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Binyamin Netanyahu

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Gaza: Another Pre-Election War?

19 November 2012

Gaza: Another Pre-Election War?

By Gwynne Dyer

Let’s be fair: there does seem to be some sort of pattern here, but it is not very consistent. Five times in Israel since 1980 a right-wing government has called an election WITHOUT launching a complementary military operation. The right lost two of those elections outright (1992, 1999), more or less tied two others (1984, 1988), and won only one of them decisively (2006).

On the other hand, critics of Israel point out, three times since 1980 right-wing Israeli governments have combined an election campaign with a major military operation against some Arab or Palestinian target. And this combination, it has been argued, yields decisive electoral success for the right.

Menachem Begin’s government won the 1981 election three weeks after carrying out a dramatic attack on the Osirak research nuclear reactor that France had sold to Iraq. In the view of most outside observers, the reactor, which was closely supervised both by the French and by the International Atomic Energy Agency, was not suited to the large-scale production of enriched uranium and posed no threat to Israel, but the attack was popular in Israel.

Ehud Olmert’s coalition launched the “Cast Lead” onslaught against the Gaza Strip in December 2008-January 2009. The three-week campaign of massive bombardments and some ground incursions left 1,400 Palestinians and thirteen Israelis dead. The election was held a month later, and Binyamin Netanyahu emerged as the leader of a new right-wing coalition.

So here we go again, perhaps? Netanyahu is still the prime minister, and the next elections are due in January. What better way to ensure success than to go and bash the Palestinians again? A week later, with eighty-six Palestinians and three Israelis dead, his reelection is assured: Israelis overwhelmingly support the current military operation.

That’s the case that is made against Israel. Does it hold water? Well, actually, no, it doesn’t.

Begin’s attack on the Osirak reactor in 1981 may well have been an electoral stunt, although he was clearly paranoid about the possibility of a nuclear weapon in Arab hands. But Ehud Olmert, though undoubtedly a man of the right, was not leading a right-wing government in 2008. He was the leader of a new centrist party, Kadima, that had been formed by defectors from both the right-wing Likud Party and left-wing Labour.

Moreover, Olmert had already resigned in mid-2008 over a corruption scandal, and was merely acting as interim prime minister by the time the “Cast Lead” operation was launched in December of that year. If it was an electoral ploy despite all that, it didn’t work. It was the right that actually won the election in early 2009, and formed a government led by the Likud Party’s Binyamin Netanyahu.

It is equally hard to believe that Netanyahu is seeking electoral gain by attacking Gaza this month. Every opinion poll in Israel for months past has been saying that he is going to win the January election hands down. For him, all the risk of “Operation Pillar of Defence” is on the downside: a major loss of Israeli lives in the campaign, while unlikely, could only work against him.

So why is this happening now? Historians traditionally split into two camps: those who see purpose and planning and plots behind every event, and those who think most events are just the random interaction of conflicting strategies, imperfect information and human frailty. This latter approach is known in the historical trade as the “cock-up theory of history,” and it is very attractive as an explanation for the current situation.

Netanyahu, cruising home to an easy electoral victory in January, had absolutely no need for a little war with the Palestinians. Indeed, his strategy of continuously shouting “wolf” about Iran and its alleged nuclear weapons programme has succeeded in distracting international attention from the Palestinians, leaving him free to expand Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank unhindered.

Similarly, the Hamas leaders who ruled Gaza had no interest in triggering a military conflict with Israel. They had every reason to believe that the sweeping political changes in the Arab world were strengthening their position internationally, and they had no need to remind Arabs of their plight. So how did this idiocy happen? Another cock-up, of course.

Hamas has been trying to maintain calm in Gaza and extend a ceasefire agreement with Israel, but it has little control over various radical jihadi groups who build popular support by making utterly futile rocket attacks on Israel. Even if they kill a few Israelis, so what? How does that serve the cause?

Hamas faces the permanent political danger of being outflanked by more extremist rivals, so it cannot crack down too hard on the jihadis. Israel, fed up with their pinprick attacks, was looking for somebody to punish, and since it couldn’t locate all the jihadi leaders it decided to assassinate Ahmed al-Jabari, the head of the military wing of Hamas. Even though that was bound to end the ceasefire.

So then Hamas fired a few of its own rockets into Israel, and Israel retaliated massively, and we were off to the races once again. A complete cock-up, and a pointless waste of lives.

