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Latest News in Israel – 27th January

Aussies wrap Israel’s knuckles over settlements

Australia on Wednesday issued a statement expressing “concern” at the government’s announcement the day before of 2,500 new housing units beyond the Green Line, the first time Canberra has issued a statement on settlement construction since August 2014.

“The Australian government is concerned about the significant recent settlement announcement in the West bank,” a statement from the Foreign Ministry read. “We continue to call on both sides to avoid unilateral actions that diminish the prospects of a negotiated two-state solution.”

The statement comes about a month before Netanyahu’s scheduled trip to Australia and Singapore, making him the first sitting prime minister to go to either of those two countries.

In recent days, however, there have been rumors that Netanyahu might cancel, either because of an expected trip to Washington next month to meet US President Donald Trump, or because he might not want to be out of the country for some 10 days as the current police investigations against him continue.

The timing of the Australian statement has raised some speculation that it may be an attempt to send a message to Netanyahu not to take Australia’s strong support for granted, and not to cancel the visit.

Netanyahu canceled a planned visit to Australia in 2014, as did then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman that same year. And last year President Reuven Rivlin scratched a trip as well, opting to travel instead to Russia. The cancellation of three high-profile visits in less than three year has not been lost on Canberra.

Australia’s statement on the settlements on Wednesday contrasted with the way it reacted last fall at news of settlement construction plans. While the US, EU, UN, Egypt and several European states slammed Israel for announcing plans at the time, Australia was quiet. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who visited Israel in September, told The Jerusalem Post at the time that “I am here and I can raise it directly.”

Bishop refrained from calling Israeli settlements “illegal” during that visit – a position held by the European Union, the UN and the Arab world – saying that doing so would prejudice the outcome of negotiations.

“I have said publicly that the issue of settlements should be part of the final-status negotiations,” Bishop told the Post.

“The point I’m making is that there are acts on both sides that are seen to be damaging or impeding the peace process.”

She said at the time that Palestinian unilateral actions toward statehood and violence – not only Israeli settlement construction – are hurdles to the peace process.

France, meanwhile, issued a much sharper condemnation of Tuesday’s settlement announcement, saying that since Sunday, Israel has already announced as many new settlement units as it did in all of 2016.

In addition to the 2,500 planned housing units announced on Tuesday, the Jerusalem Municipality on Sunday approved building permits for some 566 units in Jewish neighborhoods in the capital beyond the Green Line.

“We condemn these new developments that are opposed to international law and see them as a worrisome signal,” a French Foreign Ministry spokesman said at a daily press briefing.

He noted that UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which the US let pass in the waning days of the Obama administration, determined that the settlements lack legal validity and called for their immediate cessation.

The White House has pointedly been silent on the announcement, with White House spokesman Sean Spicer saying Tuesday that Trump will discuss the issue with Netanyahu.

Under the Obama administration, Washington routinely and reflexively condemned nearly all settlement construction announcements.

A spokesman for UN Secretary- General Antonio Guterres said in response to the announcement that “for the secretary-general there is no plan B for the two-state solution,” adding that “in this respect any unilateral decision that can be an obstacle to the two-state goal is of grave concern for the secretary-general.”  (Jerusalem Post)

Trump administration to review $221 m. payment to Palestinians in Obama’s last hours

The State Department is reviewing a last-minute decision by former Secretary of State John Kerry to send $221 million dollars to the Palestinians late last week over the objections of congressional Republicans.

The department said Tuesday it would look at the payment and might make adjustments to ensure it comports with the Trump administration’s priorities.

Kerry formally notified Congress that State would release the money Friday morning, just hours before President Donald Trump took the oath of office.

Congress had initially approved the Palestinian funding in budget years 2015 and 2016, but at least two GOP lawmakers — Ed Royce of California, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Kay Granger of Texas, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee — had placed holds on it over moves the Palestinian Authority had taken to seek membership in international organizations. Congressional holds are generally respected by the executive branch but are not legally binding after funds have been allocated.

Granger released a statement Tuesday saying, “I am deeply disappointed that President Obama defied congressional oversight and released $221 million to the Palestinian territories.”

She added: “I worked to make sure that no American taxpayer dollars would fund the Palestinian Authority unless very strict conditions were met. While none of these funds will go to the Palestinian Authority because of those conditions, they will go to programs in the Palestinian territories that were still under review by Congress. The Obama Administration’s decision to release these funds was inappropriate.”

