MIDEAST MIRROR 29.04.15, SECTION A (ISRAEL)
Israel Hayom leads its Wednesday edition with Nepal, where two of its correspondents are 'embedded' with the Israeli search and rescue teams. The devastating earthquake continues to provide the paper with an opportunity to highlight Israel's good deeds in disaster zones and its front page reports on 'the Israeli flag proudly flying among the rubble.'
Yedioth Ahronoth leads with the news that the new Israeli government – which Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is still struggling to cobble together – will revoke several reforms introduced by Yesh Atid during the previous government's tenure. Describing the decision as a 'victory for the ultra-Orthodox,' the paper reports that Netanyahu's Likud party will today sign a coalition deal with United Torah Judaism, which will rescind laws relating to the IDF services of ultra-Orthodox men and funding for yeshivas.
The agreement with UTJ was slammed by centrist Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid as a 'complete surrender' by Netanyahu to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox party. Lapid accused Netanyahu of selling out the citizens of Israel by agreeing to UTJ’s demands on these changes. 'What we’re seeing today is a ‘fire-sale’ on what is important to Israeli society and is at the expense of Israeli taxpayers. This is a complete surrender on the part of the prime minister to an anti-Zionist party at the expense of the tax-paying and IDF-serving public,' Lapid said.
The prime minister is racing the clock in order establish a new government by the May 7 deadline. Under Israeli election rules, if Netanyahu fails to form a coalition by that date, President Reuven Rivlin can assign someone else the task of doing so.
Haaretz leads with a report that Mohammed Deif, the commander of the Hamas military wing whom Israel tried to assassinate during last summer’s war in Gaza, is alive and involved in Hamas’ military decisions, according to both Israeli and Palestinian assessments. The efforts of Hamas’ military wing are now focused on drafting fighters and rebuilding battalions, mainly in the areas of Beit Hanun, Shuja'iya and Khan Yunis, which were hard hit during the fighting. New attempts are also being made to dig both attack and logistical tunnels.
Elsewhere, Army Radio reports that Israel's UN Ambassador Ron Prosor warned of the threat Hizbollah poses to Israel, following the most recent military confrontation in the Golan Heights. In a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and to the UN Security Council, Prosor wrote that Hizbollah was preparing for an open and violent confrontation with Israel and demanded that the international community stop ignoring the threat of Hizbollah attacks. Prosor wrote: 'Israel will not show restraint when attacked on its territory and will take the necessary steps to protect its citizens.' The ambassador also called on the Security Council to condemn the recent attack.
In related news, Syrian Defense Minister General Fahd al-Freij arrived in Iran on Tuesday for a rare two-day visit – the first such visit since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011 – and was reportedly told by his Iranian backers to attack Israel. Al-Freij was told by senior Iranian sources that Syria and Iran's terror proxy in Lebanon, Hizbollah, need to open a war front against Israel on the Golan Heights, according to Channel 10 News. Iran told the Syrian defense minister to stir up conflict against Israel on the Golan, with the Islamic Republic apparently unperturbed by the significant damage the move will cause to the Syrian regime.
In other news, The Jerusalem Post reports that the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate on Tuesday turned back an attempt to elevate any nuclear deal with Iran into a treaty that would have given momentum to lawmakers trying to pass a bill giving Congress a chance to review and possibly reject an agreement with Tehran. The amendment, filed by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, failed 39 to 57. Supporters want the bill passed free of controversial add-ons they claim could scuttle negotiations with Tehran, draw a presidential veto or leave lawmakers with no say on a national security threat.
As written, the legislation would block President Barack Obama from waiving congressional sanctions for at least 30 days while lawmakers weigh in on any final deal the U.S. and five other nations can reach with Iran. It would stipulate that if senators disapprove the deal, Obama would lose authority to waive certain economic penalties — an event that would certainly prompt a presidential veto.