But since the mini-war doesn’t really serve the purposes of any major player, it will probably be shut down again fairly soon.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13, 14 and 15. (“Hamas…lives”)


The “Peace Process”: Netanyahu’s Strategy

27 September 2010

The “Peace Process”: Netanyahu’s Strategy

By Gwynne Dyer

The headlines in the Western media all said more or less the same thing when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu pulled the plug on the latest round of the “Middle East peace process” on Sunday. “Netanyahu urges (Palestinian leader Mahmoud) Abbas to continue peace talks as building freeze expires,” they said, or “Netanyahu appeals for calm as freeze on settlements runs out.” Et cetera.

The implicit message was that this moderate, reasonable man is still pleading for peace, even though circumstances beyond his control are making it harder to achieve. Let us hope that the Palestinians can find it in their hearts to be equally reasonable and peace-loving.

But it was Netanyahu who agreed to the building freeze ten months ago, because the Palestinians were understandably refusing to negotiate over the future of their land while Israelis continue to colonise it – or maybe just because the United States government, which agrees with the Palestinians about this, was twisting his arm very hard.

Netanyahu was well aware that Mahmoud Abbas could not continue to negotiate if work on expanding the Israeli settlements resumed, because Abbas has said so publicly and repeatedly. All last week, President Barack Obama begged Netanyahu not to wreck the talks by cancelling the freeze. Yet Netanyahu has chosen not to extend it. What does that tell us about his interest in a peace settlement?

Apologists for Israeli policy point out that the freeze always had that ten-month, self-cancelling proviso built into it, and that Netanyahu’s coalition government would almost certainly collapse if he extended it now. They are probably right about that, as the coalition includes extreme right-wing and settler-dominated parties that are dedicated to perpetual Israeli control over much or all of the occupied Palestinian territories.

But it was Netanyahu who set that ten-month deadline in the first place, allegedly to placate the more extreme elements in his coalition. So it is presumably they who are forcing his hand now. Poor “Bibi”, obliged to choose between peace and power. How hard it is to decide.

No, that’s not quite right either. If Netanyahu’s current coalition broke up, he could fairly easily create another in which parties that genuinely support the peace talks, like Labour, took the place of the extremist parties that stormed out. So, to answer the question posed three paragraphs ago: no, the evidence suggests that Netanyahu is NOT interested in a peace settlement with the Palestinians.

Once you say that, of course, you immediately have to qualify it. Binyamin Netanyahu would be very interested in a peace deal in which the Palestinians just rolled over and agreed to his terms. He has never specified exactly what those terms are, but judging by what he has said in the past and by the company he keeps, they would amount to almost unconditional surrender.

Netanyahu wants permanent Israeli control of the land on which most of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank stand, and Palestinian assent to the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem. There would be no return of Palestinian refugees to their former homes in what is now Israel. And the Palestinians would have to create a government tough enough to enforce those terms on an outraged population, but not strong enough to threaten Israel.

The Israeli prime minister knows that any Palestinian leader who agreed to such draconian peace terms could not survive – so in practice he is not very interested in peace talks with the Palestinians. He must LOOK keen for peace, however, since that is what his American senior partners expect. That explains all the essentially meaningless diplomatic and PR activity of the past year.

The first time Binyamin Netanyahu led the Israeli government, in 1996-99, he faced a similar problem. The Oslo peace accords had been signed quite recently, and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who made that deal, had just been martyred by an extreme right-wing Jewish assassin. There was a strong backlash against the far right in Israel, and a serious danger that a land-for-peace deal was in the offing.

Netanyahu might not even have won the 1996 election if Palestinian extremists, hoping that he would destroy the Oslo deal, had not given him a boost by launching a vicious terrorist campaign against Israeli civilians. And it worked: having won the election, he successfully stalled for three years on fulfilling the Oslo terms. By 1999 despair had set in among Palestinian moderates, and the “peace process” was effectively dead.

Binyamin Netanyahu is in power again, and there is absolutely no reason to suppose that his agenda has changed since then.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 2. (“The implicit…peace-loving”)

Gaza: Worse than a Crime

11 January 2009

Gaza: Worse than a Crime

 By Gwynne Dyer

“Israel is not going to show restraint,” Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the Washington Post on Saturday, after the United States abstained on Friday’s UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. All last week the speculation grew that Washington was going to defy its Israeli ally for once and vote for the resolution, but literally as the delegates sat down in the Council chamber the phone call came from President Bush ordering Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to abstain.