The Obama administration had for some time been pressing for the release of the money, which comes from the US Agency for International Development and is to be used to fund humanitarian aid in the West Bank and Gaza, to support political and security reforms and to help prepare for good governance and the rule of law in a future Palestinian state, according to the notification sent to Congress. (the Times of Israel)

Trump will threaten UN bodies over Palestinian membership

US President Donald Trump is preparing an executive order that would halt all US funding to UN agencies that recognize the Palestinian Authority or Palestine Liberation Organization as a full member.

The move, first reported in the New York Times, would create a committee tasked with reviewing US aid to the international bodies and programs. The order specifically calls for a review of aid to UN peacekeeping efforts.

But the terms of this executive order have already been codified in US law, according to former Obama administration officials, who were compelled to cut funding to UNESCO after the body accepted Palestine as a full member in 2011.

At the time, Victoria Nuland, then spokesman for the State Department, said the US was following longstanding congressional restrictions that required an immediate halt to its aid.

One 1990 appropriations law reads: “No funds authorized to be appropriated by this act or any other act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.”

Legislation in 1994 expanded on this language, barring Congress from funding “any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.”

The Palestinians enjoy “non-member state” status at the UN, which grants them limited operational freedoms. Washington funds roughly 22 percent of the UN’s overall annual budget.

Trump’s consideration of this executive order, titled “Auditing and Reducing US Funding of International Organizations,” pairs with a Senate effort to legislate similar threats against the UN over its actions targeting Israel. That effort, led by senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, gained steam after the Obama administration last month abstained from a Security Council resolution condemning Israel over its settlement enterprise.

The executive order would also target organizations that circumvent sanctions against Iran, or that support reproductive rights.   (Jerusalem Post)

Ex-Israeli Official Reveals Never Before Told Story Highlighting Fraught Obama-Netanyahu Relationship

A former top Israeli diplomatic official revealed a never-before told story that shed further light on the fraught personal relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former US President Barack Obama, in an interview published Friday.

Dore Gold — who was until recently the director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry — told the Hebrew newspaper Makor Rishon that after the September funeral of the late Israeli statesman Shimon Peres, someone from Air Force One — on which Obama, then-Secretary of State John Kerry and former President Bill Clinton were aboard — called Netanyahu’s chief of staff Yoav Horowitz and told him, “Tell your boss if he wants a funeral like Peres’, he should begin to move, to go forward,” the implication being that Netanyahu should be more flexible when it comes to the peace process with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu, according to Gold, told Horowitz to respond, “Tell him that I give up the honor because I have no intention of participating in the funeral of my country.”

Later in the Makor Rishon interview, Gold accused the Obama administration of having demonstrated a “kind of arrogance” when it came to its Middle East policies.

“They developed a vision, according to which no matter what the Arabs say or what the Israelis say, they know better the needs of both sides,” Gold said.

Despite his criticism of the Obama administration’s policies, Gold noted, “I refuse to use these descriptions in regards to Obama — ‘antisemite,’ ‘pro-Muslim’ or ‘threw Israel under the wheels of the bus.’ Absolutely not.”                 (the Algameiner)

Giuliani : Trump backs Jerusalem embassy move, but reality is complex

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has long supported moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and is an advisor to US President Donald Trump, said on Wednesday that he believes the issue “is under active consideration.”

He stepped back, however, from saying whether or not it will happen. “That is something that the president will have to decide. It is under active consideration.”

Asked in an interview with the Post whether he feels that Trump — who was a strong advocate of moving the embassy during the campaign — has changed his mind, Giuliani responded, “I think that now that he is in office, there are a lot more facts and arguments and people you have to consult with before you make a final decision, and it is a more deliberative process. I don’t think his position has changed in any way.”

Giuliani, who Trump recently named as his cybersecurity advisor, said he has spoken with the president about the embassy issue, though he would not say when, or what he said. He did say, however, that he would advise that the move “be worked out carefully with the Israeli government, so that it is done in a way they are comfortable with.”

This, he said, means that it will be done in a way that does not “interfere with anything they are doing or have in mind. It will have a big impact of them, and it should be a decision coordinated with the government of Israel.”

Giuliani is in the country for a few days on business as the global chair of Greenberg Traurig’s Cybersecurity, Privacy and Crisis Management practice. Greenberg Traurig is an international law firm with an office in Israel. He is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his visit, as he does whenever he visits the country. Last year he was here three times.

