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December 15, 2008 - Vol. 10, Issue 16

TRUCE FUTURES; LIKUD SLIPS, LABOR RISES; LIKUD OUTFLANKS BIBI; SETTLERS IN CRISIS;
TRUCE FUTURES: Is Hamas playing "hard to get" or will the ceasefire that provided a measure of calm to southern Israel and the Gaza Strip over the past six months soon come to an end? That is the question raised by exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal's declaration yesterday that "there will be no renewal of the truce after it expires."

Meshal's statement was released as Israeli Defense Ministry negotiator General Amos Gilad was visiting Cairo to consult with Egyptian Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman about the continuation of the truce. The unwritten agreement between Israel and Hamas, brokered six months ago by Suleiman, is interpreted by many to expire this week.

Despite the Meshal quote, Hamas figures have been suggesting that there is wiggle room in their position. Gazan Hamas leader Ayman Taha told reporters that Meshal's comments did not obligate the organization. Hamas-appointed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh also refused to commit to an end of the truce in his comments yesterday. Haaretz reporters Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff note that, by evening, "Meshal announced in interviews from Damascus that the calm had indeed ended but immediately hedged: Hamas would respond to Israeli action (that is, it would not be the one to break the cease-fire)."

Israeli defense officials reportedly believe that the contradictory statements reflect a genuine disagreement in Hamas as well as an internal leadership struggle: Meshal and the leadership of the military wing in Gaza want to end the ceasefire; Haniyeh and the political wing in Gaza disagree.

Speculation in the Israeli press last week had suggested that Hamas would seek to extend the ceasefire, though with some modifications. For example, Alex Fishman wrote in Friday's Yedioth Ahronoth that "reports from Gaza indicate that Hamas - without declaring so officially - has decided to continue the tahdia [calm]. However, it intends, in coordination with the other organizations [in Gaza who fire upon Israel], to raise the 'price tag' that it will exact from Israel for every IDF action beyond the border fence inside the Gaza strip." The escalation in the number of rockets fired at Israel in recent weeks is seen in Israel as part of Hamas' negotiating tactic.

Israel would like to see a return to the truce, but is expressing a refusal to accept the current rate of fire. Harel and Issacharoff reported yesterday that "Defense ministry officials told Haaretz that Israel has made it clear to Hamas, via Egypt, that it would not agree to a continuation of the current situation and that it requires a return to a full ceasefire."

Making the case for the truce, Haaretz editorialized on Tuesday that "it is impossible to ignore the fact that for more than four months, the calm was preserved, proving that Hamas is capable of maintaining almost complete quiet and granting residents of the western Negev, and especially Sderot, a bit of the peace and normalcy that they so badly needed."



Israel, however, is hedging its bets. Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the military Thursday to prepare for the possibility that the truce would collapse. General Yoav Galant, head of the IDF's Southern Command, raised the level of alert the same day. An Israeli security official told Ynet that the IDF had presented a Cabinet committee Wednesday with a series of action plans intended to stop rocket and mortar shell fire from Gaza. "The IDF will execute any operation the political echelon orders," the official said. (Israel Radio, 12/14/08; Ynet, 12/11 &12/14/08; Haaretz, 12/9, 12/14 &12/15/08; Yedioth Ahronoth, 12/12/08; Jerusalem Post, 12/11/08; Ma'ariv, 12/15/08)

TRUCE FUTURES, PART II: In the absence of an agreement to renew the Israel-Hamas ceasefire, some Israelis believe that the situation along the Israel-Gaza border will soon resemble the situation that prevailed along the Israel-Lebanon border until the outbreak of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.

Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff write in Sunday's Haaretz that Hamas is likely to refrain from officially acknowledging any ceasefire starting next week.  "At the same time," they write "Hamas will continue to fire a relatively small number of rockets and will not prevent other organizations [in Gaza who fire upon Israel] from doing the same. The IDF believes that Hamas will focus most of its efforts on the 'perimeter' - the 500-meter strip of land on the Gazan side of the border fence. The organization's goal is to have Israel become accustomed to Hamas' presence in this area, while also making the IDF pay a price for any attempt to attack militants inside this buffer zone by firing large numbers of rockets and mortars."

