Benjamin Netanyahu Confronts Minefields After Gaza War

Premier Faces Thorny Political and Diplomatic Future

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By J.J. Goldberg

Published August 07, 2014.

Israel didn’t participate in the Cairo negotiations that produced the 72-hour Gaza cease-fire on Tuesday morning, August 5. The invitation had come just hours after an earlier 72-hour cease-fire collapsed with the ambush and attempted kidnap of Lt. Hadar Goldin. That was the fifth cease-fire to collapse in 25 days. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said he saw no point in negotiating any more agreements with Hamas.

Instead, while the Egyptians and Palestinians spent the weekend dickering, Israel’s leaders stayed in Jerusalem and attacked each other. Armies of anonymous “senior political figures” spun endless narratives explaining why Israel failed to defeat Hamas, who was to blame and what comes next. From the right came accusations that the generals waged a half-hearted campaign that failed to eliminate Hamas. From the center-left — and the military — came accusations that government ministers created unrealistic expectations of entirely.

“There’s no such thing as 100% protection,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said during an August 4 visit to Ashkelon, near Gaza.

Netanyahu and Yaalon found themselves standing in the middle, insisting the operation was a success. Israeli troops destroyed 32 Hamas attack tunnels. Hamas lost two-thirds of its 10,000 rockets, half fired uselessly at Israel, half destroyed in Israeli attacks. Most important, the leaders argued, Israel restored its deterrence. Hamas learned the price of attacking Israel.

Israelis weren’t buying it. Separate surveys by Channel 2 and Haaretz showed the public evenly divided on whether or not Israel won the war. Israelis were happy with Netanyahu — 63% in the Channel 2 poll and 77% in Haaretz — but only 30% believed Israel’s security was strengthened. Almost as many, 27%, thought Israel was left weaker.

There was some surprise in Jerusalem, therefore, when details of the cease-fire arrived from Cairo. It looked like a resounding defeat for Hamas. To begin with, Hamas had to come to Cairo not as an independent player, as it wanted, but as a junior partner in a united Palestinian delegation led by Mahmoud Abbas’s Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority.

Second, the long list of demands Hamas posed in July as preconditions for a cease-fire, including opening a Gaza seaport and airport, an international force policing Gaza’s land and sea entries, access for Gazans to the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and expanded fishing rights, had been pared down — at Ramallah’s insistence — to just four: Israeli troop withdrawal; repairing the war damage; releasing the 51 prisoners freed in the Gilad Shalit deal and then rearrested, plus another 26 promised to Abbas in last spring’s peace talks; and lifting the Israeli-Egyptian economic blockade.

Most humiliating, Hamas agreed to accept a cease-fire without preconditions and only afterwards to begin discussing demands. In effect, it accepted the original Egyptian cease-fire proposal it had rejected July 14, three weeks and 1,600 Palestinian deaths earlier. Now it has to explain to the population of Gaza what those 1,600 people died for.

Late Tuesday, Netanyahu reversed himself and agreed to send a delegation to Cairo to negotiate a postwar agreement. Now the prime minister’s life is about to get interesting.

The hardest negotiating in the coming weeks will concern Palestinian demands for reconstruction and lifting the blockade. The two issues require different solutions, but they lead to the same dilemma for Israel.

Lifting the blockade is the simpler problem. It basically means positioning someone that Israel and Egypt trust, not Hamas, to oversee the border crossings on the Gaza side. Egypt wants Abbas’s U.S.-trained presidential guard in charge. So does Yaalon, the defense minister. Abbas’s troops and the IDF have cooperated successfully for years. The security cabinet’s liberals, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, also support it.

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