Playing it smart

Posted: March 27, 2010 by Jonathan Boyko in Gaza, Hamas, Israel, Palestinians, Politics, Terrorism

While Hamas attempts to send a strong military message to the IDF tonight, by stating that it "responded…appropriately" to Israel’s on-foot incursion into Gaza late Friday, there is no doubt in my mind the game is about politics rather than military. There are two sides to Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and one of them plays it smart. Sadly, it is not us.

Israel made tactical mistakes one after another: first, announcing Jerusalem construction plans during John Biden’s visit – giving the Americans perfect excuse to pressure Israel into submission; allowing Palestinian PM Abbas take the initiative on the talks – making Israel look unwilling to play any political game; then stepping into Gaza, giving Hamas a way to blame Israel for violence once again. The current crisis is not Israel’s fault – but it sure as hell could be avoided by playing smart.

Hamas knows to use a good opportunity to cry wolf. Golani Major Peretz made a correct decision to pursue terror cell into Gaza’s territory to halt IED positioning by the cell – practice used daily by Hamas and subsequent groups, causing – at times – disastrous consequences. Yet, Haniyeh knows his practices rarely make it to first page of the New York Times, while Israel’s incursions are widely condemned by the likes of Thomas Freidman, who believe Hamas is all white and fluffy. Moreover, Mashaal and his minions understand full well that any Israeli military step could easily be turned against the Jewish state – particularly now, when Netanyahu’s government already gave Americans enough to demand transfer of Abu-Dis, near Jerusalem, to Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah. Khaled Mashaal’s wet dream is to have the opportunity to fire few rockets at the Knesset – with little to none consequences to himself.

To be honest, there was no way Israel could avoid Hamas’ show of military prowess – poor as it might be. One way or another, Ismail Haniyeh’s men would find a way to engage IDF troops and use the always willing press to distribute pictures of wounded and killed. According to Palestinian sources, Israel’s nightly incursion into Gaza with several tanks and bulldozers left a "fighter" wounded – but it is unlikely the "fighter" term would find its way into AP’s wire.

To the disdain of the Americans, Israel holds great power in the region. Israel is the sole player who could easily dismantle any effort on the part of President Obama to reconcile with the Arab world. Israel could set the whole Middle East on fire, crashing American interests in the Gulf, Egypt and Syria. Finally, Israel is America’s foot in the door to hearts and minds of Arab leaders, with administrations able to restrain or unleash Israel at will, pressuring Arab partners into certain concessions.

Israel’s acceptance of the rules of the game is what makes its position weak – and it is time to take the initiative. While Netanyahu lost the opportunity to take the frying pan off the fire, he surely could turn the situation to his advantage. For example, it is likely to be in Israel’s interests to announce a two-month construction freeze inside Arab-populated areas of Jerusalem, keeping the area frozen to a reasonable minimum. Such a freeze would allow Israel to place the ball in PA’s court, putting an end to Abbas’ constant whining and lifting some of the weight placed by Secretary of State Clinton off Jews’ shoulders.

Winning points vis-à-vis Hamas would be harder, but not impossible. Sad, but true – repeated small-scale incursions into Gaza bear no fruit, while a large-scale operation would be widely criticized by the international community. Thus, the only real leverage Israel has is its crossings. With Egypt setting up its own barrier against Hamas smuggling – not impassable, but much harder to penetrate – Israel’s only viable option is to leave any ground and sea units off Gaza and declare that any attack from Gaza Strip – be it a rocket attack or an IED – would result in closure of the crossings for a day, thus preventing transfer of hundreds of tons of supplies. Before implementing the strategy, it is Minister Lieberman’s job to widely publicize the strategy and the outcome of a possible attack. Israel should make it clear: we play fair and we will not attack; yet, we will not tolerate fire on our soldiers and citizens. The IAF could be used to drop hundreds of thousands of leaflets, announcing to Gaza’s citizens that any armed assault against Israel’s South would have grave consequences.

The above strategy would, in fact, hurt Hamas. In the past months, the group fiercely opposed Egypt’s project to stop underground smuggling into Gaza, with Haniyeh’s men realizing things could go South if they would have no way to feed Gazans. For now, the markets are full of food; however, the supply will dry fast if all the routes would be closed. Arab states’ clear indifference to Hamas’ struggle – clearly portrayed after Israel’s operation "Cast Lead" – makes the situation all the more gloomy.

Playing the game on your own terms takes political courage rarely seen here in the past two decades. Yet, it could change the view of Netanyahu from weasely politician to a national hero. No doubt, he should take it.

  1. lorenzonannetti :

    The only issue I have with the strategy you suggest is the closing of the crossings. Their closure is diplomatically negative because in the Western World every time that happens it is portrayed as a new Israeli threat to the civilian population and it raises protests.

    Thank you for your comment.

    I fully understand closure of the checkpoints would bring much attention from the international community; however, I also know that with Israel it’s never a win-win situation. This is the reason I believe prior to taking such a step Israel should widely publicize the move around the world and extensively warn Gazans (by fliers, radio and TV messages) about the possibility of the move. Taking such steps would allow Israel to take some of the blame off its shoulders and transfer it to Gazan terror groups, by stating they knew fully well rocket fire and attacks would bring a specified response.

    I do, however, fully expect Israel to take some flak for it. On the other hand, I believe such step would be better, rather than wait it out and eventually have to enter Gaza with armed forces, ‘Cast Lead’ style.

  2. lorenzonannetti says:

    Very smart post. Hamas needs to raise its voice to make itself heard by a world that is increasingly focusing its attention to the West Bank only.
    The only issue I have with the strategy you suggest is the closing of the crossings. Their closure is diplomatically negative because in the Western World every time that happens it is portrayed as a new Israeli threat to the civilian population and it raises protests. Netanyahu is in a difficult situation because every strong action he takes will bring international condemnation and yet he feels he HAS to do it because his electors want just something to be done.
    He’s slowly falling into Hamas’ trap, and he knows it. But he can’t stop it, not with his current government.
    Lorenzo Nannetti – Middle East Reconnaissance

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