Regarding the White House’s lack of a comment on Tuesday to the Israeli government’s announcement of plans to build 2,500 additional housing units beyond the Green Line, mostly in the large settlement blocs, Giuliani noted that this was “different than the response that used to happen, a couple of weeks ago, which was almost uniform condemnation of Israel” any time there were announcements about settlement construction.

“No comment is a lot different than saying you shouldn’t do it, or that it is wrong, or hurts the peace process,” he said. “This shows you that there is a different position in Washington than there was before.”

Giuliani said that the “rest of it,” such as the thinking and strategy behind the move is “best left to a private discussion between the president and the prime minister, which can now take place because there is a much closer relationship.”

He said that unlike the situation that existed when Barack Obama was president, Netanyahu “can explain to the president exactly his own views on these different settlements, where they help, where they hurt, what he really thinks.”

And the president, he said, “can relate to the prime minister what he really thinks, rather than communication by press release, which is the way it happened in the past. Israel would do a settlement, and the Obama administration would almost reflexively condemn it.”

Giuliani said that the new administration heralds a significant change of attitude in Washington that is more favorable toward Israel.

“Just exactly what that means and how that is going to play out over the course of maybe 10 different issues might not be exactly what some people who have the most extreme views may want, but I think it is safe to say that there is a much more understanding and supportive attitude in Washington toward Israel than there was before,” he said.

Giuliani added that there is also “a much clearer understanding that there is not a moral equivalence between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which was something that strongly influenced the Obama administration.”

As to those worried that the “put America first” theme of Trump’s inaugural address may not augur well for Israel, since an argument could be made under this rubric that the $3 billion a year spent on military aid for Israel could be better spent domestically, Giuliani had a simple answer: supporting Israel “fits into [putting] America first.”

“We are talking about an area of the world that has an impact on the US domestically, because of the nature of terrorism, and the fact that if we don’t spend the amount of money we are spending, and maybe even more on this part of the world, that will have domestic implications for the United States,” he said. “This is part of America first, because of the attacks that occur in the United States, because of the impact of terrorism on the United States.”           (Jerusalem Post)

Netanyahu: We want Arab citizens to integrate into Israeli society

Amid protest and widespread condemnation of his government’s policies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to reassure the Arab community in Israel that he wants it to be a full part of Israeli society.

“Most Arab citizens of Israel want to integrate into Israeli society,” he posted on Facebook on Monday. “I also want this and therefore my government is investing tremendous resources to achieve this goal.”

His Facebook post came as hundreds of Arab protesters gathered outside the Knesset, demonstrating against a series of home demolitions in the Arab community and the death of a schoolteacher in disputed circumstances last week.

Arab leaders have accused Netanyahu of deliberately stepping up demolitions in Arab communities in an attempt to deflect anger ahead of the expected demolition of the illegal West Bank settlement of Amona.

The demonstration, including convoys from the north and south of the country, was part of a series of protests called by Israel’s Arab leadership, including the Joint (Arab) List faction and the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel.

One of the main demands of Monday’s protesters was that police release the body of Abu Al-Qia’an, a schoolteacher from the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev, who was killed by police after his vehicle slammed into a group of policeman guarding the demolitions.

The High Court later ordered his body released.

The protesters also called for Public Security Minister Gilad Edran to step down, accusing him of inciting against the Arab public, after he lent his voice to the police claim that Al-Qia’an was motivated by radical Islamist ideology ­ a claim the police have yet to prove.

Netanyahu has been accused in the past of using fear of the Arabs to stir up his right-wing base, most famously in the 2015 elections, when he urged people to get out and vote because “Arabs are going to the ballot boxes in droves, they are being bused in by left-wing NGOs.”

The comments immediately drew fire, with Netanyahu’s opponents saying he was inciting to racism against Israeli citizens exercising their democratic right to vote.

In his Facebook post Monday, Netanyahu criticized what he termed “extremists” inciting within the Arab community trying to work against the goal of inclusion.

“It pains me that there are extremists within Arab society who incite the Arab community to go in the opposite direction.”

Netanyahu did not speak about those protests or the home demolitions. But as an example of incitement, the prime minister referred to protesters who interrupted a speech given last week by a liaison for the Free Syrian Army.

“Israeli-Arab students came to disrupt a public meeting about the situation in Syria and attacked government policy. They claimed that the Syrian exiles who participated in the conference were traitors to the Syrian people.”

Netanyahu spoke of the fact that the protesters met with a furious response from the Syrians, who accused them of failing to understand what true oppression involves.

