It should not come as a surprise that after experiencing a new stalemate in solving the Iranian nuclear crisis, „intelligence sources” leaked that Israel would not warn the US before attempting to destroy Iran’s unchecked and secret nuclear facilities. The real question is what would be the result of such a pre-emptive attack and if it is a viable threat or just a bluff?
Many unexpected events happened this year in the Greater Middle East region, but an agreement between Hamas and Israel was maybe the least probable one. Now that Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped five years ago by Palestinian militants, is free in exchange for more than a thousand convicted Palestinians, we have to analyze what factors were needed for this policy change and what does Hamas’s new approach to Israel mean to the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Since day one of the imprisonment of Gilad Shalit, who was 19 years old when he was kidnapped, there was great pressure on the Israeli government to bring the soldier back home. The parents, the Israeli society, but also the Jewish and Zionist communities outside Israel lobbied for his release. Also international actors tried to persuade Hamas to set Gilad free, or at least to give him the basic rights of a prisoner of war, which he was refused, like letting the Red Cross supervise his imprisonment. At least four factors had to change to make this deal possible and shift the Israeli-Hamas relations into a new direction. I will examine these factors in the following paragraphs.
Regarding the Israeli government’s willingness to accept a rather high price for only one soldier, we have to understand the effect of the summer protests in Israel. During a wave of mass demonstrations a large part of the Israeli society showed their fury against the rising prices of accommodation, food, childcare etc. and that the gap between rich and poor in one of the world’s most developed country is reaching a dangerous level. The Netanyahu government had to calm down the public rage by freeing Gilad. Israel’s military and social spirit depends on the idea of not letting even one soldier behind. With a system of general conscription, the leadership’s negligence would seriously damage the morale of the armed forces and also of the “home front” – meaning parents and partners of the soldiers. Although most Israelis think that the price Israel paid for Gilad’s freedom was too high, there are only few voices saying that the deal was a mistake, since this claim would go against the core values of the Israeli society.
The second reason why Israel gave in to Hamas’s demands follows the logic that since the Palestinian Authority is not willing to continue the peace process by negotiation and pursues a unilateral strategy of declaring a state in the UN, Israel empowered Hamas by making it the “savior” of the Palestinian prisoners convicted for acts of aggression in Israel. This move has meant to be a punishment for Abbas for not cooperating with Israel and it worked since Hamas’s popularity is on the rise even in the West Bank since the deal. Not everyone is happy about this result, mainly the highly influential security establishment (meaning high ranking officials of the Israel Defense Forces and Ehud Barak Minister of Defense), since they are interested in a strong PA in the West Bank because this is the key to the stability in the territories. This is why there is currently a battle on the Israeli political scene over the necessary gestures Israel should show towards Fatah in order to rebuild its shaken influence in the West Bank. Apparently, the army supports a greater extent of help for Abbas, while Netanyahu and Israeli FM Lieberman are more interested in the punishment and less concerned about Abbas stepping down in return – which would lead to chaos in the PA leadership.
On the other hand, the Israeli willingness would meant nothing without Hamas’s eagerness to strike a deal with Israel. Here it is important to note that the breakthrough happened a result of great effort of the Egyptian intelligence establishment which is interested in a moderate Hamas on its borders. We have to understand this new mutual interest between Hamas and Egypt. Hamas had a great dilemma during this summer when other even more radical militant groups from Gaza started rocket attacks against Israel’s southern cities. Hamas had the option to escalate the conflict (which it did by joining the attacks for a while) or to suppress the other groups and therefore in a way take Israel’s side. Hamas choose the later alternative; it got into a ceasefire agreement with Israel, for which it had to take the punishment from its former mentor Iran, which greatly reduced its support to its former ally. Hamas had to find another great patron and at the same time ease the Israeli security inspection rules in the Gaza Strip, which would pave the way to a better economy in the area with Hamas needing less support from outside to maintain its rule. In addition, Hamas was interested in portraying itself as the one who can get results from Israel in opposition to Fatah, which is currently loosing the diplomatic battle in the UN and all great powers try to push them back to direct negotiations with Israel.
Egypt was quickly willing to step in and spend a great amount of energy to reach a deal between Israel and Hamas. A few months ago, the new Egyptian military junta experienced the chaos that Islamist and mostly Bedouin criminal groups could stir up in the region, when it had to start an armed campaign in the Sinai to take back the control over the peninsula. All signs showed that the tunnels used for smuggling between Gaza and Egyptian territories are the main channel, where trained militants can get into Sinai from their bases in Hamas ruled Gaza. In addition, the Egyptian leadership watches closely the struggle between Iran and Turkey for the heart and resources of the Arab countries. Emerging from the “Arab Spring” Egypt must oppose this invasion of non-Arab forces. Thus it is now embracing Hamas after Iran maybe unintentionally gave an opportunity for Egypt to extend its sphere of influence and to stabilize the Sinai Peninsula. The important question is how far would Egypt go to counter the Iranian and Turkish incursion into Arab territories, since currently Syria and Iraq are turning into real battlegrounds and Saudi Arabia is too weak to fight off the two rising powers of the Middle East.
