Israel gets new chance to reach arrangement with Palestinians

If Blue and White leader Benny Gantz composes the new government and invites Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman to be part of it, then these two men must focus on reaching an arrangement with Hamas.

al-monitor Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh gestures as he arrives to meet an Egyptian security delegation, Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Oct. 18, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Salem.

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israeli government, israeli-palestinian conflict, hamas, benny gantz, avigdor liberman, palestinian authority, plo, gaza strip

Sep 23, 2019

The diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians has been at a standstill ever since the John Kerry talks in 2014. It certainly wasn’t a major issue in Israel’s recent election campaign. All that was left to discuss was the long-delayed Donald Trump peace plan, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took advantage of that claiming only he could withstand the pressure from Washington. On the other hand, since nothing is actually known about the plan, the “deal of the century” never became a bone of contention, subject to debate between the parties.

In contrast, the problem of rockets being fired from the Gaza Strip was a common mantra throughout the campaign, creating all sorts of surprising alliances. The right complained that on the one hand, Netanyahu was handling Hamas with kid gloves and allowing the Qatari representative to bring his monthly payments into Gaza, but that on the other hand, the prime minister would not approve a military operation to defeat Hamas (the branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza) and Islamic Jihad (Iran’s franchise in Gaza), out of concern that a military clash would result in numerous Israeli casualties and might even force Israel to remain in Gaza once it was reoccupied. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Yisrael Beitenu head Avigdor Liberman both aligned themselves with the right in this criticism of Netanyahu.

Gantz was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza  in 2014. In his April election campaign, he prided himself that under his command, the IDF was responsible for numerous Palestinian casualties, and claimed that the operation he oversaw granted Israel several years of quiet. Now he claims that it is impossible to accept the level of violence from the Gaza Strip targeting Israel, and that the situation should be resolved through deterrence, or through a military action that would result in a deterrence.

Liberman bore the burden of an interview he gave in May 2016, in which he claimed that if he was appointed minister of defense, he would give head of Hamas political bureau Ismail Haniyeh an ultimatum: Release the Israelis that he is holding (Israeli citizens held by the group and also the bodies of two IDF soldiers) within 48 hours or face assassination. Much to everyone’s surprise, he was appointed defense minister two days later and never repeated his ultimatum again. Sometime later, he even admitted that there was no basis for his threat. On the other hand, ever since his resignation as defense minister in November 2018, he has been accusing Netanyahu of preventing him from launching a comprehensive military operation in the Gaza Strip.

Based on the almost final results of the Sept. 17 elections in Israel, there is now a reasonable possibility that Gantz will become the next prime minister and Liberman will be his defense minister. If that does happen, both men would have a hard time putting the problem of Gaza on the agenda. It would also be difficult for them to continue with the rather pathetic situation of the Qatari representatives bringing suitcases stuffed with cash to Gaza, so that Hamas can pay salaries and provide welfare. If these two men take the most sensitive security positions in the country and if Hamas decides to test them, the chance of another conflict would increase, even though a unity government under Gantz would otherwise be more moderate than its predecessor.

This leads to the question of the indirect agreement with Hamas, the details of which are the subject of prolonged talks with Egypt. These include a time-limited cease-fire with Israel, along with other understandings, pertaining to the supply of goods and energy, the employment of Palestinian laborers in Israel, and permission to cross the border for merchants, students who want to study in the West Bank, patients requiring medical treatment in Israel, and so on. The framework of these and other extensive understandings with Israel could be used to resolve the problem of Israelis being held by Hamas, along with an exchange of the remains of casualties by both sides.

If the change of government in Israel can really be used to further this important move, which could save Israeli and Palestinian lives, it will be necessary to do so with the cautious involvement of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Any diplomatic contact with Hamas causes intense trepidation among the authorities in Ramallah. They are deeply concerned about Israel circumventing the Palestinian authorities that have denounced terrorism and remain committed to the agreements that they reached with Israel. On the other hand, if the PA were to ask Israel to avoid reaching an agreement with Hamas, Israel would have to turn down the request, because the PA has no solution to the rockets being fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip, nor is it prepared to take responsibility for security in Gaza. All that could be done would be to show consideration for such requests — if there are any — so as not to cause unnecessary harm to the PA’s interests in the Gaza Strip.

While it attempts to reach an arrangement with Hamas over Gaza, the Blue and White party also owes it to its voters and itself to renew talks with the PLO over a permanent status agreement. In the past, when Liberman was foreign minister in Netanyahu’s government, he decided not to interfere in the talks conducted by US Secretary of State John Kerry to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians. At the time, he said that he did not believe that there is any possibility of finding common ground between the parties. It did not bother him that then-Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni was the one in charge of the talks. (It should also be noted that Netanyahu did everything he could through his emissary and “kashruth supervisor” Yitzhak Molcho to undermine those same talks.) It can only be expected that in the next attempt to reach an agreement — and hopefully, not just to prove that there is no partner on the other side — Liberman will act the same way, of not interfering. Gantz will appoint someone to head the Israeli negotiating team. Liberman will then try to convince him that it is a waste of time and energy, but he will also “let the kids play,” convinced that nothing will come of it.

The purpose of these talks with the Palestinians would be to reach a comprehensive agreement, which would include Gaza, allowing the Gaza leadership to participate in implementing it — maybe after a Palestinian referendum, as promised by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the past. While Gaza cannot be forced to join the agreement, Hamas must not be allowed to prevent Israel from reaching an agreement with the PLO. It would hardly be an ideal situation to have Gantz reaching an agreement with the PLO and implementing it in the West Bank, while Gaza retains its hudna (cease-fire) agreement until an alternative leadership decides to join the peace process, but it is certainly preferable to the current stalemate in the east and the firefight in the south. And it is certainly preferable to the ticking demographic clock.

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