“You are living in a paradise compared to Syria,” Issam Zeitoun, a liaison for the Free Syrian Army with the international community, told the protesters last week as they refused to stop shouting and allow the event to continue. “You should be ashamed.”

Netanyahu added that Arab citizens of Israel have a good deal “not just in comparison with Syria, but compared to many countries in the Middle East and the world.”

The altercation the prime minister referred to occurred at a packed hall at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where a Free Syrian Army liaison and a Syrian Kurdish representative spoke to students at an event organized by the university’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace.

“I wasn’t surprised by what happened. I expect that people will behave like this when I speak at an Israeli institution because it is really a serious matter,” Zeitoun told The Times of Israel afterwards.

“Many Syrians and Palestinians see us as traitors,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can judge Syrians for speaking with Israelis in public.

“The intensity of the conflict, and the number of the people we have lost, is too great, and I will personally do all that I can and speak with everyone, not just in Israel, but around the world, in order to change the situation,” he added.

After the protests had died down, Zeitoun told the crowd that Israeli aid to Syrians, which includes Israel’s well-known medical assistance ­ more than 2,000 Syrians have been treated in Israeli hospitals since 2013 ­ is not enough to influence the population to be more pro-Israel. He said there needed to be some action on the political level for the majority of Syrians to be swayed in its attitude to the Jewish state.   (the Times of Israel)

IDF thwarts two terror attacks in West Bank

Two terror attacks were thwarted on Wednesday in the Binyamin region of the West Bank, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit reported.

A car ramming attack was thwarted on Wednesday, at a gas station off of Highway 60, near Kochav Ya’akov in the Binyamin region of the West Bank, according to the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

There were no reports of Israelis hurt in the incident and the suspect was shot and killed at the scene. According to initial reports, the suspected perpetrator targeted IDF soldiers in the vicinity.

According to the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, the suspect veered his vehicle into a bus station where citizens and soldiers were standing and also had a knife in his hand however was neutralized prior to exiting the vehicle. The circumstances surrounding the incident are still being investigated.

A few hours later, a suspected shooting attack was reported Wednesday near an IDF guard post near Halamish, in the Binyamin region of the West Bank, according to the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

The soldiers returned fire, wounding the Palestinian, the spokesperson said adding that Karlin rifle was found in the vehicle. The suspect was reported to be in serious condition.

There were no reported injuries to IDF forces.                            (Jerusalem Post)

Former chief rabbi Metzger confesses to reduced bribery charges in plea

Yonah Metzger will become the first former chief rabbi to go behind bars, after he signed a plea deal on Tuesday admitting to reduced bribery charges that carry penalties of up to three-and-a-half years in jail and a NIS 5 million fine.

His lawyers tried to spin the positive aspects of the deal, saying that around half of the original bribery charges will be dropped and that, with good behavior, Metzger may get out of jail in only two years.

Still, the plea deal, once it is approved by the Jerusalem District Court, will bring to a climax what is likely the most serious corruption conviction since the verdict against former prime minister Ehud Olmert. Metzger had previously denied all charges.

Metzger was indicted in October 2015 for taking NIS 10m. in bribes. His trial opened in March 2016, but never delved deeply into details due to ongoing plea deal negotiations.

Besides bribery, the charges also included fraud, breach of public trust, fraudulent receipt of a benefit under aggravated circumstances, theft, money-laundering, tax violations and conspiracy to commit a felony, all while abusing his position as chief rabbi. It was unclear which of the original charges were being dropped.

The indictment said that of the NIS 10m. in bribes, NIS 7m. went directly to Metzger (the numbers are according to exchange rates at the time of the crimes – at current rates, the amounts would drop to around NIS 8m. and NIS 5m.

Due to Eisenstadt’s closeness with Metzger and his involvement in the scheme, Eisenstadt was accused of receiving an overall double-digit percentage of the bribes.

In the so-called “conversion affair,” Metzger allegedly received large bribes from foreigners who wished to convert to Judaism or to clarify whether they were Jewish under standards acceptable to the Chief Rabbinate. The indictment said that Metzger and Rabbi Gavriel Cohen, the former head of the Beit Din of Los Angeles, split funds paid to Cohen related to the issues in question.

In 2011, the indictment said that Metzger and Cohen helped convert the children of a Russian businessman who had made aliya for a price of $360,000, of which Metzger received $180,000.

Next, the indictment said that Metzger received 30% to 40% of donations slated for charitable organizations in exchange for his support and activities on behalf of those organizations.