So nothing will stop Israel from hammering the Gaza Strip as hard as it likes — and the situation is unlikely to change with the inauguration of Barack Obama later this month, because he has no intention of squandering his abundant but finite political capital on a quixotic attempt to bring peace to the Middle East. He will spend it instead on goals that have some chance of being achieved, and he will be right to do so.

Yet the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip will almost certainly end within the next two weeks. International revulsion at the carnage among Palestinian civilians will play a certain role. Any big loss of life among Israeli soldiers, or the capture of even one or two soldiers, would turn Israeli public opinion against the war overnight. And the clincher is that the Israeli election is on 10 February.

The war is being fought now largely to shift the opinion polls in favour of the ruling parties before the election. However, it must be over, and somehow look like a success, before Israelis actually vote. Good luck.

The war against Hamas in Gaza looks more and more like the three-week Israeli war against Hizbollah in Lebanon in 2006, which could hardly be called a success. It will last about as long. It will kill about as many Arabs, probably a thousand or so. And it will end with Hamas, like Hizbollah, still able to fire rockets at Israel.

This means that Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud Party leader who was already leading in the opinion polls, is almost certain to form the next Israeli government. He is the ultimate rejectionist, the man who successfully sabotaged the Oslo Accords and effectively killed the “peace process” during his last term as prime minister in 1996-99. He rejects the very idea of a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu is a glib ideologue who does not understand strategy and sees no reason for Israel to seek peace with its neighbours if the price is giving the Palestinians back their pre-1967 borders. In the long run, therefore, the war is more of a disaster for the Israelis than it is for the Palestinians.

Israel currently enjoys three huge strategic advantages. It has the strongest army in the region by far, backed by the only modern economy and the only technologically competent population. It has an absolute monopoly on nuclear weapons within the region. And it has the unstinting, unquestioning support of the world’s only superpower. But none of these advantages is forever, and Israel needs to make peace with its neighbours while it still possesses them.

The existing Arab regimes are willing to make peace with Israel on the basis of the 1967 borders, mainly because they fear the further radicalisation of their own populations, and perhaps even violent revolution, if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to fester. But the Arabs as a whole have all the time in the world: sooner or later the wheel will turn and Israel will become vulnerable. If it has not integrated into the region by then, it will be in mortal peril.

It is pointless to make moral judgements about this war, and foolish to use the body count as an indicator of virtue or blame. About seventy Palestinians have been killed for every Israeli who has died during the current Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip, but that does not mean that Israelis are in the wrong.

“The only reason there are more victims in Gaza than in Sderot is because Hamas is not good at shooting rockets,” Zalli Jaffe, an Israeli civilian living in Jerusalem, told a BBC reporter last week. “To conclude that Israel is at fault would be like saying the US was wrong in World War Two because many more Germans died than did Americans.”

That is quite true: Hamas would do exactly the same to Israelis if it could. The prospect of a seventy-to-one kill ratio makes Israel much readier to use military force than if it had to sacrifice one Israeli life for every Palestinian it killed, but the kill ratio tells us nothing about either the morality or the utility of the war.

It is the usefulness of this war, not its morality, that Israel should be questioning. Unless Israel re-occupies the Gaza Strip permanently

— which nobody wants to do, because it would mean a constant stream of Israeli military casualties — then once the army pulls back Hamas will re-emerge, stronger than ever. The Arab regimes that might make peace with Israel will be further undermined, and Israel gets Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister.

As was said after the execution of the Duc d’Enghien on Napoleon’s orders, the Gaza operation “is worse than a crime. It is a mistake.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10-13. (“It is pointless…war”)

Israel v. Hezbollah: Round Two

14 August 2006

Israel v. Hezbollah: Round Two

By Gwynne Dyer

The ceasefire in southern Lebanon will not hold. Israel will probably lose more soldiers killed in combat in the next month than in the past month (104). Ehud Olmert will probably no longer be prime minister of Israel by the end of this year. And it is all too likely that Binyamin Netanyahu will take his place.

