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Things Never Really Change

The Realist summarizes Cast Lead, and I agree with much of what he said, including his conclusions about what needs to be done next. He says that the political situation needs to be stabilized before we know what will happen, of course – but unfortunately I do not see a real routing of Hamas happening in any case, for the following reasons:

  1. Netanyahu, who at this point is still poised to take over, come February, must be examined based on his actual experience. People do not change very much – and he already is a known quantity. Though he may be the lesser of many evils, he is a politician in the full, pejorative sense of the word, who is simply on the other side of the map from other like-minded elected officials. (The one exception is his economic worldview, based on his education, which he actually carried out fairly well while serving as minister). In any case, I don’t see him carrying such an operation out – I see him selling everything wholesale – the only mitigating factor now is Benny Begin, who actually is a true ideologue.
  2. Such an operation would probably take months – complete elimination of Hamas would require a very thorough examination of every house, street, school, alley in the entire Gaza Strip – Israel does not have the luxury of such an undertaking, largely due to world opinion the modern nature of real time media reports.
  3. Another consideration is the Israeli leadership’s tendency to conform to the popular theory that only the Left can wage war and only the Right can make peace, which Bibi certainly practiced when he was in office.

He also mentions the problem of smuggling, and that it ” is going to be incredibly difficult to stop entirely.” I think the idea of building a moat along the Philadelphi corridor is a good start.

In the end, however, The Realist is correct – “There is ultimately no alternative… In the end they have to be bombed into destruction.” I just don’t see it happening anytime soon.

“At the slightest sign of a return to the status quo ante bellum, this needs to happen.  Otherwise all of this was for nothing.” True. How sad.

Truce? What Truce?

Ynet reports: “Israel declares unilateral Gaza truce.” Wrong. A truce cannot be unilateral. A truce is agreed upon. This a capitulation, yet another mistake in a long line of errors, collectively known as Olmert’s policies.

Regardless of why this operation was initiated, or why now, Hamas is an enemy that doesn’t only need to be “hit hard.” It needs to go. That is not an easy undertaking, but it is necessary. Nevertheless, the Israeli government is cowering in the face of international opinion, instead of even completing the limited task they set out for the IDF: stopping the rockets. How does Hamas respond? In their words – The victims of this war will be the basis for the continuation of the fighting and hostility vis-à-vis the Israeli side.” And in actions – only today, several more rockets were launched at Be’er Sheva.

Finally, a military operation was finally started, again (as in 2006), and again the IDF will cease its fire while Gilad Schalit is still held by the enemy. The reason for Cast Lead is the same as the reason for its end: politics. The troika (Olmert, Livni, Barak) do want to lose to the Likud next month, and after Hamas did not cease its murder attempts for the past few years, they thought they could gain popular support by appealing to what the public wants just before the elections. Nevertheless, their campaign failed. Labor did rise slightly in the polls, but Kadima stayed at more or less the same level, still trailing Likud.

If this is the end of Cast Lead then it is a failure. Yes, many battles were won. Yes, Hamas’ capabilities have been severely damaged, and numerous key figures have been eliminated. However, if they still refuse to surrender, if they still disparage Israel by declaring “if this is all the strength they have, they failed in defeating the Palestinian people,” then Israel cannot claim to be victorious.

This “truce” will only serve to hurt Israel in the future. It will cost more Israeli lives. There was no legitimate strategy, were no real aims, from the very beginning. Nor is there a legitimate strategy in endng now. This is all very disheartening.

Kadima to End Operation Cast Lead Early?

It appears my assertion regarding the government’s reasoning for Operation Cast Lead was correct. Now that Israel seems to be actually winning in Gaza, it seems like Livni and Barak are in favor of an early end to the operation.

