Saturday, January 24, 2015

About buried phosphorus and thuggish diplomacy

In 1974, as a young soldier just inducted into the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces, I was among a group of soldiers whom the platoon sergeant took on a tour of the munitions dump, showing us the different types of ammunition  used by the army. Among other things, he pointed to a pile of wooden boxes which were marked "Exploding Smoke" and said with a sligh wink "In fact, these are phosphorus bombs, but do not write the name explicitly because it might  create international problems." I have to admit that at that moment I did not pay much attention to this; still, it somehow stuck in my memory.

Much later, in 2009, I suddenly remembered the winking sergeant  and his Exploding Smoke. During the Israeli Air Force bombings of Gaza ("Cast Lead Operation") news started to get out of what happened to those on whom such phosphorus bombs happened to fall. Burning phosphorus particles stick to the body, penetrating deeper and deeper inside, causing excruciating pain. Shifa Hospital in central Gaza was crowded with whole families affected by the phosphorus which had fallen on them from the sky, the doctors seeing it happen, often unable to stop it in time. Even phosphorus smoke dissipating in the air can cause severe damage, sometimes death, to those who breath it.

Israeli and international Human Rights organizations made an outcry, and the use of phosphorus in Gaza had a central place in the famous report of the Goldstone Commission. The Government of Israel and the IDF asserted that phosphorus was used only in uninhabited areas (is there any part of the Gaza Strip which is truly uninhabited?). But in the next rounds of Gaza bombings, 2012 and 2014 phosphorus was no longer used. At least this particular horror was spared the inhabitants.

This week, intensive earthworks were going on at the Schneller Compound in Jerusalem, a former military camp on whose site an upscale residential neighborhood is to be erected. Suddenly, severe toxic fumes rose from the ground and spread throughout the whole area. Residents within a hundred meters radius were urgently required to stay indoors and close hermetically all windows. Only after several hours, rescue teams in sealed protective suits managed to locate and neutralize a buried old phosphorus bomb which had been touched by the bulldozers.

The  phosphorus vapors which rose this week from the soil of a quiet Jerusalem neighborhood - as if it is a metaphor for the State of Israel coming this week for the first time under the direct scrutiny of the International Criminal Court in The Hague…

No longer science fiction, no more an apocalyptic forecast of a future when the Palestinians might wield "their "Doomsday Weapon", but a concrete reality. A dry, formal notification by the Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda that a preliminary probe had been initiated about the possibility of war crimes having been committed in the Palestinian Territories; that the probe may relate to crimes committed by Israel, by Palestinian organizations, or both; that the probe is not a full-scale investigation, but the information collected might lead to the decision to open a full investigation; that the decision on such a full investigation would be made by the judges of the court, under the prescribed procedures; and that the probe will be conducted in a "fully independent and impartial manner", with no deadline set for its completion. Fatou Bensouda of Gambia, who had been involved in prosecuting war criminals in Rwanda, was included by Time Magazine in its list of “the hundred most influential people in the world”.

The professional echelon at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem recommended
to Prime Minister Netanyahu to make a moderate and measured response and concentrate on discreet behind-the-scenes action, especially since the prosecutors’ probe is preliminary only, and it would take a long time to crystallize into a formal charge-sheet - if at all.

Netanyahu ignored the recommendation and decided on an all-out international campaign, a frontal attack on the Court, its prosecutors and judges – even to the extent of exerting  international efforts to get funding to the International Court cut if it dares to institute proceedings against officers of the "most moral army in the world". Foreign Minister Lieberman, in his usual blunt way, stated that “the court should be dismantled”. Several observers noted that such angry and a bit hysterical reactions had less to do with apprehension of some Israeli officers being actually prosecuted in absentia at some future time, and more with the realization that even this initial probe might be enough to change significantly the international discourse regarding Israel and the Palestinians.