The bill has gained tacit approval from Obama. He says he will sign it as written, but the White House warns that he will reconsider if the measure is substantially changed. Sen. Bob Corker, a leading sponsor of the bill and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the measure in its current form, has 67 backers, enough to override a presidential veto.
Finally, Israel Hayom reports that President Reuven Rivlin met yesterday with the U.S. ambassador in Israel, Dan Shapiro, and told him that Israel will do everything it can to thwart unilateral efforts to impose a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that any solution must be the result of negotiations.
THE WINDOW IS CLOSING: Writing in Yedioth Ahronoth, Aviad Kleinberg says that, if Israel wants to use the common fear of radical Islam to forge regional alliances, it must first resolve the Palestinian issue, since the moderate Arab countries will not cooperate with the Jewish state as long as it is still occupying Palestinian land.
"The State of Israel came into existence because the leaders of the Jewish entity in Mandatory Palestine were able to take advantage of a window of opportunity. After World War II, there was a moment when the Eastern bloc saw recognition of Israel as a way to goad one of the main Western powers – Great Britain – and to hasten the dismantling of the British Empire, which controlled many regions in which the Soviet Union had a vested interest. That was good for the Jews. The Soviet Union and its allies voted in favor of the establishment of a Jewish state on November 28, 1947. More importantly, the Soviets approved an arms deal with Czechoslovakia, which provided the nascent state with arms that the West refused to provide.
Shortly after this brief warming of relations, there was a cooling down. Although Israel was ruled at the time by the workers' party, it was unhesitatingly aligned with the West. In response, the Eastern bloc transferred its support to the Arab countries and became the main supplier of arms to some of Israel's major enemies – primarily Egypt. By then, however, Israel was already in existence. And the rest is history.
Today, Israel has a new window of opportunity. The attacks launched by radical Islam – Sunni and Shiite alike – against Western and pro-Western countries have created a new map of shared interests in the Middle East. Countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and some of the Gulf States view radical Islamic terrorists as the main threat to their regimes – not Israel. They justifiably view the Gaza Strip – which is under the control of Hamas – as a dangerous Islamist enclave and they treat it accordingly. The Egyptian regime's open hostility toward Hamas during Operation Protective Edge is proof of this.
In the past, Arab countries used the Palestinian issue to divert attention away from domestic problems and to win points from the international community. This is no longer the case. Israel is now a natural partner for pro-Western Arab regimes. They have no interest in undermining the stability of their own regimes, which could lead to their overthrow.
This does not mean that the so-called moderate Arab states can turn their backs on the Palestinians entirely. Official Arab recognition of Israeli annexation of the territories and the settlement enterprise would lead to a harsh reaction from their own people, who are naturally less concerned about realpolitik than their leaders. In order for Israel to become an official ally and be included in the regional strategic coalition, these countries need for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be resolved. The price Israel will have to pay in exchange is significantly lower than in the past. Our potential allies will be far more willing than ever before to exert pressure on the Palestinians to compromise. They would be willing to help Israel protect its valid security demands in a variety of ways. Islamist control of Palestine is just as bad for them as it is for us. This is a window of opportunity.
It should be in Israel's interests to find a solution. Inaction – Israel's de facto policy since the Oslo Accords – will turn the Jewish state into a binational state before too long. Separating between Israelis and Palestinians will become even harder – some would say impossible – the more settlers there are in the West Bank. In practice, Israel would have to choose between two equally bad options: the establishment of an officially non-egalitarian regime (that is, an official announcement that there are two classes of citizen in Israel: those with full civil rights and those with none) or granting full rights to a large and hostile Palestinian minority.
The former option will lead to Israel being ostracized by all of the democratic nations in the world. The latter option will kill off the Zionist enterprise. It will be a miracle if anyone can come up with a third way, which would allow Israel to continue ruling over the Palestinians while conducting an effective regional policy of cooperation with moderate Arab states.