Livni contends that continuing the offensive could harm the deterrence it has achieved so far and damage Israel diplomatically.” Has she not learned anything? Anything Israel does in self-defense will harm Israel’s diplomatic image. Furthermore, she is just throwing around the word “deterrence” for populist reasons. True deterrence will only be restored if Israel truly routs the enemy – if Israel forces a de facto surrender, if not on paper. Stopping now will grant Hamas bragging rights, which are worth a lot more in the Middle East than in kindergarten. Bragging rights practically determine who won and who lost, and Hezbollah has been bragging plenty since 2006.

One last point – Olmert is now against an early end to the operation, accurately stating that “stopping Operation Cast Lead now would be a missed opportunity.” I am really not sure what brought about this change in the outgoing PM. Is this an attempt at some sort of redemption? Can anyone shed some light on the topic?

I truly hope that Israel will not stop yet another operation halfway through. Unfortunately, history shows that the only way to truly gain respect in the Middle East is to be feared. Fear, as a result of a resounding victory. Israel has not won such a victory since 1973 (despite the initial stages of that war). Israel needs to win this war, and stopping it now is not the way to do it.

Operation Cast Lead – Israeli Public

Military and political aspects here, international opinion here, etymology of Cast Lead, and first, second, and third parts about the Arab World’s opinion.

I think an overview of the Israeli public’s reaction is necessary before contrasting it that with the rest of the Jewish world. By now, with regards to the public reaction, the two major stages of the operation should probably be looked at it differently. The first week, comprised solely of massive aerial strikes on hundreds of Hamas targets, was incredibly popular. Initial polls showed the operation was supported by 81% of the Israeli public. In fact, even before Cast Lead began, far-left Meretz called for an attack in Gaza, in a press release: “the time has come to act without compromises and without political considerations and to defend the residents of the Gaza area and Sderot.” (Hebrew)

Even the famous authors, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, bona fide members of the Israeli far-left, supported the start of this operation, though they called for “a cease-fire as quickly as possible. And finally, Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit has written a pretty good description of how Israelis feel about Cast Lead and what the sentiment is, with regards to Israelis who oppose it, calling them “Israel-hating Israelis,” saying that “[t]heir self-righteousness is not at all righteous, and their moralizing has no morality.”

Opponents of the operation, include, of course, Peace Now. But even they seem to base their calls for an immediate ceasefire on the initial results of the operation, calling on the government to take advantage of the message that has been sent to Hamas and to “cease fire now!” (Hebrew) This is similar to David Grossman’s piece in the NY Times, calling on the government to hold its fire, arguing strategy, not morals.

The part of the operation that began two days ago, on the ground, also enjoys widespread Israeli support, only a few days ago a poll showed 65% in favor, and 23% against. This poll can be miscontrued to believe that that Israelis who oppose this stage of the operation, oppose on moral grounds, and think it is wrong for Israel to harm Gazans in this way. Though there exists such a small minority, for the majority of this group, this is not the case. Most would probably say such an operation is simply not wise, because it will cost Israel too many lives, in return for very little. Even Meretz was careful in its wording. While they do not seem to fully support the operation any longer, the reasoning used is very important, “deepening the fighting endangers IDF soldiers and entangles Israel…” (Hebrew) In other words, the operation has not been deemed “unjust” by Meretz.

The opposition to fighting on the ground is, to a large extent, a result of the disaster that was the Second Lebanon War, and Shmuel Rosner does a good job of explaining these feelings. Ronen Shoval, writing in Ynet, also explains the moral quandary in which Israelis have found themselves. In addition to the over-cautiousness in dealing with Israel’s enemies at the expense of Israeli lives, over the years, IDF soldiers have become less of Israel’s army, and more “our children,” people that need to be protected, instead of those who protect us. Granted, IDF soldiers’ lives are very valuable, but “defense of soldiers’ lives, at the expense of placing Israeli civilians at risk” is a backwards rationale, and is indefensible from a moral standpoint. (from Hebrew)

Nevertheless, the ground operation is underway, and hopefully it will continure to be succesful, in the short run, as well as in the long run. With regards to Hamas, Israel’s neighbors, time and again, miscalculate the determination of Israelis to fight once a defensive operation is undertaken. The weakness perceived by the public’s reaction to kidnapping of soldiers leads them to anticipate, wrongly, that Israelis will prefer not to fight, and suffer under Hamas’ definition of “calm” or a “lull.”