And then, the focus of attention suddenly shifted away from the court halls in the Hague to the skies of war-torn Syria. There, combat helicopters (or by another version, drones) suddenly appeared and launched an accurate barrage on a convoy of senior operatives of Hezbollah – the Lebanese Shi’ite militia which is one of the main supporters of President Bashar Assad and his regime. The Government of Israel refrained from taking formal responsibility for the attack, but Israel’s mass-circulation newspapers were quick to place headlines praising "the accurate action of our forces," and the "liquidation of the Prince of Terror".

Jihad Mughniyah, a young man without much experience or special skills, had gained the position of command over the forces sent by Hezbollah to the Israeli border in the Golan Heights mainly because of being the son of Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah operations chief who was killed in a mysterious  explosion in Damascus eight years ago. Yedioth Ahronoth published on its front page the photo of father and son, Imad and Jihad, with the prominent red captions "liquidated 2008" near the one and "liquidated 2015" next to the other. On the inside pages was the further information, unearthed by some diligent researcher, that also two uncles from the “Mughniyah terrorist family" had been "liquidated" in the past. Also, there was a warning to readers not to be misled by the photographs of Jihad Mughniyeh, in which he looked like a shy schoolboy, but to understand that he had been a dangerous terrorist and it had been well done to rid the world of his presence.

There was some confusion when it came out that among the twelve killed in the bombing were also an Iranian general and some of his officers. Official Israel responded with a number of conflicting voices: one unnamed “Israeli military source” apologetically told Reuters that Israel did not know about the presence of an Iranian general in the convoy. Another unnamed source contradicted this a few hours later and reiterated the version that Israel “does not accept any responsibility” for the attack in Syria.

"Would Iran and Hezbollah accept meekly such a blow?" wondered  the commentators. "A helicopter attack is a method which leaves clear Israeli fingerprints, it is not a bomb planted by somebody somewhere to which you can plausibly disclaim responsibility. This is poking a finger in the eye of Hezbollah, they can’t afford not to respond" wrote Alon Ben-David in  "Ma'ariv".

Indeed, there were angry protests in Beirut and Tehran, and threats were made of "dire and painful retaliation". The northern region of Israel was placed under an alert higher than at any time since 2006, tanks were stationed  along the Lebanese border,  as were the Iron Dome anti-missile missiles. Deep in the Mediterranean waters Israeli navy missile boats were stationed to defend against a possible attack on the Israeli natural gas rigs, and Defense Minister Ya’alon made dire threats against “anyone who dares to violate Israeli sovereignty” (sic!). And the tension continues. “Someone threw a match into a powder keg and is now waiting to see whether it will explode or not. This is a dangerous exercise in practical chemistry conducted on the eve of the final exam: The elections in Israel" wrote veteran commentator Alex Fishman.

While the alert in the north reached its peak, a violent incident took place in Tel Aviv – a young Palestinian stabbed and wounded passengers  in an Israeli bus, and an eighth-grader has become the hero of the hour for throwing his satchel at the stabber. However, this probably did not come from Hezbollah; rather, it was one more of the Palestinians fed up  with the ongoing occupation, taking a private initiative. As he told in police investigation, what the young knife-man sought to avenge was the deadly bombings of Gaza – which Palestinians remember very well, though Israelis have managed to forget them at record speed. The northern powder keg of which Fishman wrote had not yet exploded. The retaliation, when it comes, might be at an unpredictable place and time chosen by Hezbollah and its Iranian partners.

An immediate Hezbollah revenge could have ensured the victory of Netanyahu in the March general elections: a missile barrage from Lebanon on Israeli cities, which would have required a powerful response by the Israeli Air Force and initiated an open-ended military operation ("Operation Protective Stiff Cloud"?) which would have continued to escalate until shortly before the election date - and during all that time, opposition leaders Herzog and
Livni would have been constrained to express patriotic support for the government and avoid all criticism and propaganda. Alas, up to this moment Hezbollah did not deliver the goods. Even so, our Prime Minister did apparently make some electoral modest gain from the winds of war blowing this week.  Weekend polls indicated an increase in the Likud Party’s showing, not very big but enough to close the gap which separated the ruling party from its Labor Party rival, the two now running neck and neck.

