Prospect of Early Israeli Elections Weighs on Gaza Operation
Israel’s chief of staff Lt.-Gen Moshe Yaalon made it clear this week that the seven-day IDF offensive to eliminate the Qassam cross-border missile blitz against Israel may well last weeks. He added that even after it was over, Israeli incursions into northern Gaza to destroy missile launchers and their crews would be repeated as often as necessary.
Taken together, the two statements betray how little faith Israel’s top soldier has in the operation crushing the missile threat, whether because it is a mission impossible or because it stands a good chance of being foreshortened by reason of political constraints. He will not have forgotten the non-completion of last May’s Rafah-Khan Younis operation. Its declared missions then were to destroy the tunnel system feeding Palestinian terrorists with a steady flow of smuggled weapons from Egyptian Sinai and to set up a security zone on the Israel-Egyptian border under joint Israeli and Egyptian patrols to cut Palestinian Rafah off from Sinai.
Today, the tunnels work at full blast. Mortar shells rain down from Khan Younis on Israeli settlements and army positions. Egyptian border units show little inclination to collaborate with Israel in blocking the border to illicit traffic unless an explicit order comes down from Cairo.
Furthermore, debkafile‘s Palestinian and counter-terror sources perceive not the slightest intention on the part of the Palestinians to halt their missile offensive against Sderot and other Israeli locations across the Gaza border. In fact, Hamas threatens to expand their radius to the Israeli Mediterranean town of Ashkelon as soon as their range is improved.
All this week’s diplomatic efforts to influence Palestinian terrorist and security chiefs to cut down on the missiles and the violence, including a vigorous bid for indirect truce talks by the European Union’s intelligence commission on Monday, October 4, bounced back with a referral to Yasser Arafat.
According to our Palestinian sources, a telephone conversation Monday, October 4, between Arafat in Ramallah and Hamas leader Khaled Mashel, who is visiting Algiers, ended in complete agreement: there would be no backing down. The missile offensive would press on despite the massive incursion of 150 Israeli tanks and armored vehicles deployed on the fringes of the teeming Jebalya camp and the two other launching sites of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya. Israeli units only dart in when missile crews are detected preparing to launch Qassam missiles. By Tuesday, seven launchers and teams had been eliminated.
Both the Palestinian terror strategists and Israeli army chiefs accept that Israeli military action will not be pursued all the way to its acclaimed goals because of the Sharon government’s shrinking power base and options.
The Sharon and Barak governments, though formed by opposing parties, show striking similarities in the way they handle Arafat’s terror tactics. Labor’s Ehud Barak was pushed to the wall by an unending Palestinian barrage against the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo aimed day after day from Beit Jala and Bethlehem on the West Bank from late 2000 to early 2001. His ineffectiveness led to his downfall and a snap election that raised Ariel Sharon to office on a security-for-every-citizen ticket.
But now, Sharon and his defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, are showing comparable ineffectiveness in scotching the Qassam offensive harassing Sderot, which claimed the lives of two Israeli infants last week. And already, Israeli parties are beginning to gear up for a spring 2005 election.
Sharon is flapping about in the same terror trap as his predecessor.
Even though Barak, with President Bill Clinton’s backing, negotiated with Arafat under fire, and Sharon, with encouragement from George W. Bush, ostracizes him, yet both made the same error of counting on outside parties and diplomacy for a rescue formula.
After the August 2000 Clinton-led Barak-Arafat talks at Camp David failed, the Sharm al-Sheikh summit convened on October 16, 2000, amid the flames of Palestinian violence sweeping the Gaza Strip and West Bank and the buses exploding in Israel’s main cities. The circle was expanded to include Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Abdullah, UN secretary Kofi Annan and senior European Union foreign policy executive Javier Solana. The participants were chosen for their presumed ability to exercise influence over Arafat.
The Palestinian leader jauntily signed the accords put before him without reading a word. In Cairo later, he said his signature was worthless and he had his own interpretation of the agreements. Gilo remained under fire and Barak was swept out of office by jittery voters desperately in need of a leader capable of restoring security to the country.
But Bush and Sharon fell into the same error as Clinton and Barak. They counted on Egypt and the Europeans lending their weight to the Israeli prime minister’s disengagement project – Egypt by taking charge of post-disengagement security in the Gaza Strip and its Rafah border with Israel, the Europeans by wielding their funding and diplomatic clout to bring Arafat into line.
But Arafat has never varied his responses.
Four years ago, his answer to Barak’s diplomatic overtures was to pound Gilo harder. His response to Sharon’s disengagement plan is to step up the missile storm against Sderot.
Sharon made a last effort to enlist Egypt by sending Shin Beit director Avi Dichter to Cairo for a final opinion. Dichter confirmed that Cairo was in the process of bowing out of the venture in order to fully engage in Sudan and prepare for military intervention in the Darfur crisis.
The Sharon-Mofaz duo’s predicament has therefore been reduced to two options. Either give up on disengagement, or seize large stretches of the Gaza Strip – if not all of the territory – for the sake of forcing through the evacuation of settlements at the end of next year in a comparatively sterile environment.
Sderot’s distress is unlikely to deter the prime minister from forging ahead.
General Yaalon, though confident of his forces’ combat skills even under the constraints of directives to keep their own and Palestinian civilian casualties down to a bare minimum, knows that ultimately the key to removing the Qassam shadow over Sderot is clutched tight in Ramallah where Arafat holds sway through the “Popular Resistance Committees.” This is a semi-fictional body federating a terrorist rainbow arcing from Hamas, Fatah and its suicide arm, al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, to the Palestinian Fronts and the Jihad Islami – plus, most significantly, officers of the Palestinian security and police services who serve in dual capacities. These services remain firmly under Arafat’s grip.
Furthermore, as every Israeli field officer knows, the estimated 200 Qassam missiles stockpiled in the northern Gaza Strip, once depleted, will be replenished through the smuggling tunnels from Sinai. The stockpiles and those tunnels are both controlled not by Hamas but by General Mussa Arafat who takes orders from his uncle.
While Israeli troops will no doubt succeed militarily, they will be forced to leave their grinding job half finished, producing a result as transitory as their campaign against the tunnels.
The Sharon administration’s brittle condition has been picked up on all sides of Israel’s political spectrum. With an early election in mind, a powerful faction of the central committee of Sharon’s Likud party is working on internal reform that would split the jobs of prime minister and party chairman. This is a warning to a leader who defied the will of the party over the unilateral removal of settlements. Their plan is to hold separate primaries for the party’s prime ministerial candidate and party leader so that even if Sharon wins the first, he will be denied the second. His close associates, Mofaz and deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert, will also pay for their loyalty to Sharon at the primaries.
Ehud Barak also scents a fresh opening for a comeback. The former Labor prime minister sees his successor’s falling star and the failure of his government’s economic performance under the finance minister, another former prime minister, Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu. State revenues from taxes in September plunged 5,5% compared with August, reflecting a slowdown in consumption and growth, while the unemployment figure leapt in the same month by 3.5%. At the same time, the banks’ profits doubled or even trebled, mainly at the expense of the household sector. After viewing the terrain, Barak decided to take the leap and on October 2 announced his intention of returning to politics.