NEXT: The Jewish world and its reaction.

Operation Cast Lead – Military and Political Perspectives

I’ve already commented briefly on Operation Cast Lead. Looking at the entire picture, though, there are four significant considerations. Here are the first two.

Military - The aerial campaign has been, thus far, a success, killing hundreds of Hamas members, including one very senior leader, and a relatively low number of civilian deaths. The big question now is what is the likelihood of a ground incursion, and how successful such an incursion will be – both in terms of Hamas’ condition post-incursion, and in terms of Israeli losses. Future success will be measured by the damage done to Hamas’ ability to continue to launch rockets at civilians. Such a victory is not yet imminent, and the campaign, whether aerial or on the ground, does seem to end anytime soon. Thorough military analysis of the operation is, unfortunately, beyond, my purview, and I am only able to analyze the operation in terms of reports of the degree to which Hamas has been harmed, and after the operation, reports on Hamas’ capabilities and the condition of the organization overall. Recent history has not inspired much confidence in me, as the last IDF operation that was even moderately successful in achieving its goals, was Defensive Shield in 2002.

Another military-legal consideration is the oft-used accusation that Israel is using “disproportional force.” This accusation is ridiculous. IAF has been targeting Hamas, not carpet-bombing Gaza, attacking the threat against Israel, making every effort to minimize civilian deaths. And the threat is precisely what needs to be measured when appraising the operation from a legal perspective. As Michael Walzer wrote in 2006, about the war at the time, “proportionality must be measured not only against what Hamas and Hezbollah have already done, but also against what they are (and what they say they are) trying to do.” In other words, Israel is right, insofar as it acts against the threat against it, not simply actions taken against it. As many others have pointed out already, a strict proportional response would be to “[launch] thousands of air strikes against targets in Gaza to match the thousands of Qassam rockets fired.” The problem is, that those who make this accusation do not have an issue with Israel’s proportionality – but with its success. For a more comprehensive analysis of the legality of Operation Cast Lead, read this from the JCPA.

Political - Israel has been blamed for planning such an attack for over 6 months, intending to attack at the slightest provocation when the “ceasefire” (tahadiyeh) would expire, and detractors are using this to portray Israel as anti-”ceasefire”, as an incredulous actor. I find this accusation unbelievable. Every prepared military in the world is prepared for military campaigns against its neighbors. To be unprepared would be wholly irresponsible.

Nevertheless, the question to be asked is why now? The campaign Israel is waging, while just, is confusing in its timing. Rocket attacks from Gaza are nothing new, and the Olmert administration has not done anything significant in the past, so why now? I take a view some would call cynical, and I believe the reason is that with elections in under two months, Barak and Kadima’s interests have merged. Up until recently, Likud was the clear front runner, and taking such a populist course of action would increase Kadima and Labor’s support.

This consideration is also important when examining the likelihood of the participation of  ground troops in Cast Lead. Such an operation would almost certainly cost the lives of Israeli soldiers, and would therefore present a political risk for the government. I am not suggesting the administration does not care about soldiers’ lives, only that the government’s moves over the past few years shows that their view is heavily clouded by political considerations.

NEXT: The Western, Arab and Jewish Worlds’ Opinions

UPDATE: Latest poll (Hebrew) shows Labor gains 5 seats since start of operation, Kadima hovers around the same figure, and Likud, surprisingly, gains two seats.