"The system works thus," explain Harel and Issacharoff: "The organization establishes a permanent presence along the perimeter fence, including snipers, roadside bombs and mortars. Israel, for its part, will refrain from any offensive or preventative measure (such as dismantling bombs) in Palestinian territory for fear of becoming embroiled in a bloody conflict. (Haaretz, 12/14/08)

LIKUD SLIPS, LABOR RISES: Thursday's Ma'ariv published a poll indicating that Likud's electoral prospects are slipping, while Labor's are recovering. A poll published Wednesday in Yedioth Ahronoth showed a similar trend, with a one-seat drop for Likud and a three-seat gain for Labor.

The Ma'ariv poll results - representing the number of seats "won" in the next primary - were as follows, with the number in parenthesis being the result of a Ma'ariv poll from December 1st:

Likud - 31 (33), Kadima - 28 (29), Labor - 12 (10), Yisrael Beiteinu - 11 (10), Arab parties - 10 (10), Shas - 9 (8), Jewish Home - 6 (6), Meretz - 5 (7), United Torah Judaism - 5 (5), Green Party - 3 (2).

The Ma'ariv poll shows right-wing and left-wing parties in a dead heat, with 48 seats in each camp. The ultra-Orthodox parties get 14 seats and the Arab parties receive 10 mandates.

Another survey released by Israeli Radio Wednesday shows that 14.4% of Israelis are still undecided. This is a sharp decline from the 28% undecided the same survey found three weeks ago. (Ma'ariv, 12/11/08; Yedioth Ahronoth, 12/10/08; Israel Radio, 11/20 & 12/10/08)

LIKUD OUTFLANKS BIBI: "A terror attack. This was the word used by [Benjamin] Netanyahu's associates to describe the Likud's primary results [which resulted in a Knesset slate dominated by extremists]," writes columnist Ben Caspit in Friday's Ma'ariv. "The remaining question is what brand of terror attack? A quality one or just a shooting? Did Netanyahu get a small bump in the shoulder or a great blow to the face?"

Likud's primary election last week resulted in a Knesset slate that is radically different from the moderate image Netanyahu was peddling to the Israeli public. Of the ten candidates that Netanyahu had touted as the new faces of the party, only the two who are considered hardliners - former Knesset Member Benny Begin and retired General Moshe Ya'alon - made the top ten. More moderate new faces, like former security chiefs Assaf Hefetz and Uzi Dayan, were pushed so far down the list as to make their presence in the Knesset very unlikely.

The Likud list includes Knesset Members who previously sought to undermine the policies of Prime Minister, and then-Likud leader, Ariel Sharon, earning the term "rebels." Some of these "rebels" also undermined Netanyahu's policies during his term as prime minister in the mid-1990s.

"Netanyahu's dream team became his nightmare. The stars are out and the rebels are in," remarked Knesset Member Tzahi Hanegbi, a long-time Likud leader who defected to the Kadima party three years ago.

It may be too early to tell the electoral impact of the primary results. Likud's drop in the polls published since the primary - of one to two seats - is less than some had expected. Polls commissioned by party leader Benjamin Netanyahu prior to the primary reportedly indicated that Likud would lose close as many as 5 seats, should extremist leader Moshe Feiglin make the list. Although he was initially announced as number 20 on the Likud list, a Netanyahu associate successfully sought a rule change that bumped Feiglin to number 36. That move was seen as an effort by Netanyahu to downplay the impact of the extremists on the party.