The UN-sponsored ceasefire will not hold because Hezbollah has not been defeated. Despite a month of pounding by Israeli bombs and artillery, it still holds at least 80 percent of the territory south of the Litani river: in most places, Israeli forces have advanced no more than a few miles (kilometres) from the frontier. In the last few days before the ceasefire, Hezbollah was launching twice as many rockets into northern Israel as its daily average in the first week of the war.

So why would it now agree to be disarmed and removed from all of southern Lebanon, the home of its own Shia supporters? Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, was quite frank: “As long as there is Israeli military movement, Israeli field aggression and Israeli soldiers occupying our land…it is our natural right to confront them, fight them, and defend our land, our homes and ourselves.” Besides, the Israelis have now offered him an irresistibly tempting target.

Israel’s assault on Hezbollah was as much a “war of choice” as the US invasion of Iraq. Seymour Hersh claims in this week’s “New Yorker” that the Bush administration approved it in order to deprive Iran (Hezbollah’s ally) of a means of retaliation after US air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the San Francisco Chronicle reports that a senior Israeli army officer made Power-Point presentations on the planned operation to selected Western audiences over a year ago.

“By 2004, the military campaign scheduled to last about three weeks that we’re seeing now had already been blocked out,” Professor GeraldSteinberg of Bar Ilan University told the Chronicle, “and in the last year or two it’s been simulated and rehearsed across the board.”

Ehud Olmert was seduced by the plan because, lacking military experience himself, he needed the credibility that comes in Israel only from having led a successful military operation. Otherwise, he would lack support for his plan to impose unilateral borders in the occupied West Bank that would keep the major settlement blocks within Israel, while handing the rest to the Palestinians. So he seized on the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of three others by Hezbollah on 12 July, the latest in an endless string of back-and-forth attacks along the northern border, as the pretext for an all-out onslaught on the organisation.

Olmert’s lack of military experience also led him to trust the promises of General Dan Halutz, Israel’s chief of staff, that Hezbollah’s destruction could be accomplished mainly from the air, with Israeli ground troops only going in at the end to mop up. But Rule Number One for aspiring national leaders is: never believe air force promises.

Olmert launched his war, bombed lavishly all across Lebanon, pounded the south — and a month later Hezbollah still controlled almost all the territory and was launching several hundred missiles a day at Israel. Time for a ceasefire — but if he had no more than that to show for his war, he would be out of power very fast. So AFTER the UN resolution was passed on Friday, but BEFORE the ceasefire that formally took effect Monday morning, he launched an airborne invasion that scattered packets of Israeli troops all over southern Lebanon right up to the Litani.

Israel has not smashed the Hezbollah’s strong-points in southern Lebanon and driven its fighters out. It has deposited its own troops among them checkerboard-fashion, in some cases without any ground line of supply, in order to claim that it now controls the region. And it is counting on the UN resolution decreeing the disarming and withdrawal of Hezbollah, and an eventual hand-over by Israel to the Lebanese army and foreign peacekeepers, to protect its soldiers from severe embarrassment. This is probably Olmert’s last mistake.

It is hard to imagine that Hezbollah will resist the temptation to attack all the easy targets that Olmert has now given it in southern Lebanon. It is inconceivable that either the Lebanese army (itself mostly Shia) or the French and Italians (the core of the proposed peacekeeping force) will try to fight their way into southern Lebanon on Israel’s behalf. There is the potential here for Israel’s first serious operational defeat since the 1948 war.

That might be a blessing in disguise for Israel, if it persuaded enough Israeli voters that exclusive reliance on military force to smash and subdue their Arab neighbours is a political dead-end. There is little chance of that. The likeliest beneficiary of this mess is Israel’s archetypal hard-liner, Binyamin Netanyahu, who flamboyantly quit the Likud Party last year in protest at former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s policy of pulling out of the occupied Gaza Strip.

That split Likud and forced Sharon to launch a new party, Kadima, which now dominates the centre-right of Israeli politics and is the nucleus of Olmert’s coalition government. But Kadima may not survive this disastrous war, and the heir apparent, at the head of a resurgent Likud, is Netanyahu. The last opinion poll in Israel gave him an approval rating of 58 percent.


To shorten to 72 words, omit paragraphs 5, 11 and 12. (“By 2004…board”; and “That might…percent”) IF YOU ARE OMITTING the last two paragraphs, also lose the last sentence of the first paragraph.