Kidnappings and Israeli Policy

The Likud’s newest star, Moshe Ya’alon, has recently made headlines for acknowledging the truth in Tzipi Livni statement regarding Gilad Schalit. Livni, largely criticized for remarking that Schalit’s release is not a certainty, received some unexpected support from the former Chief of Staff, who said, “The expression, ‘at any price’ is not appropriate.”

As much as I disagree with Livni on countless other issues, here she is right. This is not to say that the motto of “leave no man [or woman] behind” should be abandoned. Israel must do everything in its power to secure the release of its prisoners. That being said, Israel’s policy of negotiation with enemies, leading to the release of terrorists, is  foolhardy at best. As Ya’alon said, “We have brought ourselves to a point where it’s worthwhile [for the enemy] to kidnap soldiers.” Such a situation is untenable.

What should be done? First, a firm policy of not negotiating with terrorists should be adopted. If Israel refuses to negotiate, then it will not be worthwhile for Hamas, et al, to put so much time and effort into kidnapping just one person. Granted, public opinion is not in favor of such a policy, but that is precisely why such a strategy is so important. The very reason kidnapping Israelis is such a lucrative venture is the strong public pressure that ensues to liberate the kidnapped by giving in to the terrorists’ demands. This only serves to embolden them further, to attempt additional kidnappings.

Nevertheless, Israel cannot leave its soldiers behind. While all IDF soldiers do, in effect, sign away their lives upon conscription, I am in no way advocating a cavalier approach to dealing with their lives. As risky as such undertakings are, Israel must make use of its military force in order to free Gilad Schalit, and any other Israeli soldier kidnapped by its enemies. Military rescue operations are necessary in order to liberate Israeli prisoners. Yes, sometimes such operations do not achieve the intended result (see: Nachshon Waxman). However, we cannot afford the alternative – a policy that does nothing to solve the real problem. A real solution is needed, not a case-by-case approach, merely treating a symptom, allowing the disease to spread.

I am aware that none of Gilad Schalit’s loved ones would like to see Israel boycotting neogotiations for his release. I have no answer for them, for theirs is truly an emotional appeal, and I do not portend to understand (nor want to) how they feel. However, if Israel wants these kidnappings (and the endless kidnapping attempts) to end, a quick 180 is needed, and fast.

Labor Collapses, Kadima Sticks Around

The latest pre-election polls came out today, and Labor is the big loser. According to the poll, if elections were held today, Likud would win 32 seats in the Knesset, whereas Labor would have only 8(!) seats. According to the poll, Netanyahu would be able to form 65-seat coalition, made up of Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, UTJ, and HaBayit HaYehudi (the new right wing party).

What baffles me most is Kadima, with 26 seats. This party has no ideology, is corrupt beyond belief, and still seems to be the default vote for the center-left public. How 20% of the public would still vote for them is beyond me?

Fewer Political Parties in Israel?

Being a Prime Minister is not an easy job. The first assignment of any Prime Minister, even before taking the oath of office, is putting together a coalition. In order to rule, one must ensure a majority of 61 votes in the Knesset, piecing together agreements with the many political parties, who represent the many different, extremely vocal, sectors of Israeli society.

The 17th Knesset, due to make way for the 18th this coming February, for example is made up of 12 different lists (some of which included more than one party). Forming a coalition in Israel is not an easy task, which necessitates meeting the demands on various interest groups in return for their support.

Recently, upon the tendering of Olmert’s resignation, Kadima held their primary elections. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni won, and was tasked with the formation of a coalition, based on the makeup of the current Knesset. Shas demanded that Livni rule out any compromise on Jerusalem in any future negotiations. Livni refused, and decided not to form a narrow, left-wing coalition.

Within the past decade, however, Israel has been moving away from the current system of an extreme multitude of parties, pulling the government every which way. Coalitionary politics in Israel today, along with no-confidence votes forcing new elections, do not allow for a stable government. In fact, in the State of Israel’s short history, only one government has ever completed a full four-year term (the 7th Knesset, with Golda Meir as PM).

