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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - June 18, 2012

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  • Israel State Comptroller report on the decision-making behind Israel's actions against the Gaza Flotilla?

  • Improvement in Israeli national security decision-making since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip?

  • Factors for Israeli strategic thinking regarding Gaza in the near future?

  • Egypt and the presidential election runoff -- does this end the revolution?


Q. Last week the Israel State Comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, issued his report on the decision-making behind Israel's actions in the boarding at sea two years ago of the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship attempting to break the Israeli siege of Gaza. Are there any revelations here we haven't encountered from past foul-ups and their subsequent investigations?

A. Very few. Like previous reports by commissions of national inquiry on the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1982 Sabra-Shatila massacre, the 1995 Rabin assassination, and the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the comptroller lays out the by-now familiar faults of the Israeli national security decision-making system. The leadership thinks it is omniscient and fails to use the balanced intelligence and consultation system it has created. It underestimates what appear in retrospect to have been obvious threats. It fails to integrate tactical military issues (in this case, how to stop the Turkish ship) with strategic issues of diplomacy and public diplomacy (Israel-Turkey relations and the Turkish demand to end the Gaza siege; explaining Israel's actions at sea convincingly to the world).

As always, it is of course fair to note that, in focusing on a failure, the comptroller is ignoring hundreds of instances in which the same system worked well. In most of them, the public probably had no inkling that the national security apparatus had been invoked. Moreover, the National Security Council has, in the past year, been upgraded and better integrated into decision-making under Major General (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, who is a far less contentious figure than his predecessor, Uzi Arad.

All these factors impelled Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is singled out by Lindenstrauss as bearing principal blame for the Mavi Marmari fiasco, to reassure the public that its security in fact had "never been better". Lindenstrauss did not have to tell the Israeli public that, as with past security fiascos like the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the political leader saddled by the investigation with responsibility would go to any lengths to avoid accepting blame and "drawing conclusions". But the comptroller, presumably anticipating Netanyahu's response, stated very pointedly that he "sees the Turkish flotilla as an allegory, from which there is much to be learned about the process and method of making decisions in other, future instances, and not necessarily the next flotilla".

Lindenstrauss is undoubtedly referring to Iran, and to the unprecedented wave of criticism voiced in recent months by retired and serving leaders of the security community regarding the leadership and decision-making capacity displayed by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak as they contemplate the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear program.

It is also important to note that, in concentrating on the specifics of the Mavi Marmara interception (the "file" he was entrusted with), the comptroller did not probe the strategic nature of the rationale for the Turkish ship's voyage: breaking the Israeli siege of Gaza. It is fair to speculate that even without the Gaza issue, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would have found cause to downgrade Turkey's relations with Israel. But it is also striking to note the centrality of the territorially miniscule Gaza "time bomb" in so many aspects of Israel's security in recent years.

Q. If the Gaza Strip is a central strategic issue even in the Turkish context, what has improved in relevant Israeli national security decision-making in the five years since Hamas took over the Strip?

A. Again, next to nothing. We can only conclude that, after five years of siege, war (Cast Lead, 2008-9), first Iranian and now Sunni jihadi penetration, a hostage crisis (Gilad Shalit), problematic Turkish intervention (the Mavi Marmara), and varieties of Egyptian mediation and intervention, the government of Israel still has no coherent strategy for dealing with Hamas in Gaza.

The economic siege by Israel was relaxed two years ago in response to the Mavi Marmara incident, but it still exists. It failed to bring about the release of Shalit and it has failed to topple the Hamas leadership, which remains firmly in place. Its only success is in making the Gazan population suffer. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territory, one-third of Gaza's workforce is unemployed, 80 percent are aid recipients, there are severe fuel and electricity shortages, tons of sewage are dumped untreated into the sea and per capita income has declined by nearly 17 percent since 2005. The siege has had the net effect of enriching Hamas smugglers and impoverishing the very Gazan farmers and industrialists who used to constitute a key lobby in favor of coexistence with Israel.

