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Israel: the winner that didn't lose

Meron Rapoport

August 27, 2014

The number 50 has a special meaning in Jewish tradition. In Biblical times, the 50th year in the calendar, is a year in which all debts are written off and all the slaves are freed.

The word Jubilee derives from Yovel, the Hebrew word for this year of celebration and freedom. The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas broke exactly 50 days after the fighting began. But contrary to the popular celebrations in Gaza, no one in Israel chanted in the streets. Even Netanyahu himself refrained from appearing in public, nor did he bother asking for his ministers' consent. From the Israeli side, the war on Gaza ended not with a bang but a whimper.

This may seem strange, because at least formally Israel prevented Hamas from realising most of its demands. There will be no seaport or airport at the time, nor will we see the prisoner release Hamas asked for.

The crossings between Israel and Gaza will be opened in order to allow for aids for the reconstruction of Gaza to come in, but it is much too early to say that the siege is over.

The widening of the fishing zone from three to six nautical miles cannot be considered a major achievement. All those issues, along with the Israeli demand for the demilitarisation of Gaza, will be negotiated only a month from now in Cairo.

No less important: the discussions will be held under Egyptian guidance, without interference from Qatar and Turkey.

Israel may also be correct in claiming that the airstrikes, which lead to the tearing down of several towers in Gaza in the last few days, put pressure on Hamas to accept ceasefire terms it rejected before.

Israel is certainly correct in saying that its military campaign delivered unprecedented damage on Gaza. More than 2,100 people were killed, most of them civilians but at least a few hundreds of them have been militia fighters - among them prominent commanders in Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Thousands of homes have also been destroyed or badly damaged and there are now some 400,000 internally displaced Gazans. The reconstruction of strip will take years and there is no way that Hamas will be able to manage it alone.

So why is Israel so sour about this ceasefire agreement?

Well, first of all, the ceasefire finds Israel very much exhausted. Fifty days of fighting were much more than anyone in Israel imagined when embarking on this military campaign.

It lost 64 soldiers in battles against relatively poorly equipped Palestinian militia, without accomplishing any major military achievement except blowing up of tunnels which Hamas might start re-digging the very next day. Worse, in its report to the government, the mighty Israeli army has practically admitted it is not able or does not have the will to occupy the Gaza Strip. For the army itself, and for the Israeli public which counts on it, this is a bitter truth.

On the civilian front, Israel have also come out very weary from this conflict. It is true that the Iron Dome system blocked most of the rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad into Israel's main cities, but the rockets also kept falling till the very last minute. They badly disrupted the lives of at least one million Israelis in southern and forced thousands to flee their homes in kibbutzim and villages bordering with Gaza. When Hezbollah, a much stronger and equipped militia, kept firing rockets after a month of fighting in 2006, it shook Israelis' self-confidence. Very few imagined that Hamas would able to do the same for nearly two months, shutting down Israel's main airport for a few days in between.

But the Israeli malaise is even deeper. As a Palestinian commentator told me last night: when the mukawama (resistance) does not lose, it wins; when Israel does not win it loses.

The whole Israeli strategy, based on a policy of disproportionate response in order to deter the opposing guerrillas Hezbollah or Hamas and pushing the population to pressure them to stop fighting, has not given the expected results, and has possibly failed altogether.

It is no wonder then that Netanyahu did not even dare to put the ceasefire to vote in the Israeli cabinet. There was a fair chance that his right-wing opposition, led by Naftaly Benet and Avigdor Lieberman, would have failed this resolution.

Instead, Netanyahu found some technical procedure allowing him to pass this extremely important decision without a vote. Netanyahu approval rates have already gone down from 85 percent at the beginning of the campaign to 35 percent shortly before the ceasefire agreement. It is unlikely that he will recuperate this lost ground, given the overall disenchantment from the meagre outcomes of the war and the promises to "wipe out" Hamas.

Netanyahu is certainly facing some hard days on the political front. The common wisdom among political circles is that Israel may now hold elections at the beginning of next year, maybe even earlier. But the coming negotiations in Cairo threaten to make things even more difficult for Netanyahu.

During Operation Defensive Edge, Sisi's Egypt proved to be a very effective ally for Israel and the two worked together well to isolate Hamas. Yet it is quite probable that Egypt will now charge a price for its services. At the very least, Egypt might force Israel to agree to a substantial lifting of the siege on Gaza, or maybe demand that Gaza and the West Bank be reconnected after long years of deliberate Israeli separation policy.

At the very least, Egypt will certainly demand that Israel strengthen the Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and his reconciliation government. Egypt, with the help the European countries like Britain and France and maybe the United Stated, may even push for a UN Security Council decision, calling for the resuming of the peace negotiations on the basis of the 1967 borders.

Netanyahu will find it hard to swallow these bitter pills prescribes by his newly found Egyptian friends. First of all, because they stand against his personal beliefs. Netanyahu does not want a strong Abu Mazen, does not want a united Palestinian party and he has fought his life to crush the idea of an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.

Yet, even if Netanyahu will try to move in this direction in an effort to comply with the new international map regarding Israel, his right-wing partners will not let him go very far. So Israel may soon find that even without losing militarily, it might suffer heavy political losses. All in all, a good reason for a gloomy atmosphere.

- Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for a inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the News Department in Haaertz, and now an independent journalist.


:: Article nr. 109416 sent on 19-sep-2014 01:09 ECT


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