Israeli news media are reporting a growing tension between the country’s political and military leaders over how far to pursue the campaign in Gaza. On Tuesday morning a “senior military officer” held an off-the-record briefing for a group of reporters (reports in Ynet, Walla) and lodged what the reporters termed “veiled criticism” of the political leadership, charging it with indecision. The officer said the army had completed the tasks assigned to it and that the political echelon now had to decide whether to go deeper into Gaza or to begin withdrawing.
On Wednesday an unidentified cabinet minister fired back at the army, saying that the cabinet had approved every suggestion the army had made. The minister was quoted saying “it was the army that maneuvered us into the situation we’re in now.”
The problem seems to be that the cabinet is deadlocked between pro-cease-fire and smash-Hamas factions, and the IDF is losing patience with the government’s inability to give it clear instructions. It’s a mark of how clueless the ministers are that one of them — evidently from the hard-line faction — can say with a straight face that it’s up to the army to come up with Israel’s goals. After all, we’ve approved everything they’ve asked for. What do they want from us, a policy? C’mon — this is Israel.
The background to the dispute is a complex dilemma that faces Israel right now, which reporters have taken to routinely calling the “plonter” or tangled mess. That may be the name by which this operation is remembered.
Further complicating matters, the pro-cease-fire faction, which reportedly includes Prime Minister Netanyahu, is hobbled by the fact that Israel is nowhere near getting a cease-fire on terms acceptable to it. Israel wants a cease-fire that permits it to continue demolishing the tunnels and further leads to a demilitarization of Gaza. Hamas has flatly rejected disarming.
Anyway, getting a cease-fire requires getting Hamas to stop firing its rockets, but Hamas refuses to agree unless it is brought formally into the negotiating process and asked directly. By that it hopes to gain a degree of international recognition and legitimacy that neither Israel nor Egypt is willing to grant it. Egypt currently envisions Hamas as participating in a Palestinian delegation that is headed by and formally represents the Palestinian Authority. Hamas is angling for its own separate delegation.
The problem of getting Hamas to buy into a cease-fire negotiation seems to have been at the heart of John Kerry’s dustup with the Israeli cabinet last weekend. Kerry was trying to get around the problem of getting Hamas’s consent without engaging it directly by talking to Qatar and Turkey, who speak for Hamas.
Israeli officials interpreted that — cynically, U.S. officials counter — as buying into the Hamas-Qatar cease-fire proposal, which includes a list of goodies for Hamas, in place of the Egyptian proposal, which Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League all consider the only proposal on the table.
The tangle led to a furious barrage of Israeli attacks on Kerry, summed up in a stinging news analysis by Haaretz political reporter Barak Ravid, “Kerry’s latest cease-fire plan: What was he thinking?” that was published in English on Sunday and received broad attention in Washington.
Sources in the prime minister’s office denied to Israeli reporters that the prime minister had made any such request. On Wednesday, however, Israel’s Washington ambassador Ron Dermer, who is one of Netanyahu’s closest advisers, told the Associated Press that Netanyahu had nothing to do with the Israeli criticism directed at Kerry and that “the prime minister appreciates” Kerry’s efforts to secure a cease-fire.
The cabinet recently heard a presentation from IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz and his aides in which they laid out scenarios for pushing on to destroy Hamas. Reporters quoted participating ministers as saying that the military predicted an operation to cripple or destroy Hamas would require retaking control of Gaza, a process that would take months and exact a heavy toll on IDF lives. The officers reportedly did not give specific casualty numbers but “gave the impression” that the toll would be in the hundreds or even thousands.
The cabinet adjourned without taking a vote on the army’s plan because, according to a participant, “there was no point — everyone agreed.” After the meeting, however, economic affairs minister Naftali Bennett of Jewish Home party, a member of the cabinet, publicly declared in a widely quoted statement that the goal of Operation Protective Edge is “not merely to destroy the tunnels but to defeat Hamas.”
J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).