"Netanyahu made this bed and now he'll have to lie in it," notes Ma'ariv's Caspit. "He will be surrounded by rebels, hard line ideologues, the kind who will give him no breaks and will set fire to any path he takes towards negotiations. There are between 12 and 14 such people dispersed between the 1st and 35th slots (the realistic estimate thus far). This is more than a third of the faction. In this state of things, Netanyahu will have to veer left or crash."(Ma'ariv, 12/12/08; Haaretz, 12/10/08)

LIKUD OUTFLANKS BIBI, PART II: "Likud's list for the Knesset is not in line with the image of the moderate statesman that [Benjamin] Netanyahu is trying to create" noted the Haaretz editorial on Wednesday. "Whether Netanyahu was aiming at the same objective, or whether the party has deviated to the right more than he would have wished, the result is in no way ambiguous. Most of the leading candidates built their reputations on support for the settlement enterprise, opposition to any concessions toward the Palestinians and protests against the attempt to renew negotiations with Syria."

"Netanyahu devoted a great deal of effort to isolating Moshe Feiglin," the editorial continues, "and presenting him as a member of the lunatic fringe that is not part and parcel of the party. But Feiglin, who gained a respectable place on the list (20th), is surrounded by colleagues whose political vision is no different from his. Above him on the list are veteran politicians such as Reuven Rivlin (4th place) and Benny Begin (5th), who vehemently attacked Netanyahu when he signed the Hebron agreement and the Wye River Accords with Yasser Arafat. A short distance behind them in the 8th slot is Moshe Ya'alon, who uses his prestige as a former chief of staff to dash any hope of ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. Dan Meridor, who in the past few years adopted moderate positions, was forced to make do with the 17th spot. The third group of 10, which according to opinion polls has a realistic chance of being elected to the Knesset, is filled with figures from Likud's hawkish wing." (Haaretz, 12/10/08)

SETTLERS IN CRISIS: Recent violence by militant settlers is causing alarm among the settlers' elected leadership. The "Yesha Council," which brings together West Bank settlement mayors and heads of local councils, last week published a scathing article criticizing those who "choose to struggle immorally" and by doing so "cause severe damage to the entire settlement [movement] and constitute a real threat to the future of the settlement enterprise." The article, posted prominently on the Hebrew-language homepage of the Council, called for the development of "clear rules" for non-violent struggle against government attempts to curtail the settlement project.  

In the midst of an extensive public relations campaign to appeal to secular Israeli Jews, under the headline "Judea and Samaria - the story of every Jew," the Yesha Council suffered a major setback earlier this month when footage of settlers attacking Israeli soldiers and innocent Palestinian civilians was aired on Israeli television channels.

"In order for a struggle to succeed and be significant, we must create as broad as possible a foundation and a common denominator that supports it, thus allowing as large a public as possible to join it and take part in it. Violent actions push aside many people - a large public loyal to the Land of Israel and supportive of the settlement enterprise," the Yesha Council article says. "Whoever thinks he can defeat the State of Israel by force is wrong. Whoever thinks that things would be better if the citizens of Israel fear the settler community, is a desperate person, in despair of the people of Israel, the leadership of the state and its institutions. This is a faithless, aimless and non-feasible struggle, which contradicts the very survival of the settlement enterprise."

"To our chagrin, because of rampages and forbidden acts, we are losing people from across the political spectrum, who could have supported our just and moral struggle," the article bemoans.

One commentator who the settlers seem to have lost during the Hebron rampage earlier this month is Ben-Dror Yemini, the opinion editor of the daily Ma'ariv. Yemini was in Hebron on December 4th and was horrified by the way the militant settlers treated Israeli soldiers and police officers and Palestinian civilians. Yemini published a harsh, critical commentary the next day and was swamped by letters from shocked settlers. Last week, in a subsequent article, Yemini stood his ground. "I am not remorseful. Because I have not a modicum of empathy for those who throw acid at IDF soldiers. I have no empathy for those who views the state of Israel as an enemy state," wrote Yemini. "I have no empathy for those who commit pogroms against Muslims or for those who adopt the modus-operandi of neo-Nazis in Europe. Not a drop of empathy." (Yesha Council 12/12/08; Ma'arivNRG, 12/13/08)