A somewhat limiting factor in the number of parties represented in the Knesset is the election threshold, which does not allow for a party to be elected to the Knesset with only one seat. This historic instability of Israeli government is, in many ways, a testament to the vibrancy of the Israeli democratic process. It does not, however, allow for governing to take place. Policies are changed more quickly than socks, and the governing party must constantly take into account the sectoral interests of various parties.

Increasing the election threshold is not, however, a viable long term solution. Over the past 16 years the threshold has been raised, albeit at very gradually, from 1% in 1992 to 2% today. A change to, say 10%, as it is in Turkey, would probably not last very long. The public would cry out that the larger parties are stifling unpopular opinion and claim that such a change amounts to limiting free speech. Israel already has a history of making changes to the political system and reverting back to the original in the face of public opinion (the shortlived period direct elections for PM comes to mind), and the threshold would probably be lowered back to the current level fairly quickly.

Within the state’s history, there have been as many as 15 different lists (and even more parties) represented at once in the Knesset. Every time this number seems to shrink a bit (no lower than 10, though), another party, serving a narrow sector of society, becomes the temporary favorite. In the last election it was Gil, just like Yisrael BaAliyah in 1996 and Shinui in 2003.

This year there seems to be a movement on the politicians’ side to consolidate electoral support within a smaller number of parties. The attempt at forming a right-wing political party, made up of the many factions in the far right, is nothing new, however there are interesting developments within the large parties.

Historically, the Knesset has been dominated by two political parties that have developed into today’s Labor and Likud. In 2006, Kadima changed that, winning the largest number of seats, and premiership. Nevertheless, Kadima was always an artificial party, yet another breakaway party formed by Ariel Sharon (this time from the Likud). He succeeded in taking many Likud members with him, as well recruiting a few politicians from Labor. There was never any ideology, a common theme for most attempt at a “center” party in Israel’s history. Olmert rode (comatose) Sharon’s coattails to victory in 2006, and even with the fairly popular Livni at the helm, it appears that Kadima’s success will not be repeated and that it is a bubble waiting to burst (like Shinui). Nonetheless, this is not likely to happen in 2009, and Kadima will probably remain a formidable force in the Knesset for the next few years.

Currently, the two legitimately “large parties” are in the midst of a massive recruitment drive. This is not surprising; parties have always tried to recruit “celebrity” public figures, in the hopes of this converting such figures’ support into electoral gains. What is somewhat surprising is who has been joining this year.

Ha’aretz journalists, Daniel Ben-Simon and Avi Shaked have recently announced their intention to run for Labor seats in next month’s primaries. Yariv Oppenheimer, Secretary-General of Peace Now, has also announced that he will run for a seat in the Labor primaries. This is notable, since Oppenheimer’s views are more aligned with the far left parties, such as Meretz. Nevertheless, the left does not appear to have truly adopted this trend, with politicians such as Ami Ayalon leaving Labor, possibly for Meretz for another far-left party.

The Likud has seen much more activity lately. The return of the popular Benny Begin and Dan Meridor, as well as former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon represent a significant reinforcement for the party that only tied as the third largest party in the 2006 elections. It is not only popular politicians that are joining Likud, however, as Efi Eitam has also announced his desire to join Likud.

In any case, if recent developments are any sign, Israel will experience a significant reduction in the number of political parties in the Knesset, and possibly a slightly more stable government.

Honest Benny Returns to Politics

Good news on the political front in Israel. Benny Begin, one of the very few Israeli politicians who is truly respected for his honesty and decency, who holds rational, positive views on the direction Israel must take, is returning to politics. Even Meretz MK, Zehava Gal-On, whose views on Israel are dangerous, to say the least, called him “a worthy, decent and honest man,” and that “the Knesset that needs people like him.”