I don't believe in miracles. Israel did not come into existence through miracles. It exists because its leaders had an impressive understanding of power blocs and because they took advantage of an opportunity when it presented itself. While we are preoccupied with Nepal, the coalition and the latest reality show, this window of opportunity is slowly closing."
BIBI'S BONUS: Writing in Israel Hayom, Yossi Beilin says that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is making a mistake by refusing to discuss with the United States what security-related benefits it needs in light of a nuclear agreement with Iran.
"Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is generally seen as the most vigorous opponent of the nuclear deal that the United States and Iran are currently negotiating. The ferocity of his opposition to the interim agreement and, thereafter, to the framework agreement that was reached in Lausanne, causes one to believe that he views even the fact of negotiations as a bitter mistake, since any negotiating process leads to concessions and any concession to Iran would allow it to maintain some of its current capabilities. At the time, Netanyahu did not believe that Iran would honor the interim agreement; he totally rejected the details of the agreement that were published and urged the world powers to find a better agreement, which – in all likelihood – Iran would reject.
There are those who agree with Netanyahu, who believe that the current regime of sanctions should be maintained or even intensified – despite the impatience of some countries to restore their relations with Iran. They believe in the importance of maintaining a credible military threat, which, they opine, could force the Islamic Republic to dismantle its entire nuclear program. I believe that the policy of the United States and of the Obama Administration is the right one, because there can be no better deal – in practical terms – than the one that the Americans are working on and that, if there is significant inspection of Iran's nuclear facilities, the threat of Tehran obtaining a nuclear weapon will be postponed for many years. Not even the military threat can do that.
But even if Netanyahu's arguments are correct and even if his opposition to Obama's policies justifies the personal confrontation with the American president, this cannot explain or justify the lack of immediate dialogue over the additional security elements that Israel would demand. The fact that Israel is refusing to even discuss, before the agreement is signed, the new security-related elements that the agreement with Iran would contain, will not prevent it being finalized. If the deal falls through, it will be for different reasons. It will, however, weaken Israel's position when the post-agreement dialogue with the United States begins.
Israel should do whatever it can to avoid being put in that uncomfortable position. Netanyahu is perfectly entitled to announce that his opposition to the framework agreement remains strong, that he will continue to push for a better agreement and that if there is no such better deal, he would prefer no deal at all. At the same time, he must start engaging in meaningful talks about the safeguards that Israel will demand if the agreement is violated by Iran.
The leaders of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States were invited to a summit meeting with Obama at Camp David, in order to hear his explanation of the deal that will likely be finalized by June 30 and to be told what security 'sweeteners' the United States is willing to give them in light of the new situation. None of them will emerge from this meeting as supporters of the deal; they will all tell Obama exactly why they oppose the deal, but they will gladly take whatever the United States has to offer them. There is no reason in the world for Israel not to do exactly the same thing."
COULD BE WORSE: Writing on the Walla! website, Amir Tibon comments on Israel's response to the UN report into the damage done to its Gaza facilities during Operation Protective Edge.
"Officials in Jerusalem are busy analyzing the United Nations report on the damage caused to its facilities in the Gaza Strip during last summer's Operation Protective Edge. They are doing so with the kind of statistical analysis that is usually reserved for major sporting events. Both sides – Israel and Hamas – were criticized by the report. Jerusalem was also praised for the way it cooperated with the report's authors. But the final outcome, the bottom line, is that Israel lost this particular battle by a slender margin or, at best, was tied. According to the report, Hamas used three UN facilities to either store its weapons or to fire rockets from. Israel, in contrast, hit seven UN facilities in Gaza, leading to the deaths of 44 Palestinian civilians.
Despite the condemnation contained in the report, the message coming out of Jerusalem is that it could have been much worse. When the investigating committee began its work, Israel tried to prevent it or to scale back significantly the mandate of the investigation. That effort failed and once it did, it was decided at the highest level to cooperate with the investigation, in the hope that this would prevent it from reaching biased or blatantly anti-Israeli conclusions.
