Diplomacy or Diversion?
Amid Middle East Peace Talks, Political And Military Problems Cause Domestic Uncertainty In Israel
By C. Hart
The recent announcement by Israel, Syria, and Turkey concerning the advancement of indirect negotiations on the Golan Heights has diverted attention away from some significant developments in Israel and the Middle East region.
More damaging evidence against Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on corruption charges has been temporarily muted by the Golan announcement, as has the outcome of talks in Qatar between various factions of the Lebanese government. Hizballah now has veto power over decisions made within a new national unity government, giving them greater influence over UNIFIL’s role in Lebanon, and greater dominance politically and militarily in the country. This is bad news for Israel.
The Golan Diversion
The Golan announcement has also diverted attention away from indirect cease-fire talks between Hamas and Israel which, through Egyptian mediation, have seemingly failed. This has caused an escalation in the war of attrition, with eruptions breaking out at Israeli border crossings. Protests at the Karni crossing turned violent as thousands of Gazans protested the blockade. An attempt by Islamic Jihad to breach the Erez crossing ended in an unsuccessful terrorist attack. Israeli leaders are on the verge of a military incursion into Gaza. But, attention to these events has been deflected by the euphoric and tantalizing news of a possible breakthrough on the Golan issue between Israel and Syria.
The Golan spin temporarily hides some deeply rooted problems in Israeli society where a majority of the population wants to see Olmert go, and is looking forward to new leadership. Yet, the possibility of a political upheaval during a time when Israel lacks a sufficient deterrence policy against its enemies presents a daunting prospect. Arab states see Israel’s resolve as weakened, both politically and militarily, during a time when Hamas rocket attacks have escalated and are hitting deeper into Israeli cities and towns, with no effective response on Israel’s part that has either eliminated or reduced the threat.
Until now, Olmert has pursued diplomacy over military operations - which is seen by many Israelis as ignoring the safety needs of citizens - yet not making significant diplomatic progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a result, and to mask his deeper personal problems, he has taken his peace plan to the Syrians.
But, a skeptical Israeli public is concerned about the impact of negotiations with Syria in this kind of political climate. There is uncertainty as to whether the international community will understand Israel’s need for strong defensible borders while negotiations continue at an increased pace toward a wider comprehensive Middle East peace.
Talk of peace benefits the Syrians, giving President Bashar Assad a means to end international isolation while making political inroads into the U.S. Administration. And, while Syria and Israel talk peace, there is a much greater and more tangible threat now to Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, as Hizballah forces turn the country into a proxy state of Iran.
Pessimistic Israelis fear that if they don’t give up the Golan Heights, they can expect worse times ahead with Syria. Assad has substantially increased defense spending, recently buying advanced weapons systems from Russia that threaten Israel’s qualitative edge. Furthermore, there are now allegations that Syria may also be hiding more factories with nuclear components in them, which would be an added element to their stockpile of biological and chemical weapons. Assad’s ties to Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad further exacerbates Israel’s problems in the north, as Syria looks more and more like another proxy Iranian state on Israel’s north eastern border.
Hamas And The Olmert Effect
Much will be determined in how Olmert weathers this latest political storm. There is the possibility that his political turmoil could result in new elections which may have repercussions on how the government handles the Gaza conflict. If Olmert is indicted, and there are calls for early elections, entering into a six month cease-fire with Hamas would be a welcome quiet while political transition takes place in Israel. Otherwise, a cease-fire with Hamas would not be a positive development for Israel, militarily. Hamas has been able to smuggle long-range Iranian Grad rockets into Gaza that are more precise and have further reach. With borders open to Hamas, their ability to gather more advanced missile systems, along with training of their forces in Iran, will only increase their ability to successfully fight Israel in a future war against the Jewish state.
Israeli Southern Command Brigadier (Res.) General Zvika Foghel indicates that the talks are breaking down because Israel has certain demands that Hamas must meet before entering into a cease-fire. Israel is insisting that Hamas stop all violence including all rocket attacks. Israel is putting pressure on Egypt to make sure that Hamas does not have an opportunity to increase its military arsenal if Egypt opens its border with Gaza. Additionally, in the event of a cease-fire, Israel expects Hamas to free Corporal Gilad Shalit, the soldier that was captured in June 2006, in exchange for the freeing of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
Foghel believes Hamas is ready to make a deal but not according to these terms. “They want the tahdiyeh (period of calm), because they are under pressure, politically and militarily -- politically, by their own people.” According to Foghel, Hamas has not liked the fact that Israel continues to try and forge a peace agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas while Hamas sits on the sidelines. Hamas won the last Palestinian election, and they want to win the next one. Therefore, they are looking for ways to bring in money to help the growing unemployment in Gaza. The Palestinian population in Gaza also wants greater freedom to travel to Egypt, Iran, and throughout Europe. They want the border crossings open and protests are expected to increase.
Hamas is also seeking to show Gaza’s population greater military power, and that means smuggling in rockets that are more sophisticated. Right now, Foghel claims, their rockets can reach two million people in Israel, but they are determined to reach another half a million. Current rockets launched have hit Sderot, Ashkelon, and places in the western Negev. Foghel believes that, in the future, rockets will hit Ashdod. Now, they have a range of 20 kilometers. “But, eventually they will reach 40 kilometers,” he explains.
Foghel thinks that Hamas will now focus more on opening the crossing between Gaza and Egypt because they believe that Arab pressure will be more effective. “If they will go to Rafah and deal with Egypt, then most of the Arab international community will be with them and not against them. So, they will try to put that pressure on Egypt. The last time they did it, they succeeded. Although the Egyptians showed some attempt to stop them, we know that anyone that wanted to passed through.”
Currently, it looks as if Hamas is desperately trying to get attention off the Golan issue and onto their plight in Gaza, stirring up trouble at Israel’s border crossings. They may succeed.
While talks between Syria and Israel seem like an advancement in Middle East peace, some in Israel are already planning protest rallies to shore up support for keeping the Golan in Israel’s hands. This could lead to greater divisions in Israeli society. With 65-70% of the Israeli population and most of the Israeli Knesset against withdrawing from the Golan, this signals to Olmert that he cannot negotiate away land without a majority of public and political support.
As Israelis wait the next verdict on the current investigation into possible illegal financial transfers by Olmert, calls for his resignation grow louder in the Knesset. Disgruntled members of his own Kadima party are already busy shoring up support for their potential candidacy, and rumors of who will replace him in the near future are increasing.
Olmert’s apparent attempt to divert attention away from his political woes seems to have been a momentary respite for him. Yet peace on the Golan seems like a further reach today than yesterday, as he faces much bigger problems tomorrow.
One of those problems will be how to deal with a new Lebanese government that is likely to be less attune to Israel’s interests than Prime Minister Fuad Saniora’s government. With Hizballah’s political and military gains, Israel can expect greater Iranian and Syrian involvement in weapons transfers, intelligence agents on the ground, entrenchment of military equipment in civilian villages, and control over telecommunications throughout the country.
Heightened tensions in the north and south, and within Israeli society itself, are strong indicators that the Israeli government cannot continue the current diplomatic track without considering the increased frustration of citizens who say their security needs come first. The recent deaths and injuries from Gaza rocket attacks have sent a clear message to politicians that the situation in the south is first priority. Strong and decisive decision making is needed during these tumultuous times. Policy changes are imperative to assure Israel’s strong and secure presence in an often hostile Middle East.
Hamas doesn’t think that Israel has the courage or energy to carry out a big military operation in Gaza. But, their leadership might consider going underground soon, as Israel prepares for what may be the only option left for this government.