According to the Ynet report, Begin plans to run for a spot on the Likud list, before the upcoming elections for the 18th Knesset. Unlike Avigdor Lieberman, who turned against his constituents and joined Olmert’s government, Begin actually stayed true to his ideals when, in 1997, he resigned from the Likud after Bibi Netanyahu signed the Hebron Agreement. He left politics entirely in 1999, when his Herut party only succeeded in winning four seats in the Knesset.

The Likud, headed by Netanyahu, are still only the lesser of the three evils with a shot at winning in February. However, one can still hope that Begin will at least somewhat keep Netanyahu on the right path.

Bibi also said the Likud is ”witnessing a wave of (people) joining and returning to the Likud,” as if his party’s ideals and strong views are the reason for this wave. It is not. The rats are simply abandoning the slowly sinking ship, known as Kadima.

Ynet also reports that “Netanyahu [is] attempt[ing] to enlist other celebrities to his roster, such as former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon and former Minister Dan Meridor.” Ya’alon is still much of a question mark, though some of his recent work seems to be a positive sign. Meridor, on the other hand, Israel could do without. Membership in the corrupt, ideology-less organization known as Kadima really is a permanent stain on his record, and his re-joining Likud would be no more than a strategic move meant to save his political career, belying an opportunism that that is all too prevalent in Israel, a trend we should strive to eliminate.

In any case, Israel needs more Begins and fewer Olmerts. May this February be a positive move in a new direction, and an end to the last three years of Olmert-ism.

Big Brother Wants You to Jump Off the Roof

I don’t know anyone who has real faith in the Israeli government. Faith in the IDF? Well, that’s an entirely different issue, but faith in the government – not so much. So it would be pretty obvious that I want such an organization to have as little control over me as possible. In this day and age, much more than in the past, information is the key to control.

That is why the Knesset’s latest move is more than just wrong, it’s scary. Much more harm than good can ever come out of the government possessing a massive biometric database of all citizens. The vote over this bill, which has only passed a first reading in the Knesset (meaning it has two more to go), passed 18-1. How can only 19 Knesset Members do away with basic civil liberties so easily?

It is a bit odd to find myself agreeing with Dov Khenin of Hadash (the only MK who voted against the bill). Disagreeing with the overly inflammatory Aryeh Eldad of the National Union is generally pretty easy, but not usually on major issues. This time he has really crossed the line. In claiming that “those opposing the bill are mostly crooks and felons,” he shows that he has no respect for the democratic process, or for anyone who ever disagrees with him. Thus, he is denying that his opponents on this matter have any valid points, pejoratively lumping civil rights proponents along with criminals.

One of the goals of this bill, which carries with it a maximum sentence of one year in jail for refusing to give biometric samples, is to tackle forgeries of ID cards, which is a real problem in Israel. However, IDs in Israel are overly easy to forge are not scannable, and make a New Jersey driver’s license seem like a challenge to forge. What Israel needs to do is design a new ID card – not eliminate basic privacy rights.

The inept and corrupt police would also have access to this database, however, they would need a court order to do so. The courts are not exactly clean themselves, and yet they would be able to determine whether or not your private information is made completely public (leaks from the police are are more common than rain in Israel).

In addition, the current Knesset’s authority to carry out such a far-reaching decision is questionable. Yes, it is legally allowed to pass bills, but in a parliamentary system where the people push the government out every so often, a lame duck Knesset really ought to act its part. This means only dealing with urgent legislation, not continuing, business as usual. Olmert’s resignation (though not yet in effect), coupled with Livni’s inability to form a coalition which led to the upcoming elections (Feb. 10, 2009), not to mention the people’s utter disgust with the current government, make the current Knesset’s mandate to pass sweeping legislation extremely minimal. If only elected officials in Israel actually acted as representatives of the people…

Finally, Minister of the Interior, Meir Sheetrit, in an attempt to justify the bill said that “the entire world is going biometric.” To paraphrase my mother – if the entire world jumped off the roof, would you?