The electoral aspects of the attack in Syria have already been discussed quite a bit. Not so much attention was given to the fact that among those killed in the attack was the officer in charge of the Hezbollah force fighting against the Islamic State (IS or ISIS or ISIL) – which makes him a de-facto ally of the US, even if figuring on its list of terrorists.

Coincidentally or not, just this week was published an interesting strategic assessment by Israel Ziv - formerly an IDF general and now heading a company which provides "security advice and military training for security forces in Latin America and Africa".  Ziv stated unequivocally that "For Israel, ISIS is the lesser evil. The existence of the ISIS State breaks up the dangerous Shiite territorial continuity from Tehran to Beirut which Iran had spent great efforts to build up. It is preferable for us to have there a sword-wielding  force moving about in converted vans, rather than a nuclear power stationing  missiles at our borders. Moreover, the ideological priorities of ISIS are first of all to fight the Shiites and other minorities, rather than dealing with ‘The Zionists'. In this respect they have many years of 'work' laid out for them before having time and energy for us "(Yediot Aharonot, January 19, 2015).

As we know, the approach of President Obama is quite different. Obama regards ISIS as a threat serious enough to warrant the reversal of the planned  American departure from Iraq, a threat justifying and necessitating the launching of an air campaign and even the forming of a de-facto alliance with Iran and Iran’s allies, waging war on ISIS on their own account. In that context, Obama seeks to reach in the near future an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue - an agreement which would ensure that Iran does not actually build a nuclear bomb, but which would not necessarily require Iran to completely dismantle all its nuclear capabilities.

In the eyes of Prime Minister Netanyahu, such an agreement between the US and Iran would be very bad and dangerous. After for a while keeping a low profile on the Iranian issue, Netanyahu took it up again in full swing, with the encouragement of his Republicans partners who now control Capitol Hill. On the agenda of the Republicans – and of Netanyahu - is a proposal to impose further sanctions on Iran. As Mossad chief Tamir Pardo stated to US Senators (though later forced to publish a denial), such new sanctions would lead to the collapse of negotiations between Iran and the West. Which, it clearly seems, is precisely Netanyhau’s purpose…

Through his close associate Ron Dermer - Israeli Ambassador to the United States, who is in practice mainly Netanyahu’s ambassador to the Republican Party - Netanyahu arranged to get himself invited to Washington and address a joint session of Congress. The date set: March 3, just two weeks before elections in Israel. It would be a first-rate electioneering broadcast: the Prime Minister of Israel, speaking impeccable English to the American legislators, who get up on their feet and give him a standing ovation (AIPAC will take care of their all clapping in unison) with everything broadcast live on Israeli TV. And in this speech Netanyahu would presumably concentrate on the Iranian Threat and  spur Congress to impose more sanctions – even (and especially) contrary to the clearly expressed wishes of the President of the United States.

As has already been reported extensively, Netanyahu did not bother to give the White House or the State Department any hint of his intentions to get to Washington and blatantly interfere in the American political power struggle. And as has been made clear unmistakeably, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are truly furious at Netanyahu. Unnamed US officials told Ha’aretz: “We thought we’ve seen everything, but Bibi managed to surprise even us. There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price to pay”. Today's headlines in the press published the announcement of President Obama that he will not meet with Netanyahu during this visit to Washington -  nor will Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Kerry or any other member of the administration.

Is this enough to make Netanyahu pay a real price? Quite doubtful. The Prime Minister may regard a public cold shoulder from Obama as a tolerable and even negligible price to pay, as long as Obama continues to give support to Netanyahu's policies where it really counts, for example in the UN Security Council. In the near future, however, Obama might be given an opportunity to exact from Netanyahu a real price: Palestinians are considering resuming their application to the Security Council, whose composition has changed since the failed vote in December. And perhaps it is just barely possible that the American vote will also change, this time?

Bibi King Kong at Capitol Hill (Haaretz, Biderman)