I’ve read three separate major news developments over the past several hours. Though none appear directly related on first glance, I wonder whether there may be interesting and important connections.
The most newsworthy is Ben Caspit’s report that Israel is about to get a new government. As Caspit, whose politics are moderate-Likudist admits, it’s the farthest-right government in Israeli history. You may wonder how that’s possible given how extremist Bibi’s last two governments were.
But there is a difference. As Caspit notes, Israeli rightist governments under Olmert, Sharon and Netanyahu managed to secure a center-left fig leaf by persuading the Labor Party to join them. In these awkward political mash-ups, left and right didn’t significantly differ on security issues. So policy toward Palestine and the frontline states was vintage hard-right Likud regardless of who the coalition partner was. This was convenient for the prime minister whoever he was allowing him to pursue hawkish policies all the while telling the world he was doing so in a unity government representing the full range of Israeli opinion. The new ruling coalition will have no such cover. Moshe Kahlon is as far to the “left” as this government will get (not very far).
Even Caspit, no liberal, says emphatically that no one in this government endorses a two-state solution. So there won’t even be a fig leaf for the world to see, as far as that issue is concerned.
Isaac Herzog has decided to sit this one out. Which is rather shocking considering that previous Labor party chiefs have been all too happy to prostitute their principles in return for power and (ministerial) portfolios. But never fear. Caspit says there’s still time for Bougie to rejoin the coalition after he wins the next Labor primary in 14 months.
According to Caspit, Avigdor Lieberman, the biggest loser in the election, will remain as foreign minister. Naftali Bennett, the second-biggest loser, will be education minister, a second-tier portfolio. Moshe Kahlon, the biggest winner in the election, will become finance minister, bearing an agenda for aggressive reform of the economic sector. Presumably, Bogie Yaalon will remain as defense minister (though Caspit doesn’t confirm this).
The second development is quite odd at first glance. Alex Fishman reports that Hamas has asked Qatar to mediate with the Israelis over a five or ten-year hudna, which would guarantee “quiet” for Israel while offering Gaza goodies no one in their right mind thought possible, including a floating port and easing of the Israeli siege:
It turns out that for several weeks now, official representatives of the Israeli government and members of the defense establishment have been holding a real dialog with Hamas – partly direct, partly indirect – in a bid to reach a long-term calm between the sides.
Three months before the elections, Israel received a concrete and detailed proposal from Hamas for an agreement on a period of calm of five to 10 years. Israel did not officially respond. But life is stronger, and both sides’ interests dictate cooperation…
Israel is rolling into a dialog with Hamas, even if it isn’t making a decision about it. So they are talking about rebuilding the Strip, a possibility of creating water and electricity infrastructures, and even an independent seaport which will serve Gaza is no longer considered a bad word.
…The person pushing for talks with Hamas is the coordinator of the government’s activities in the territories, in cooperation with new IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and with his encouragement, while the political echelon is making these moves possible.
A Hamas senior leader has confirmed these reports and noted that European interlocutors are also involved. When Ahmed Youssef says he is waiting for the new Israeli government “for things to get more serious,” I think he means “to see whether Bibi is bluffing or not.”
The last story appears, on the surface, to contradict Fishman’s report. Haaretz’s Arab affairs reporter, Jack Khoury, without offering even a vague description of his source (let alone offering a name), claims that Mohammed Deif has returned to operational command of Hamas’ military wing. In the guise of a comprehensive inside account of affairs inside Gaza, Khoury provides a highly tendentious report surely from the mouth of Israeli military intelligence (AMAN). The story contains incendiary claims about Deif’s pre-Operation Protective Edge war plans:
The military wing, headed by Deif, was ready with an operational plan based on raids on an Israeli community, primarily Kerem Shalom, via tunnels and the abduction of soldiers and civilians back to Gaza. That, they argued, would give the military wing a strong bargaining chip vis a vis Israel, even at the cost of a war.
But the Hamas political echelon was against the plan, opposition that greatly frustrated Deif and his people. During the war there were a number of unsuccessful attempts to implement Deif’s plan, with the result that today, nine months after Operation Protective Edge, the Gaza Strip is worse off in every way, according to Gazans themselves.
