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27 November, 2012  ▪  Michael Binyon

Mutual Miscalculations

Random attacks, usually carried out by individual Palestinian militants and not authorised by the Hamas-controlled Government in Gaza, have been going on sporadically for months. Why therefore did Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister, decide to respond now in a way clearly calculated to cause uproar in the poor and overcrowded Gaza Strip and prompt a likely terroristand militant response?

The Middle East is the land of conspiracies. Few Israelis, and certainly no Palestinians, believe that Israel's assassination of Ahmad Jabari and its subsequent missile attacks on targets in the Gaza Strip were prompted solely by an upsurge in cross-border rockets fired by Islamists militants.

These random attacks, usually carried out by individual Palestinian militants and not authorised by the Hamas-controlled Government in Gaza, have been going on sporadically for months. Why therefore did Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister, decide to respond now in a way clearly calculated to cause uproar in the poor and overcrowded Gaza Strip and prompt a likely terrorist and militant response?

Many Israelis say that the timing is the direct result of Netanyahu's political calculations. The Prime Minister has recently been in a strong position. His domestic rivals on the left are weak, unable to challenge his political supremacy or to mount a credible alternative in the elections now set for the spring. The Israeli economy is relatively robust. The disarray among Israel's neighbours, as a result of the Arab Spring and the clamour for reform, means that Israel has been all but ignored, with no new challenges to its policies, even from newly elected Islamist governments. But two things may have prompted Netanyahu's need to take action now. First, he wanted to send a signal, early on, that Israel remains the unchallenged military power in the region, and that neither Egypt, nor Jordan, nor especially Syria, should think of trying to divert attention from their own domestic tensions by starting a new campaign against Israel. Netanyahu has been watching the turmoil in Syria in particular with growing apprehension. For however harsh and dictatorial the Assad regime has been, it has kept the peace on the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory occupied by Israel since1967, for the past three decades.

Second, he needed to send a signal to Israeli voters that he will continue to put Israel's security above all else, at whatever the cost, in the run-up to the coming election. A deliberately tough response to the latest rocket attacks and skirmishes on the Gaza border would bolster his credentials and weaken his Labour opponents at home. A tough response would also underline Israel's opposition to the renewed attempt by the Palestinians to seek observer status at the United Nations this week. Israel fears this would be the thin end of the wedge to full membership and lead to international recognition of Palestine as a separate state. But probably the most important reason is the third: Israel's fraught relations with the United States. Netanyahu's relations with President Obama were, for most of the past four years, as chilly as any have ever been between a US president and an Israeli leader. Obama's attempt to put pressure on Israel to halt its settlement activity and begin peace talks with Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, were spurned by Netanyahu, who offered an almost calculated insult to Washington in announcing new settlements on the very day in March 2010 that vice-president Joe Biden arrived in Jerusalem for talks. In response, Obama snubbed Netanyahu when he arrived in the US for the UN General Assembly meeting in two months ago, rejecting the Israeli leader's request for a meeting because, Obama said, he was too busy. During the US election campaign Netanyahu made no secret of his support for Mitt Romney. Courting the Republican vote during Romney's visit toJerusalem, he tried to manoeuvre Obama into a commitment to attack Iran should it cross the "red lines" set by Israel to halt Iran's attempts to produce a nuclear weapon. But Obama won. And Netanyahu clearly now expects that Washington will swiftly step up pressure on his Likud Government to begin talks with the Palestinians. Obama's power and influence at home are again strong. Traditionally, US presidents have used the start of their second term to launch new foreign policy initiatives which they hope will contribute to their legacy. Netanyahu, and especially his right-wing ally in government, Avigdor Lieberman, have no intention of making any concessions  over settlements or in any peace talks.

An attack on Gaza would, at a stroke, make talks with the Palestinians unthinkable. Abbas would be forced to back Hamas, and would refuse to meet any Israeli. Netanyahu could again plausibly say to Washington that he had "no Palestinian partner" with whom to open talks. More than that, if Iran openly backs any militant Hamas response, Israel can again point to Iran as the main source of tension in the Middle East, and again try to force Washington to take a tougher line on Iran's nuclear programme. Domestic and congressional opinion would force Obama to back Israel, without reservations, in the United Nations. Israel would again have out manoeuvred him.

But things may not work out quite as Netanyahu may hope. The world is weary of this latest upsurge in violence, and is determined to stop Israel carrying out another attack on Gaza on the scale of the 22-day operation" Cast Lead" in 2008, which cost almost 1,400 Palestinian lives. President Obama and other leaders have appealed to Israel not to go ahead with a full military intervention. Pictures of civilian victims in Gaza are already causing fresh criticism of Israel in much of the West. And Hamas has shown that it is prepared for talks. Hamas militants maintained a ceasefire for a day after its leaders met representatives from Israel in Cairo.

Hamas has also probably miscalculated the Arab reaction. It had hoped that the Arab Spring would end its isolation, bringing to power Islamist governments in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere that were more sympathetic to its cause. Recently the emir of Qatar paid a ground-breaking visit, and so did Bahraini princes and Egyptian ministers. But although Egypt has, since the fall of Mubarak, eased the tough border controls with Gaza, President Morsi has not broken off relations with Israel, nor has Egypt renounced its peace treaty. The Islamists and most governments in the Arab world have been preoccupied with their own power struggles, and have been wary of giving greater backing to Hamas.

The Arab Spring has also hurt Hamas in several ways. It has exacerbated tensions between the Arab world and Iran. The conflict in Syria has left Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, supplied with arms from Iran via Syria, isolated and in retreat. Hamas was reluctant at first to anger Iran, which has covertly shipped arms to Gaza, but was finally persuaded to side with the Sunni insurgents against Assad in Syria. This has weakened its alliance with Hezbollah and other "resistance" forces. In recent months Hamas had begun moving towards an accommodation with Israel. There were hints of talks about talks, suggestions of a long-term truce, proposals by the Europeans to relax the economic embargo enforced on Gaze since Hamas took control after the elections in 2006. But Hamas hardliners resisted any weakening of their stance. Border clashes and renewed rocket attacks on Israel were intended to sabotage any political deal.

The attack on Gaza has also further weakened Abbas in the West Bank. He is widely seen now by Palestinians as powerless to stand up to Israel. Hamas is already beginning to rebuild its base in the West Bank. If he is removed from power, Israel will have lost the most moderate Palestinian leader in the region, and will find it hard to restart peace talks with anyone - if, after Gaza, Israel decides it wants to return to diplomacy. For the moment, however, neither Israel nor Hamas seems in the mood to compromise. The talks in Cairo did not lead to a breakthrough. More bloodshed in Gaza seems inevitable, and the world will, once again, be faced with all the dangers and the horrors of renewed fighting between Arabs and Israelis.

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