One donation of $28,000 that was slated for a yeshiva in Metzger’s synagogue found its way to Metzger and Eisenstadt instead, said the indictment.

Another donation of NIS 105,000 earmarked for the Beit Hatavshil organization, which provides food for the poor, was split between the charity and Metzger, who received around NIS 31,500 of the money without the donor’s knowledge, according to the indictment.

Another allegation involved Metzger receiving bribes under the guise of gifts, including gifts for his son’s 2010 wedding. In one case, Metzger allegedly received $500,000 in bribes in 10 separate cash payments disguised as gifts.

At one ceremony in which a rabbi was to be nominated for an official position, one relative of the nominee- rabbi’s gave Metzger $70,000, according to the indictment. (Jerusalem Post)

Leaked wartime transcript exposes Israel’s leaders bitterly divided over how to fight Hamas in Gaza

Leaked transcripts of discussions between senior Israeli officials during the 2014 war with Gaza published Tuesday paint a picture of a deeply fractious leadership, with ministers riven over whether to pursue an aggressive offensive or simply seek to contain Hamas before and during the bloody 50-day conflict.

The rancorous transcripts, published by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, offer a near-unprecedented glimpse into the inner working of the secretive body, which is charged with overseeing wartime decision making.

The publication, which may violate information security rules, comes as lawmakers are mulling the release of a state watchdog report that reportedly excoriates the cabinet over failing to properly prepare for and counter threats from terror group Hamas during the war.

In the excerpts, which begin in the lead-up to the war, then-economy minister Naftali Bennett, from the hawkish Jewish Home party, is seen leading a camp pushing for immediate and heavy action against Hamas in Gaza, despite the possible high human costs.

“Be galloping horses, not lazy bulls,” Bennett chides the IDF chief of staff, Benny Gantz, at one point, pushing for a plan to destroy a network of tunnels used by Hamas to attack Israeli soldiers both in the Strip and in Israel.

Others, led in the cabinet discussions by then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, but including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-finance minister Yair Lapid, insisted on a more restrained response, even as Israeli cities were bombarded by rockets from Gaza and IDF soldiers were dying in bitter gun battles in Gaza.

Over 70 Israelis were killed in the war, most of them soldiers, and over 2,000 were killed on the Palestinian side in an intense bombing campaign and ground invasion in Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas.

Israel, which launched the offensive — dubbed Operation Protective Edge — to stem rocket fire and later to also destroy Hamas’s subterranean military infrastructure, maintains that over half of the Gazans killed were fighters.

The transcripts published by Yedioth begin on June 30, over a week before the war and just hours after troops combing the West Bank found the bodies of three Israeli teenagers kidnapped and murdered by a Hamas cell from the Hebron area, an attack that would soon snowball into the full-fledged conflict.

In the months before the kidnapping, the IDF had uncovered a number of tunnels from Gaza reaching into Israel, leading to assessments that Hamas terrorists were planning a large-scale attack.

As Israel cracked down on Hamas members in the West Bank in response to the triple abduction and murder, an attack that shocked much of the Israeli public, rocket fire from Gaza into Israel intensified and public pressure for a response grew.

‘Tunnels not there to rust’

The transcripts show, though, that while Bennett was pushing for a response to the tunnels, most others in the top decision-making forum were wary of provoking a fresh war.

“The response to the [murders] until now has been weak and shameful,” Bennett lashes out in the transcript. “In Gaza there are dozens of tunnels intended for kidnappings. They’re not there to rust,” he is quoted as saying.

“We have to take the initiative,” he insists.

According to Yedioth, the “rust” comment is likely a dig at Ya’alon, who, in the run-up to the 2006 Second Lebanon War, said Hezbollah’s rockets would “rust” in their warehouses. Hezbollah fired thousands of those rockets at Israeli cities in the course of the war that summer.

All the ministers oppose Bennett’s proposal for a Gaza escalation.

“The tunnels are a real threat to the State of Israel,” Netanyahu says, “and they could change the [strategic] balance between us and them. Bogie,” he turns to Ya’alon, using his nickname, “I want you to present a plan tomorrow that includes taking control of the openings.”

“We have such a plan,” Ya’alon replies.

“I don’t know it,” says Netanyahu.

On July 1, the question returns to the security cabinet.

Ya’alon warns against a hasty response. “Hamas does not have any intention of activating its tunnels of its own initiative,” he tells the ministers. “We must be wary of making a miscalculation.”

