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Israeli right exchanges barbs as contacts with Hamas progress

The negotiations between Israel and Hamas are an important diplomatic step and sparking a fierce political debate among the Israeli right.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman visits Gaza's Kerem Shalom crossing, the strip's main commercial border terminal, July 22, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen - RC1E19CDA8E0

A controversy is escalating in Israel after recent publications suggested that a long-term arrangement between Israel and Hamas could soon be signed. And while Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman defends this approach, he is also making a point to clarify his stance on Hamas.

In a particularly long and detailed Facebook post on Aug. 19, Liberman laid out his strategy for Gaza. Liberman explained that Israel’s endgame is toppling the Hamas regime and that there are two ways to achieve it. The first is reconquering and destroying Gaza in a devastating military assault, which would come with a steep cost in Israeli troops. The second approach, which Liberman prefers, is “creating conditions in which the average resident of Gaza will take steps to replace the Hamas regime with a more pragmatic government.”

Liberman ended his post with, “We are operating and will continue to operate with force, but also with wisdom. … This is intended for everyone who claims that the defense establishment is operating without any policy and without any strategy.”

This comment was aimed at HaBayit HaYehudi's chairman, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is also a member of the Security Cabinet. He has been waging a vicious campaign against Liberman with negotiations over an arrangement in Gaza in the background. Bennett accuses Liberman of surrendering to terrorism and claims that his policies will only lead to war. This clash between Liberman and Bennett, in the highest echelons of the right, may be politically motivated, but it also reflects a significant political and security debate.

Israel and Hamas discussing how they might reach an arrangement in Gaza is a refreshing development after years of diplomatic stalemate. Something is finally taking place that will encourage the players to really think about the problem and put clear and unequivocal positions on the table.

Israeli politicians have not been forced to tackle the problem of Gaza directly since the 2014 Operation Protective Edge. The 2016 election of Donald Trump as president of the United States contributed to the diplomatic stalemate, since Israel was no longer being pressured to restart negotiations with the Palestinians. It was not presented with any diplomatic plan, nor did it face any ultimatum. In sharp contrast, during the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry shuttled back and forth to apply pressure on the parties amid demands that Israel cease construction in the West Bank and constant friction with the administration. In the Trump era, the situation is the exact opposite.

Israel's center left has no fresh ideas, either, since its leaders have a hard time presenting a position to Trump. They had gotten used to blasting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for allegedly destroying Israel’s relationship with the United States. Now, they are suddenly faced with a relationship between the United States and Israel that couldn’t be better.

The negotiations that have been taking place over the last few weeks through Egyptian mediators are intended to restore calm between Israel and Hamas. It is the first diplomatic effort after many long years of stalemate. The public and political debate over the arrangement, which obviously involves maintaining (indirect) contacts with Hamas, allows the different players on the right to present the public with their solution to the Gaza problem. The approaching elections, which most observers believe will be moved up to the first few months of 2019, have made the debate over this issue into a political campaign.

It is obvious that Bennett is trying to position himself to his base on the hard right as the most militant extreme of the Security Cabinet, while presenting Liberman and Netanyahu as being so weak that they are surrendering to Hamas.

Liberman’s position is interesting. He presented a coherent and detailed exposition on Facebook Aug. 19. Liberman is offering a moderate position, very unlike his statements during Operation Protective Edge about the need to topple Hamas. He now says that steady and ongoing dialogue with the people of Gaza while circumventing the Hamas leadership will result in the collapse of the regime without a war or loss of troops.

In contrast, Netanyahu has hardly brought up the latest round of fighting in Gaza, nor the contacts underway. He realizes that he could lose points on the right for negotiating with Hamas, so when he addresses the issue, he mimics Liberman by targeting the soft underbelly of Israeli society and emphasizing that preventing war means that fewer families will lose their children to violence.

Speaking at a ceremony in his office on Aug. 15 on the backdrop of reports on Israel-Hamas Egypt-mediated talks and an imminent arrangement, Netanyahu commented from that angle. He said, “I think that anyone who was a fighter will always be sensitive to the cost of war. The cost of war is heavy. It is terrible, and knowing that we have no choice but to pay that price … always convinces us to find ways to reduce it. … We must be firm. We must be determined. And we must always be aware of the price of war.”

Netanyahu made no mention of Gaza, Hamas or an arrangement, but his message was clear. While Bennett and others on the right might prefer a more bellicose approach, he is the more thoughtful and responsible leader. Most importantly, he is very careful when it comes to sending soldiers to war.

These remarks are intended to neutralize the sharp criticism Netanyahu faces from the right that will certainly increase if and when an arrangement is reached. The recent words of Simcha Goldin illustrates this perfectly. Goldin is the father of Lt. Hadar Goldin, who was killed during Protective Edge and whose body is still held by Hamas. On Aug. 17, the bereaved father lashed out at Netanyahu for surrendering to Hamas without demanding that the soldiers’ bodies first be returned. “Netanyahu turned all Israelis into the suckers of the Middle East,” he said, “and we will pay for it in blood. … The Israeli government has been feeding the monster for the past four years and will now bring about the next war.”

Netanyahu and Liberman are aware that they will both have to work hard to convince the public that they did not negotiate with Hamas. In contrast to the bitter conflict on the right, the center left supports the arrangement and backs Netanyahu and Liberman’s efforts. To distinguish themselves from Netanyahu, they attack the lack of a comprehensive government strategy in dealing with Gaza instead.

Meanwhile, even if the arrangement is on hold, at least it has reinvigorated an important political debate. It is finally forcing the major Israeli political players to present their positions, strategies and solutions for Gaza.

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