A Hell of a Pinpoint Operation
Secretary of State John Kerry was right to call Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against Hamas “a hell of a pinpoint operation” in an apparently private comment that had the hallmark of a diplomatic move aimed at putting pressure on Tel Aviv. Except that he was referring ironically to the military aspect of the operation, and it is the political aspect that truly expresses the “pinpoint” nature of what Israel is doing—without the irony.
Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s precise target is the alliance between Fatah—led by Mahmud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority—and Hamas, formed in April after seven years of conflict in the occupied territories. His strategy has always been to make unviable any Palestinian entity (let alone the possibility of sharing the same land with the Arabs under equality before the law). His tactics are at the service of that strategy. All he needs is to gain time until the “fait accompli” makes things irreversible. Operation Protective Edge serves that purpose.
Netanyahu knows three things work in his favor. The nature of Hamas, an organization that has engaged in terrorism, makes the atrocities arising from the land, air, and naval attacks easy to justify with the argument that the Palestinians use civilians as shields and that leaving their capability intact will expose Israelis to rockets. The tragic Jewish history confers impunity on Tel Aviv’s authorities: criticizing Israel can easily be construed as anti-Semitism. Finally, no U.S. administration can afford, domestically, to really distance itself from Tel Aviv.
Let’s remember how we got to Operation Protective Edge. In July 2013 the Obama administration launched a Middle East initiative and set a nine-month deadline for Israel and the Palestinians to reach an agreement. But the Israelis continued to expand the settlements (thousands of permits for new units were issued). When the deadline was near, Netanyahu reneged on his commitment to free hundreds of prisoners. He got the response he wanted from Abbas, who gave up and engaged in unilateral initiatives aimed at conveying the impression that the Palestinian Authority, which gained observer status at the UN in 2012, is a state in process. It was only a matter of time before an incident would trigger violence in Gaza, which houses not only Hamas but also a wing of the ruthless Islamic Jihad.
Then something happened. We found out that Hamas’s grip on the population of Gaza was more tenuous than in the past, its divisions had debilitated its capabilities, the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had left it isolated, and a significant number of its leaders had decided that violence was useless. The result was an agreement between Hamas and Fatah in support of a unity government in Ramallah made up of technocrats. The process by which Hamas would become part of the Palestine Liberation Organization and recognize Israel formally as well as renounce violence began. Elections were to be held in the territories in 2015.
Netanyahu hated the agreement. He ordered a strike against Gaza, warned that the unity would “derail the negotiations,” and ordered a further expansion of the settlements. Then the perfect incident happened. Three Israeli youths were brutally killed by Arab radicals in the West Bank, to which the perfect response came—the brutal murder of a Palestinian. The moment was ripe. Operation Protective Edge and the firing of rockets by Palestinians into Israeli territory soon followed.
Netanyahu’s aim—to split Hamas from Fatah—has not yet been achieved. Regardless of whether he manages to break the unity, he has gained precious time. No negotiation is possible in this scenario. Hamas’s military capabilities have been further weakened, and Israeli public opinion has hardened against Palestinians even more—as has the attitude of Palestinians, who are witnessing a daily carnage of their people, against Israel. A dream scenario for Netanyahu.
Ironically, the international community prays that he will remain in power because, given the shift of Israeli public opinion in recent years, the danger is that extremists who are part of his governing coalition will take full control and—as Naftali Bennett, the leader of The Jewish Home, wants—annex the occupied territories once and for all.