“In the Gilad Shalit incident, did they give [indications of intending to kidnap]?” Bennett retorts, referring to the 2006 kidnapping of the Israeli soldier from the Israeli side of the Gaza border.

“No,” Ya’alon admits.

Netanyahu is quoted continuing to push for a containment policy.

“You think if we do nothing, they’ll contain [themselves]?” Bennett demands.

“Yes,” Ya’alon says.

Gilad Erdan, who was then communications minister, tells Ya’alon the army has presented a plan “for conquering Gaza, but not for taking care of the tunnels.”

“We have presented it,” says Ya’alon.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gantz also pushes for containment.

“Hamas doesn’t want to act,” he says. “They’ve already said on their radio [station in Gaza], ‘We made a mistake with the kidnapping [of the three teens].’”

The next day, July 2, Ya’alon warns ministers that he is against taking action against the tunnels for fear it could lead to a wider conflagration. “It might draw us in,” he says.

At that point, the head of army intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, insists, “There are dozens of indications Hamas doesn’t want a fight.”

Gantz agrees: “I recommend the strategic exposure of Hamas’s tunnels program,” apparently urging that the extent and threat of the tunnels be made public.

Bennett again turns to the possibility of an IDF operation.

“How long would a ground operation against the tunnels take?” he asks the generals.

“Two or three days,” says Gantz.

The actual anti-tunnel operation took 19 days, as Israeli officials discovered the full, unrealized, extent of the underground network of dozens of tunnels criss-crossing the Strip.

We can live with the tunnels

On July 3, Netanyahu is still looking for a way to neutralize the tunnels threat without an incursion.

He asks Gantz if “detonating the shafts would neutralize the use of tunnels.”

“I don’t know,” Gantz replies. “It might disrupt.”

“Would it save us from having to enter the tunnels?” Netanyahu asks.

“The effectiveness of exploding [the shafts] is very low,” says Gantz.

Noticing that the options are shrinking, Gantz warns the ministers that “it is likely that an operation against the tunnels would lead to conquering all of Gaza.”

Ya’alon says Israel can live with the tunnels. “We live with no small number of developing threats. I suggest not starting an action against the tunnels.”

IDF infantrymen congregating around a tunnel entrance in Gaza on July 24, 2014. (Courtesy IDF Flickr)

IDF infantrymen congregating around a tunnel entrance in Gaza on July 24, 2014. (Courtesy IDF Flickr)

Four days later, on July 7, amid escalating rocket fire from Gaza and Israeli Air Force responses, Hamas seems to make its decision: it cannot afford to deescalate, so it must escalate. A barrage of over 100 rockets from Gaza hits Israeli towns and cities. The cabinet formally decides on Operation Protective Edge.

Ya’alon, meanwhile, still wants to limit the scope of the operation. “We can reach a ceasefire. It’s wrong to reach the point where we strip them of the tunnels. We must see the Egyptian mediation through.”

Bennett yet again takes the more aggressive tack. “I recommend an action to neutralize the tunnels.

“And if you gain quiet for the next three years without destroying the tunnels, what’s bad about that?” Ya’alon retorts.

“And if we suffer a strategic terror attack, it will be Gilad Shalit times 100. Better to prevent it, and I haven’t seen a plan for doing that,” says Bennett.

“And after you go in, they won’t build more tunnels?” Ya’alon asks.

Push to conquer Gaza

The next day, July 8, with Operation Protective Edge officially underway, ministers are starting to demand more aggressive and decisive action.

“We must conquer Gaza and comprehensively remove the threat,” says Yuval Steinitz, the minister for strategic affairs at the time.

“Let’s not get overexcited,” replies then-justice minister Tzipi Livni.

“Army intelligence was wrong in its assessments up to this point. We have to conquer Gaza,” demands Avigdor Liberman, then the foreign minister.

Finance minister Lapid sides with Ya’alon: “I oppose a ground incursion.”

On July 10, with the home front continuing to take volleys of rockets from Gaza, a ground operation increasingly becomes the favored option among ministers.

Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman presents the cabinet with a plan called “Forward Defense” that includes a limited one-kilometer incursion beyond the border fence in order to neutralize the tunnels.

Ya’alon and Gantz still oppose the move, however, and the cabinet refuses to approve it.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz speaks with Israeli soldiers near the border with the Gaza Strip, on July 26, 2014 (IDF Spokesperson)

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz speaks with Israeli soldiers near the border with the Gaza Strip, on July 26, 2014 (IDF Spokesperson)

“There is a strategic threat that can be deployed against us at any moment,” insists Turgeman. “There are at least nine tunnels that crossed into our territory [and can be used to stage major terrorist attacks inside Israel].”