Doncha just love that phrase “according to Gazans themselves?” Which Gazans? Surely not the ones the reporter talked to because he couldn’t under Israeli law do that. And do you think AMAN spies inside Gaza offered their handlers this intelligence? Or that Unit 8200 spying on Gazans heard them saying this amongst themselves? Could be. Or it could be AMAN is making it up out of whole cloth as they are wont to do.
After reading this blatantly false claim about Hamas’ view of the efforts to rehabilitate civilian homes in Gaza, tell me who you think Khoury’s source is:
Hamas, which would like to absolve itself of responsibility for the civilian population in the Gaza Strip, has distanced itself from the rehabilitation work.
Times of Israel is a bit more journalistically-responsible by saying their report is based on “Israeli intelligence assessments.” I suppose we should be thankful that Khoury doesn’t appear to have just learned Deif is alive. The Jerusalem Post story appears to use the Pony Express (or AMAN) when it comes to Hamas-related news, given its headline: Hamas military commander Deif said to be alive in Gaza Strip. This news was formally confirmed by Ben Caspit last January and most serious journalists (including me) reported during the war last summer that the IDF had failed to assassinate him (though it did kill his wife and baby son).
In his story, Khoury describes Hamas’ latest efforts to rebuild its military capability. Though the ‘ferocity’ of the effort was lost on me, it might be enough to scare the average Israeli:
The rebuilding of the tunnels is underway around the clock, with a workforce of about 1,000 men. Construction materials come primarily from private individuals, who receive them to rebuild their homes, But because they lack the money to complete construction of their homes, they sell the material on the black market. Where possible, wood and plastic are being used in place of concrete slabs.
Hamas is also working to rehabilitate its rocket capabilities, especially the long-range, 150-kilometer rockets. Deif is personally involved in advancing this project, and it is believed that the organization is training engineers and other experts who can assemble the rockets in the Gaza Strip.
What seems most uncharacteristic among all these stories is Fishman’s account of negotiations with Hamas. Israel only negotiates with the Islamist group when it needs something very badly: like the return of Gilad Shalit or the end of a war (like last summer’s Operation Protective Edge). I don’t see what Bibi needs from Hamas that would motivate him to entertain such a radical change of policy (hudna).
Fishman does note that the PA is furious with the new round of talks. So one possible explanation may lie in an attempt to further divide the PA from Hamas. If Abbas goes forward with his ICC case against Israel or pursues statehood at the UN, Israel may pull the Hamas-hudna card from its back pocket. Not to mention, that such division makes prospects for a Palestinian unity government grow dimmer. But frankly, it would be greatly out of character for Israel to take any negotiation with Hamas seriously. Even ceasefire agreements it does sign it routinely violates wherever it’s convenient to do so.
Though I would like to think such a thing as serious talks between Israel and Hamas were possible, the sober realist in me firmly believes it’s not. The Khoury story seems almost to have been purposely devised to tarnish the hudna story. What better way to deflate talks of peace than by raising the specter of nasty Hamas planning ever more kidnappings and terror attacks against Israel?
How does the newly formed Israeli government fit into this picture? Frankly, I think it’s a highly dubious proposition for a far-right Israeli government to have any interest in a hudna with Hamas. Which means either than Bibi is, as I wrote, attempting to divide and conquer the Palestinians; or alternatively, Bibi realizes he has major problems on his hands with the international community. The farther right his government drifts the farther away the world drifts from Israel. If Bibi can point to a serious negotiation with Hamas, perhaps he can argue that he’s not the virulent, Arab-hating Likud radical the world makes him out to be.
Now for something completely different: the Nepal earthquake and Israel’s dubious humanitarian relief effort included sending a plane to rescue 15 babies birthed by surrogate Nepalese mothers, who were left behind to fend for themselves. Israel is also reported to have sent its IDF military field hospital as well. You remember, the one it refused to send during the Ebola epidemic. The current effort reminds me of the post I wrote, The Zionization of Disaster Relief, in the midst of the Haiti tragedy. It seems exceedingly and sadly relevant. Just wait, there’ll be an announcement any day now of the first Nepalese baby named, Israel, who IDF doctors delivered.