Members of the committee, including retired officers from Western armies, met with senior IDF officers and officials from the Justice Ministry, who presented them with the findings of the IDF's internal probes into various incidents. Israel also allowed members of the committee to enter the Gaza Strip, knowing full well that they would be investigating the seven cases of Israel hitting UN buildings; they also hoped, however, that they would look at the incidents when Hamas used UN faculties for military purposes – a flagrant violation of international law.
The tough language that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon used when he spoke about Hamas' behavior certainly goes some way to sweeten the bitter pill it has been forced to swallow. Jerusalem insists, however, that the real test will be whether his unequivocal condemnation will force Hamas to refrain from similar behavior in the future.
The main lesson that Israel's political and military establishment learns from this report and from its relatively balanced conclusions is that Israel's decision to cooperate with members of the committee paid off. In response to publication of the report, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement, in which it said that, 'When asked to assist in a professional and unbiased inquiry, Israel responded in a collaborative, open and forthcoming manner.'
This was a clear reference to another UN report into the operation as whole, which was, until two months ago, headed by Canadian jurist William Schabas – whom Israel has accused of harboring a pro-Palestinian bias. 'Our decision to cooperate with this probe has proved itself,' a senior official involved in the issue told Walla!. 'The report contains some harsh criticism of Israel, but there is also praise for the way we gave the committee our full cooperation. In addition to criticizing Israel, the report also contains harsh criticism of Hamas.'
The Foreign Ministry’s response also highlighted the fact that the IDF has conducted its own probes into some of the incidents mentioned in the UN report and that, in general, Israel has conducted thorough investigations into its troops' behavior during Operation Protective Edge. These investigations were openly criticized by some Israeli politicians during the election campaign – most notably Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett – but many in the Israeli diplomatic community believe that the very fact that Israel investigated itself positively impacts on the country's international standing.
Similarly, there was satisfaction in Jerusalem with Ban's veiled criticism of the Palestinian Authority, when he said that, just as Israel investigated its own behavior during the operation, he would hope that the Palestinians would do the same. Ban drove this point home when he said that all those involved should conduct their own investigations in accordance with international standards.
Jerusalem believes that, given the praise Israel earned for some of its behavior during Operation Protective Edge, the Palestinians will continue to focus their diplomatic campaign against Israel not on the issue of the Gaza war, but on settlement construction."
RUNNING INTERFERENCE: In part of his weekly column for Yedioth Ahronoth, Eitan Haber comments on Israeli criticism of a veiled American threat to withdraw support for Israel in international forums if the new government does not change its position on the two-state solution.
"In the next few days, the name of U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman will be cursed and excoriated in the corridors of power in Jerusalem. In her impudence, Sherman hinted that the United States is not automatically in Israel's pocket and that, if the new government that Binyamin Netanyahu is due to establish in the coming week does not at least consider the possibility of implementing the two-state solution, the Obama Administration will have a difficult time continuing to assist its efforts to halt international initiatives on the Palestinian issue at the United Nations.
Some Israelis would argue that this is another example of blatant American interference in Israeli politics and that the Americans have absolutely no right to tell us what to do. I would respond to that by asking just what Netanyahu thought he was doing when he accepted an invitation to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress, which he used to roundly attack President Barack Obama's policy regarding the Iranian nuclear talks. Was that not a case of an Israeli leader blatantly interfering in American politics?"
SYRIAN SPILLOVER: Writing in Haaretz, Amos Harel says that, while it is tempting to see the security-related events in the last few days as connected, it seems that, this time, this is not the case.