“Do we continue shooting [from outside Gaza] or [turn to] a ground operation?” asks Netanyahu.

“I oppose a ground operation,” Gantz says. “We have achieved a great deal up to now. Hamas is hurt. The tunnels are a tolerable danger.”

Bennett asks about Turgeman’s proposal: “How broad would an operation against the tunnels be?”

“There would be friction,” says Turgeman, a military term for expected enemy resistance, “but we know how to deal with it.”

“What would you do in our shoes?” Bennett asks.

“He isn’t in your shoes, he’s a galloping horse,” quips Ya’alon.

“Then not in our shoes, in your shoes,” Bennett replies, unfazed.

“In my shoes and in yours, I’d go in with three brigade-level battle teams to neutralize the tunnel threat,” Turgeman answers.

“We have the condition to create deterrence,” Kochavi affirms, appearing to take Turgeman’s side.

But Ya’alon continues to insist on restraint. “I look at the tunnels threat as an unsolved problem, and we won’t solve [it] in this action either.”

Liberman chimes in with an all-or-nothing approach. “Go for a broad operation in Gaza,” he says. “But if it’s [a choice] between an anti-tunnel operation [only] or a ceasefire, go for a ceasefire.”

‘You want to run the army for me’

On July 17, the IDF intercepts and prevents a large planned raid on Israel by “dozens of Hamas gunmen” via a tunnel near the Kerem Shalom crossing. In response, the cabinet finally decides on a ground operation.

“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Bennett said at the time.

By July 27, with dozens of dead soldiers and massive international pressure for a ceasefire, the internal schisms in the cabinet have reached their peak.

Ya’alon rails at Bennett over his unauthorized visits to the field and meetings with officers behind his back.

“You want to run the army for me,” Ya’alon says. “I won’t allow you to come back from visits to the field and tell me, ‘do this’ or ‘do that,’ you hear?”

Bennett doesn’t budge. “I will, if the truth isn’t being reported [to the cabinet],” he says.

“I’m reporting the truth,” says Ya’alon.

“Until now we haven’t heard about [the developing] ceasefire with Hamas.”

Ya’alon: “I report to you?”

Bennett: “Of course.”

Bennett then turns on the chief of staff. “I expect you to come to the cabinet with operational plans and a fighting spirit. I’m not the one who’s supposed to bring [to the cabinet] plans for destroying the tunnels. Be galloping horses, not lazy bulls.”

Five days later, on August 1, after a Hamas operation violates the ceasefire and causes the deaths of Maj. Benaya Sarel, Lt. Hadar Goldin and First Sergeant Liel Gidoni, unhappiness with the restrained Netanyahu-Ya’alon line grows.

Erdan asks Kochavi, the intelligence chief, why the orders given to Givati Brigade fighters in Gaza during the ceasefire limited their ability to respond in ways that placed them in danger. “If I’d known this would be the case during ceasefires, I would have opposed them,” he says.

Looking for Facebook ‘likes’

The publication of the transcript on Tuesday drew fierce criticism from ministers who were involved in the discussions.

In a thinly veiled accusation at Bennett, Ya’alon said Tuesday, “Unfortunately, I see this morning that politicians are leaking from inside the [cabinet] discussions, just to win a few more ‘likes’ on Facebook.”

Speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank in Tel Aviv, he suggested the cabinet had acted well in that war. “We defined the goals of the campaign precisely beforehand, and we achieved them. We achieved the ceasefire. Most importantly, Hamas is weak and deterred, and the south [of Israel] is enjoying unprecedented quiet. This is an example of responsible and careful leadership with a steady hand on the wheel even when there are some politicians [undermining that leadership] both during the operation and afterwards.”

Steinitz, now the energy minister, called the leak “pure damage to the State of Israel.”

Livni, who also spoke at the INSS conference, said the key complaint raised by Bennett and others about the tunnels was not the main failing revealed in the Gaza war, but rather the lack of an overarching strategy.

“The problem in Protective Edge was bigger than the tunnels. The cabinet has no policy with respect to Gaza, and the army and the defense establishment hunger for one. Is Gaza part of the Palestinian state? Is it part of Israel and we must reconquer it or return to the Gush Katif settlements, as [Jewish Home MK] Shuli Mualem suggested? We only work tactically, putting out fires one after another. You can’t run a military operation or anything else that way. That’s the real failure.”

