Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Plot Thickens

The Tel Aviv University workshop ended last night and the last few days have been non-stop. I’ve been unable to post a blog simply because we have had literally no time to attend to our own needs, and we have barely had the opportunity to decompress. Yesterday, our last day of the workshop, ran for 18 hours straight. It is a credit to the good will and great spirit of our group that we were able to hold up through this final day of presenters and programs.

As we plowed through our program, the region around us was descending into a true balagan – the Hebrew slang for a mess. The abduction of a live Israeli soldier (it is interesting that the Hebrew word for this in the media is “kidnapping”) by HAMAS militants after a daring surprise attack on a tank emplacement at Kerem Shalom (which also killed two soldiers) placed both untested leaderships – the Olmert government and the Haniyeh government – into true crisis mode. The attack, which involved the construction of a 400 meter tunnel, had been operational for weeks, and was ordered from the Damascus wing of HAMAS at the behest of Khaled Mashal. While the tunnel was being dug over the last few weeks, it was clear that the attack was intended to be another act of resistance to the current stalemate. But the timing of the attack had the added effect of torpedoing the positive efforts by Mahmoud Abbas to get the HAMAS government to agree to the “prisoners’ document” and thereby create a pragmatic national unity government which might be an acceptable negotiating partner for Israel.

The Israeli leadership then went into the equivalent of defcon 1, and has been running non-stop ever since. PM Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz are completely inexperienced in taking fateful military decisions, and at least in the case of Peretz there are public signs of a certain exhaustion in the ongoing crisis which has ensued. In a televised briefing to his Labor Party yesterday, Peretz was disoriented and stammering, and this led to a round of criticism from former military men which only engenders insecurity in the Israeli electorate. Peretz, who was hoping that his stint as Defense Minister would be the stepping stone to eventually gaining the PM’s chair, is presently regarded as a weak link in the chain of command. This crisis might very well mark the end of Amir Peretz’s political aspirations. Certainly, a Labor MK I spoke with over dinner last night was concerned over Peretz’s public display.

For the sake of a single captured soldier, the Israelis are engaging in a series of responses – both military and diplomatic – which are likely to change the regional equation; it is an irony that the seething underlying conflict has not generated a similar concentration of energized response in the last 10 months. It is bizarre that a single galvanizing incident can lead to such a massive deterioration of the situation (especially considering the daily missile shots on Sderot), but it is not the first time that a provocative attack leads to a massive response, for such is the recurring script – be it Lebanon in 1982, or Defensive Shield in 2002. The town of Sderot could be hit day after day and the response was targeted killings – a single young soldier is kidnapped and mechanized divisions are shooting into Gaza. Go figure.

As of this morning, the news is grim. A teenaged settler was kidnapped Saturday night and his body was found this morning. Overnight, the Israelis have captured dozens of HAMAS government ministers in both Gaza and the West Bank, a creative response no doubt but one that is laden with international implications. This morning Israeli tanks are laying down a barrage of fire into selected portions of Gaza. Nothing indiscriminate, mind you – all quite focused and tactical, but it is easy to imagine the shooting could spiral into a new level of barely-controlled mayhem.

While touring the Golan and the northern border area on Tuesday, we were treated to a positively ludicrous briefing by an IDF spokesperson who claimed, after my direct query, that Israel would do nothing on its northern front to apply pressure to Damascus, which provides a friendly home to the foreign affairs office of HAMAS. In fact, he claimed, the Golan had been emptied out of soldiers as they were moved south to their rally points around Gaza. Incredulously, he told us that if the ten Syrian divisions on the Golan were to move against Israel, they would be met by no more than a dozen Israeli soldiers in all of the Golan. Last night however the Israeli air force did indeed apply pressure to Damascus, flying low and unimpeded over the presidential summer home of Bashar al-Assad in Latakia, opening a further inter-state dimension to the crisis. Now Israel has raised its alert on the northern border, on the assumption that Hizballah may send a fusillade of rockets from their villages into northern Israel proper. Forty-eight hours ago we were in Kibbutz Misgav Am (which is also a lookout point manned by the IDF - see the picture of Hizballah village Adisah taken on June 27) just across from Hizballah lands as far as the eye could see. I wonder if the residents of Misgav Am will be sleeping in their homes or in their shelters tonight.

Is there a way out of this crisis? The capture of senior HAMAS ministers gives Israel new bargaining chips. As of this writing, Israel has yet to unleash the full force of its power against Gaza. It is clear that the gradual military pressure is being accompanied by an intensive diplomatic effort, and Egypt might yet play a decisive role in rolling back the crisis. It is clear that this crisis has forced the Israelis to talk not only to Abbas, but also to elements of HAMAS, all for the sake of identifying the location of the soldier. The Israeli military is hoping for a chanced at a focused extraction operation, but this captured soldier is not in an isolated hillside house, rather he is likely being held in the densely populated slums of Gaza. A forced extraction operation is desirable, but simply may not be possible. In that case, would Olmert dare reenter Gaza in full force? Not only would that undo his mentor’s withdrawal from Gaza of last summer, but it would permanently take off the table the disciple’s vague West Bank “convergence” plan for the future.

I think the key here might lie with a single Israeli detainee – Marwan Barghouti, one of the original drafters of the prisoners’ document, and currently serving a life sentence, standing convicted for his role in the killing of 5 Israelis. Israel has two choices – an unpredictable full-scale ground operation in Gaza, or an exchange of captives, including Barghouti (who I have thought for a long time is the sole Palestinian figure who might lead the Palestinians to a settlement with Israel – but that is another yet unwritten blog entry). As of this moment, both options – a choice between two bad options, no doubt, but one certainly better than the other – are on the table. The future of the extremely weak Olmert government is but one factor which hangs in the balance.

Update at 2300: Why does it seem that Israel becomes a front-page story whenever I am in-country? Maybe I should be banned from entry. :) As another round of reports come in about Israel blowing up transformers and parts of the Gaza power grid, my buddy Yoav told me over dinner that during the first Intifada there were threats of cutting off electricity to the Palestinian territories during the week of the quarter-, semi- and finals of the World Cup -not a stone was thrown that week. So let's see if the entire mess is cleared up before Argentina plays Germany at 1800 Friday Israel/Palestine time. I've heard crazier theories....

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