"The series of incidents over the past few days on the northern border could be misleading. First, on Saturday morning, Arab media reported an attack on weapons stores at a Syrian military base near the border with Lebanon. The attack was attributed to Israel, which neither confirmed nor denied it. On Sunday evening the Israel Air Force killed four terrorists who were placing an explosive device in the Golan Heights, near the Israel-Syria border. A few hours later, on Monday, came the report of an attack on a Syrian camp near the Lebanese border. This time, too, the attack was attributed at first to Israel. The latter took the very unusual step of denying its involvement, and later it emerged that a Syrian opposition group was responsible for it. On Tuesday afternoon mortars fired from Syria landed in Israeli territory on the Golan, near the border town of Majdal Shams.
It is very tempting to see these events as a chain of action and reaction, but this time it does not conform to reality. Israel's opposition to the transfer of advanced weaponry from Syria to Hizbollah is known and according to foreign media this is not the first time the IAF has acted over it. But Hizbollah does not usually respond as quickly as the mere 36 hours between the bombardment of the Syrian base and the laying of the explosive device.
The squad who laid the explosives, all of whose four members were killed, appears to have been fairly amateurish. The connection of the four to the Assad camp is clear - two of the men killed were the sons of a Druze supporter of the Syrian regime who moved from Majdal Shams to Syria, and all four came from the area under the control of the Syrian government - but they could have also been dispatched by either Iran, Syria or Hizbollah.
Meanwhile the mortar that fell on Tuesday in the Golan turns out a case of exchanges of fire between Assad's army and the rebels on the Syrian side of the border, accidentally 'leaking' a few hundred meters into Israeli territory.
The bottom line is that this seems to be a chance accumulation of events, which does not signal unusual escalation, but merely illustrates how complex, dangerous and difficult the situation is to understand, not to mention to predict. Sometimes Israeli intelligence needs a few days to ascertain who is behind a certain incident and what their considerations were. The problem is that when so many elements are involved in the civil war in Syria, which sometimes slips into Lebanon, it is difficult to keep Israel entirely isolated from the implications of the fighting.
The more dramatic news in Syria is that in recent months, when it seemed that for the first time President Bashar Assad was stabilizing his position, his regime has been struck with failure after failure. After the defeat in the northern city of Idlib last month, the nearby, tactically significant town of Jisr al-Shughour fell on Saturday to insurgent forces; in southern Syria the regime, aided by Hizbollah, failed in its attempt to mount a major offensive. Damascus itself, from the airport right to the presidential palace, is ever more threatened by rebels and recent days have seen expanded fighting with more extreme elements, Islamic State and Nusra Front, in the area of Qalamoun, near the Lebanese border.
The Washington Post on Tuesday went so far as to say that the regime is facing the greatest danger to its existence in the past three years. According to the paper, additional escalation in the face of a weakening Assad might require the United States (which officially continues to criticize the Assad regime) to once again divert efforts against ISIS from Iraq to Syria.
Israeli security officials who were asked about this on Tuesday chose a more cautious approach. According to those officials, the continuous erosion of Assad’s power over the years has grown somewhat worse recently. However, they believe that Assad has already proven that he can survive despite all predictions. And so there is no reason to eulogize him now although his government is losing its grip on more areas of the country and effectively now rules only about a quarter of Syria."
DOWN BUT NOT OUT: Writing in The Jerusalem Post, Yonah Jeremy Bob says that Israel has reason to be relatively pleased by the United Nations report into the damage to its Gaza facilities during Operation Protective Edge, since there were no allegations of war crimes in it.
"Israel came out of its first major round of UN reports on alleged war crimes during the summer 2014 Gaza War bruised, but likely far better than might have been publicly expected. Of the seven IDF attack-incidents reviewed in UN Secretary General’s Ban Ki-Moon’s Board of Inquiry (BOI), three lead to multiple Palestinian deaths, in total killing 44 (as of now presumed civilians), while others led to injuring 277. While Ban condemned the deaths in the harshest language and laid responsibility for the incidents at Israel’s feet, the report did not accuse Israel of war crimes.