She added: “There are tunnels today as well — and the cabinet isn’t deciding on an operation.”

She also criticized a “lack of coordination between the military and diplomatic” corps.

“Operation Protective Edge could have ended with a UN Security Council resolution against Hamas, the disarmament of Gaza and direct talks with the [Palestinian] Authority without preconditions, but Netanyahu was afraid to make that decision because no diplomatic goals were set for the operation,” she said.   (the Times of Israel)

A Middle East peace deal won’t succeed until there’s peace between the Palestinians themselves.

By Jonathan Schanzer                   Politico

http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/01/jared-kushner-needs-a-wingman-214684

Donald Trump last week appointed his son-in-law Jared Kushner to “broker a Middle East peace deal.” Mediating an agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis is a “huge” task, and Trump knows it. But he can make Kushner’s job much easier if he appoints another envoy, too.

The U.S. needs someone to first broker a peace deal between the Palestinians themselves.

The Palestinian internecine conflict is a bipartisan blind spot. The last two presidential administrations labored to achieve a two-state solution without giving serious thought to solving the current three-state scenario. Indeed, Israel is currently sandwiched between two separate Palestinian statelets: a Palestinian Authority-run West Bank and a Hamas-run Gaza Strip. The West Bank government is open to making a deal with Israel in theory, but refuses in practice thus far. The government ruling Gaza seeks nothing less than Israel’s destruction based on both religious and nationalist grounds. Both regimes insist that they speak on behalf of the Palestinians.

The nominally secular Fatah faction, which is the dominant political party in the Palestinian Authority, and the violent Islamist group Hamas have vied for power since the first intifada of 1987. In fact, the spate of Hamas suicide bombings in the 1990s may have been as much an attempt to delegitimize the Palestinian Authority as they were an attempt to derail the ongoing peace talks.

The George W. Bush administration, intent on spreading democracy in the Arab World, encouraged the two factions to square off in elections in 2006. Hamas won the contest, but the Palestinian Authority refused to allow the terrorist group to govern. Tensions hit their zenith in 2007 when Hamas launched a war and successfully wrested control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority still clings to power in the West Bank while Hamas today controls the Gaza Strip. Both rule with brutality, for fear that the other may attempt to consolidate power across the Palestinian divide.

While Washington has made tepid efforts to empower Fatah at the expense of Hamas over the years, it has done little to tackle the problem head-on. By contrast, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have all tried to broker power-sharing agreements between the two Palestinian parties. More recently, Russia and Switzerland have gotten into the act. The Russians probably even thought they succeeded last week when Hamas and Fatah agreed to a “new national council.” But the news came amidst reports of that Hamas and Fatah were accusing each other of carrying out “politically motivated” arrests in their respective territories. As expected, the purported agreement reached in Moscow was yet another false alarm.

But we need to give these governments credit. They understand that the low-intensity conflict between the two most powerful Palestinian territories makes a peace agreement with Israel impossible. Indeed, they understand that the Palestinians lack a legitimate leader capable of representing both territories or engaging in productive diplomacy with Israel.

Rather than address the geopolitical split that renders any Palestinian leader incapable of signing a peace agreement with Israel, the Obama administration insisted that settlements are the primary obstacle to peace. While there may come a time and place to address that issue, the focus on settlements was putting the cart before the horse. Any diplomatic effort to end the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis to include the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel must first solve the Palestinian internecine conflict. From there, a bilateral negotiation can ensue between two leaders—one Palestinian and one Israeli—that legitimately represent their people.

Admittedly, it will be no small task to negotiate peace between the Palestinians. The two sides harbor an ideological hatred for one another that is equal to if not greater than what we often see between Palestinians and Israelis. Their painful memories of the bloody 2007 Gaza conflict are not soon to be forgotten.

There is also the diplomatic and legal challenge for American officials of avoiding direct dealings with Hamas. For years, there have been whispers of occasional track-two diplomacy between U.S. think tanks and the Palestinian terrorist group. This could be one angle to explore. But even indirect messages to Hamas should not signal acceptance. The group must disarm, relinquish its control of the Gaza Strip and allow for a single Palestinian Authority government to rule.

If Trump is looking for a bold step to take in his first one hundred days, he should appoint a Special Envoy to Solve the Palestinian Conflict. In doing so, his message would be clear: The United States is committed to diplomacy between Palestinians and Israelis, which hinges on a solution to the longstanding Palestinian internal dispute.