from the Egyptian side. The Rafah Border Crossing was completely shut down, on the grounds that Gazans were involved in attacks on the Egyptian army in Sinai. Afterwards, the Egyptian army began an intensive operation to create along the border with Gaza "a sterile area" half a kilometer wide (later, extended to a full kilometer), which involved the destroying of hundreds of homes and completely erasing entire neighborhoods in Rafah.

This Egyptian campaign is strongly reminiscent - perhaps not coincidentally – of what the Israeli General Yom Tov Samia tried to do when Israeli forces were  in direct control on the other side of the same border. Dozens of Palestinian homes were destroyed, with the declared intention to create just such a sterile area. At the time there were a lot of international protests, especially after the American activist Rachel Corrie gave her life in the struggle against house demolitions in Rafah. But apparently, the world opinion which made an outcry against the destruction of the homes of Palestinians by an Israeli general proved ready to pass over the destruction of the homes of Egypt citizens by an Egyptian dictator...

Roger Cohen of the New York Times, who this week published his impressions from electioneering Israel and bleeding Gaza, wrote: “A child of nine in Gaza has memories of three wars in six years. The child may stand in the remains of the Shejaiya neighborhood in eastern Gaza City, gazing at tangles of iron rods, mountains of stone, jagged outcrops of masonry, and air thick with dust. The child may wonder what force it is that wrought such destruction, so repetitively, and why. It is safe to say that the adult this Palestinian child will one day become does not bode well for Israel. The child has no need for indoctrination in hatred.”

This week, the Egyptian government graciously announced the opening of the Rafah Crossing, after two months in which it was completely closed. The opening was limited to two days, and the only ones allowed to leave the Gaza Strip were residents with a health emergency, students enrolled in universities abroad, and Palestinians holding foreign citizenship. Those who fulfilled one of these criteria crowded the crossing in great droves, anxious to get out before it would close again. Representatives of the Egyptian government announced that a regular opening of the crossing must wait for some undefined future date, "according to security considerations." On this matter, Netanyahu could smile. At least officially, he bears  no responsibility.

In the pressure cooker called Gaza, the pressure continues to mount.

Crowding at Rafah Crossing - photo AFP

On December 29, 2014, the Geneva Initiative will hold a conference at Sderot, on the Gaza border: “A Ticking Bomb Called Gaza: What's In Store for Inhabitants of South Israel?"


 * Gen. (res.) Israela Oron, former Deputy Head of the National Security Council

* Gen. (res.) Giora Inbar, former commander of the Lebanon Border Brigade  and the Givati Brigade

* Mr. Hisham Abd al-Razzaq, a Gaza resident, former Minister of Prisoners' Affairs in the Palestinian Authority

The conference will be held at the Sapir College, on Monday Dec. 29, starting at 17:30

Contact: +972-3-6938780