Currently we have a situation when we can clearly see an emerging race for dominance in the Middle East between three sides — Iran, Turkey, and the shaky “Arab coalition” led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia; with the Jewish state caught in the middle. Israel has its own dilemma when it has to deal with the moderate Fatah and the radical Hamas. The Gilad Shalit deal showed these lines of conflict between the actors of the region in a new light and therefore the story of one kidnapped soldier has turned into a milestone in the Middle Eastern power struggle.
Instability is on the rise in the Middle East with civil wars and extensive waves of protests in the Arab countries. Due to the failed peace process with the Palestinians and their aspiration to unilaterally declare their state, Israel is facing an era of limited security, which could become a trigger of increased violence in the region. In this article, I will argue that an Israel, which feels secure and strong, is the cornerstone of the region’s stability.
The summer is quickly passing and the Israeli leadership seems to be paralyzed by the prospect of the Palestinian bid to the United Nations General Assembly to declare their independent state. We can be sure that the majority of the member states will vote in favour of an independent Palestine within the ceasefire lines of Israel’s Independence War (commonly, but mistakenly known as 1967 borders). The question is not the quantity, but the quality of the votes in favour, let us remember that at the end of the Cold War, the Palestinians already declared their state with the backing of the Eastern Bloc and frankly, nothing has changed because of this. Today the problem is not with the coming into being of a Palestinian state, but the exact borders to which Israel would have to withdraw. The three main issues here are the Jordan Valley, the Jewish settlements and the sovereignty of the Palestinian state in security matters. In this article, I will only discuss the first issue as to demonstrate the necessity of a secure Jewish state.
The Jordan Valley is a key geographical item, which protects Israel from any armed threat from the East, and from any infiltration attempt from Jordan. Israel, especially the middle part of the country, lacks any real manoeuvring space for its armed forces, therefore the Israeli military doctrine is based on first stopping the enemy at the borders and then going into counteroffensive and moving the fight to the enemy territory. The Jordan Valley has only a few parts where an invading army could advance through it and even a limited Israeli armed presence could halt the attack until the reinforcements arrive, therefore Israel cannot be surprised. According to the Palestinians, the Israeli military would be expelled from the valley and generally, Israel would have indefensible borders, it would be incapable of protecting its largest cities on the coastline.
For understanding Israeli political and military thinking, we have to understand two key elements of the Israeli/Jewish mindset: the Holocaust and the experience of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. After the Holocaust, and the exterminated 6 million Jews, the Israeli/Jewish way of thinking has incorporated the idea of “Never again”, which means that the Jews have to be capable of defending themselves against any threat, by having a country with strong conventional armed forces, a phenomenon lacking for almost 2000 years. The greatest shock after the Holocaust came in 1973, when Israel was on the brink of destruction because of the surprise invasion of Egypt and Syria. A nation, which has pledged “Never again”, has saw that it almost happened again.
By recognizing this way of thinking, it is important to realise that an insecure Israel will react strongly to any threat against their existence, because Israeli leaders will not give another chance to anyone like they did in 1973. We saw many examples to this rule when the Palestine Liberation Organization used Jordan as a base for their attacks against the Jewish state and the Israeli retaliation made the Jordanian king violently expel in 1970 the PLO (commonly known as the Black September). We saw many times in Lebanon that the meddling of terrorist organisations (formerly PLO, later Hezbollah) against Israel put the Lebanese civilians between a rock and a hard place. When Israel feels secure, it can resort to diplomatic efforts and react in a calm way. But when the Israeli politicians and military leaders perceive that their country is facing an immediate and serious threat (like constant rocket fire from Gaza or Lebanon), their actions will target the source of the threat which usually comes from neighbouring countries and in the end you get a proper war. If Israel would have indefensible borders it would provoke its enemies to use this window of opportunity to cause as much harm as they can, and as a result the Jewish state could be drawn into limited or a regional war, with devastating effect on every country in the neighbourhood.
By giving in to the Palestinian demands and recognising their state without going through the difficult negotiations with Israel, the international community is putting the Jewish state into an unsecure position, which can only lead to more instability in the region. While the Palestinian state is in everyone’s interest (even for Israel because of the demographic trends), it is important that this new state will not present additional threat for Israel. Having Hamas, a terrorist organisation in the Palestinian government is one of the main issues why it is too soon to acknowledge the independent Palestine, and Israel has to be left with secure borders and means to protect itself. The 104 members of the European Parliament who wrote to Catherine Ashton, EU’s foreign relations chief not to accept the unilateral move, which would destroy any chance of the Israeli-Palestinian peace, are a fine example of European decision makers already seeing the great harm which the Palestinian bid at the UN would cause in September.