Part of that relates to the BOI’s function more as a fact-finding mechanism suggesting strategic lesson to be learned as opposed to offering legal conclusions. In contrast, the next UN round, the UN Human Rights Council report expected to be released on June 29, may have harsher legal conclusions, both because the UNHRC takes a harsher stance with Israel in general and because it is much more of a legal report.
But part of not mentioning war crimes was Ban’s respecting (so far) IDF investigations in rooting out any illegalities, with him repeatedly citing those investigations as the next step to keep an eye on. In the incident most likely to lead to indictments of IDF soldiers by the IDF prosecution, 12-14 died and 93 were injured. The IDF had already announced a criminal investigation of this incident in September 2014.
Still, the UN narrative recognizes that the IDF issued warnings and that 80-90% of civilians had in fact evacuated. If the IDF soldiers involved claim they thought the warnings had been heeded they might have a criminal defense, even if they might face disciplinary action for loose judgment.
Also, the IDF claimed that there was rocket fire emanating from areas around the school. Though the UN interviews of people in the area yielded the view that rockets were not fired from nearby, there is always a debate as to whether Palestinian civilians always see Hamas’ fighters, who move around fast, and even if they do, if they are intimidated into pretending they do not.
The UN implicitly admits this in another section of the report where it discusses three UNRWA facilities where Gaza fighters illegally kept weapons and two facilities where it essentially admitted fighters had used the facilities as stations to fire rockets. Discussing the hidden weapons, it admits that they were missed in UNRWA inspections and in each case the weapons were completely or partially removed without UNRWA noticing the removal until it was completed.
From the report, it appears that rocket attacks and hiding and removing weapons was likely accomplished at the UN facilities through a combination of what Ban himself called weak security and inspection procedures and from UNRWA hiring around 900 local Palestinian temp-security personnel. These personnel may have missed security breaches either because they were underpaid (which Ban criticizes) and did their duties poorly or because they were mass-hired fast without proper vetting and included Hamas sympathizers or double-agents.
If the IDF determines that firing at the rocket firers, including the school, was a military necessity and a military object, the soldiers again might have a criminal defense and might only face disciplinary proceedings. For the soldiers to be indicted and convicted, IDF prosecutors would need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the school was not a military object or that the attack blatantly failed the proportionality test regarding the expected risk to civilians. They would also need to prove that the soldiers fired on it or close to it despite excessive risk to civilians out of illegal considerations like anger or otherwise disregarding the law of armed conflict. If the IDF does not have a detailed explanation of why the attack was proportional, this, in the worst case, could be a fault-line where the UN could press for ICC intervention.
In another deadly incident, the IDF admitted the UN was hit, but said the UN was not the target. While the IDF is investigating, that means that the attack was likely a misfire. If so, the two likely scenarios have no consequences at all for the IDF soldiers involved if the misfire is viewed as solely technical or disciplinary actions if they violated or were sloppy about the rules of engagement and thereby contributed to the misfire.
The third incident is the least likely to have criminal charges though disciplinary charges are possible. It appears that the Palestinian civilian deaths in the UN facility were caused by an IDF missile attack on three Islamic Jihad members on motorcycle, with the impact on the Palestinians being caused by the power of the blast which hit the motorcycle close to the facility. The IDF told the UN that it would not have targeted the motorcycle at the moment it did had it realized that it would hit it so close to the UN facility, but by the time the missile was fired and the proximity was noticed, it was too late.
This is a known regular problem and fault-line in the law of armed conflict with striking moving targets. It is unlikely the IDF will find criminal charges and disciplinary charges would only be if the air force personnel involved were loose in considering the area where the motorcycle was moving.
The IDF had a variety of explanations for the other four incidents, but none of them involved Palestinian deaths so they are least likely to get ICC attention.
In all, for seven attacks on UN facilities leading to 44 Palestinian deaths and 277 injured, probably only one incident might lead to ICC intervention, and even that only if the ICC does not file indictments itself or fails to give a thorough explanation, puts Israel in much better shape than it might have expected as the fog of the Gaza war lifted in late August."
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