Some of these distressing figures must be blamed directly on Hamas and its hostility toward Israel. Others on Egypt, which for more than a year has kept the Rafah crossing open without significantly impacting Gaza's economy. Some of Israel's restrictions, particularly on land use and Mediterranean fishing, are undoubtedly legitimate in view of Hamas' ongoing belligerency. But it is difficult to find a strategic rationale of any sort for ongoing restrictions on the import (primarily from Israel) and export (primarily to the West Bank) of single-use civilian goods, foodstuffs and the like.

Nor is any other strategy evident. Israel will not reoccupy the Strip for fear of being stuck with clear international responsibility for the welfare of 1.5 million Gazans and with having to fight Hamas and more extreme jihadists inside the Strip endlessly, while suffering hundreds of casualties during the re-conquest. The PLO will not then agree to resume responsibility for Gaza as a "gift" from the IDF lest it be severely compromised in Arab eyes. And with the rise of political Islam in Egypt, Israel can no longer even assume that Cairo will look the other way in the event of any new IDF operation in Gaza, even a repeat of "Cast Lead" that falls short of reoccupation.

Talk to Hamas? First and foremost, Hamas refuses. Beyond that, Israel has entrapped itself in the Quartet's pre-conditions, which Hamas will never accept. Then too, Israelis who are seriously interested in a two-state solution fear lest Israeli dialogue with Hamas alienate and compromise the West Bank-based PLO, which is still Israel's designated peace partner.

Q. Yet the situation is changing rapidly. What are the factors to keep in mind in looking at Israeli strategic thinking regarding Gaza in the near future?

A. Two related factors could conceivably affect this strategic vacuum in Israel's thinking. One is the electoral and constitutional outcome in Egypt, which just faced a presidential election against the backdrop of a dissolved parliament and renewed martial law. Ongoing uncertainty in Cairo can only mean more anarchy in Sinai and greater potential for military escalation in the Negev-Sinai-Gaza complex. The same assessment can be made for the prospect of electoral gains in Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas' parent organization.

Either or both of these assessments apparently explain the Grad rockets fired late last week from Sinai into the central and southern Negev: based apparently on hard intelligence, the IDF claims that Hamas, Sinai jihadi Bedouin and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood were behind the attacks, which presumably were timed to affect the Egyptian presidential runoff. Early Monday morning, infiltrators from Sinai attacked an Israeli construction team on the Sinai-Negev border-fence sight.

In contrast, the potential strengthening of the "old guard" military in Egypt, whether through the elections or an assertion of authority by the current military leadership in Cairo, could embolden Israel and weaken Hamas. Meanwhile, the Egyptian military cannot even bring itself to acknowledge that rockets are being fired at Israel from sovereign Egyptian territory, though it has begun carrying out dozens of arrests in Sinai.

The second factor is the possibility of Fateh-Hamas reconciliation, meaning at least in theory the emergence of a unified Palestinian political leadership and security authority in both the West Bank and Gaza. The two movements recently renewed their reconciliation negotiations and have registered some progress, including the updating of voter lists in the Strip--a key step prior to holding Palestinian national elections. PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas knows that at least the perception of unified rule by the PLO is critical to any attempt to renew his quest for United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state.

If indeed a joint Palestinian government is formed and the countdown to Palestinian elections begins, calculations regarding Israel on the part of both Hamas (enhanced ceasefire?) and the PLO (suspension of contacts with Israel? freezing of security cooperation?) could change. The only thing not likely to change is Israel's inability to come to grips strategically with Hamas in Gaza. That lacuna merits a separate commission of inquiry or comptroller's report.

Q. This brings us to Egypt and the presidential election runoff Saturday and Sunday. Does this end the revolution?

A. Hardly. As noted, the parliament has just been dissolved and military rule restored. There is still no constitution and there now appear to be two opposing commissions charged with writing one. With the outcome of the runoff yet to be officially declared but the Muslim Brotherhood candidate reportedly leading, Egypt appears set to witness a confrontation between a "soft" military coup and an elected Islamist president whose authority remains, at best, undefined. As noted repeatedly in the course of the past year and a half, this Arab revolution is ongoing and unpredictable.

More about this next week when, hopefully, the smoke has at least temporarily cleared.