Defense and Diplomacy: Strategies helping the political survival of Israel's Current Government
By Sarah Ann Haves
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, Jerusalem, Israel
As U.S. President George W. Bush completes his tour of the Middle East, many pro-Israel supporters are wondering what Israel's policies will look like in 2008, in lieu of U.S. and international pressure on the Jewish state.
A two-pronged approach of defense measures along with diplomatic efforts has made its way through Israel's political ranks. With this strategy, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is working hard to convince members of his government coalition, as well as a majority of Israelis, that peace with the Palestinians is worth the security risks involved in achieving an historic final status agreement.
This week, there was a knock at my door. An Israeli youth was there to collect my gas mask. He said the government was updating thousands of gas masks which never got used during the second Gulf War.
Recently, the government distributed leaflets to the general public that described what to do in the event of a future missile war. Israeli military officials are talking more publicly about the probability of a ground invasion into the Gaza Strip to knock out terrorists, missiles, rocket launchers, and underground tunnels used for smuggling weapons, money, drugs, and human trafficking. They are also preparing for a possible confrontation with Iran. Contrary to the recent American National Intelligence Estimate report, Israel believes that Iran is still trying to obtain a nuclear weapon that would threaten the existence of the Jewish state. Israel is taking no chances, and therefore, the government's defense budget has been increased to secure the Home Front, as well as, to purchase new weapons for the IDF's military arsenal.
At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is meeting almost every week with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, preparing to discuss core issues toward the formation of a Palestinian state by the end of 2008 -- a timetable set in Annapolis, and repeated recently in Jerusalem, by U.S. President George W. Bush. On his recent trip to the Middle East, Bush emphasized the need for Israel to get rid of settlement outposts, while also pushing the Palestinians to crack down on terror. But, even during his visit, rockets were launched into Israel as the working teams of Olmert and Abbas negotiated "under fire".
Olmert continues to order the IDF to strike at terrorists in Gaza, and recently in Nablus, and to target rocket factories which are creating more sophisticated and longer-range rockets. Those rockets launched from Gaza recently hit areas of northern Ashkelon. Right before the arrival of President Bush, rockets fired from terrorists in southern Lebanon hit a kibbutz in the western Galilee, another worrisome development for Israel on its northern border.
Some analysts may see Olmert's two-pronged approach as a conflict in agendas. But, Olmert seems to have implemented this policy as a strategy -- defense measures along with diplomatic efforts -- a key component of his government.
After the widely publicized Annapolis peace conference in November, Olmert has been keen on pushing the process forward, not allowing any obstacles to get in his way. In applying this two-pronged approach he is trying to assure the Israeli population that he'll only negotiate a land deal with the Palestinians if terrorism is stopped. His hope for a successful future withdrawal from Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) depends on the approval of a majority of citizens who currently view the Annapolis conference, and the subsequent visit of Bush, with great skepticism. The idea of a West Bank withdrawal under "fire" is unacceptable to many Israelis who are watching Olmert's actions closely.
Michael Oren, a historian, author, and Senior Fellow at Jerusalem's Shalem Center thinks the problem lies with the Palestinians. "I don't see that the government of Mahmoud Abbas is making a strenuous attempt on clamping down on terror, and I don't think it really has that ability. I think there's sort of an implicit understanding that the only thing keeping Hamas out of many Palestinian cities is the IDF."
Most Israelis are waiting for Olmert to give his Defense Minister Ehud Barak the approval for a large-scale incursion into Gaza to wipe out the Hamas terrorist threat coming from the south. Indeed, Olmert must find a way to lower the fire in order to advance his political goals. He wants to keep his government stable hoping that certain members won't bolt over the core issues he's planning to negotiate with Abbas. Those issues involve settlements, borders, refugees, and the status of Jerusalem.
Oren says that whatever Olmert's failings might be he is a very smart politician. "He knows the (peace) process is essential to keeping his government together. His government, which began as a 'just right of center' government has become a 'left of center' government, and he knows where his support lies."
Oren says that if Olmert and Abbas were to reach an agreement, including the re-division of Jerusalem (which Olmert has indicated he would agree to), it would cause his current coalition to collapse. The two right-winged parties, Israel Beitenu and Shas, have indicated they would leave the government over such a policy. This would then make way for a leftist coalition, including the Meretz and Arab parties, who are now waiting in the wings. They would join the Labor party, the Pensioner's party and Olmert's Kadima party in the current government. Olmert is looking for ways to avoid new elections at all costs. Kadima members know that in new elections they could lose seats to Likud. That party is headed up by right-wing politician Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu who has been steadily more popular than Olmert in public polls.
Oren believes that Olmert is sincere about wanting peace with the Palestinians, but admits, "I also think that peace with the Palestinians plays to his political interests...The press is solidly behind him, not because they love him, but because they hate Bibi. They'll do anything to keep him in power and keep Bibi out. Do not over estimate the political prowess of this man. He is very adept politically."
Two years ago this month, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had a massive stroke which left him incapacitated and in a coma. Today, Olmert's political policies seem similar to those of his predecessor. Before Sharon implemented his 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, he had a strategy of defense measures and diplomatic efforts, which proved to be popular throughout his time in office.
While continuing to look for a diplomatic solution to avoid a stalemate in the peace process, Sharon promoted the concept of unilateral withdrawals (at the suggestion of his Vice Premier, Ehud Olmert). Yet, at the same time, Sharon kept up a policy of targeting killings, which included strikes against senior Hamas leaders. This military policy caused Hamas to seek a temporary cease-fire. Once rocket attacks were at a minimum, Sharon found Israel's population more acceptable of a Gaza withdrawal.
Times have not changed much. Hamas is looking for a temporary cease-fire with Israel now. So far, Olmert has not agreed to such a measure. But, he continues to look for ways to stop terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians so the Road Map peace process can move forward. If Abbas won't stop the fire, Israel will help him do so....militarily and diplomatically.
Meanwhile, another sore spot for Israel has been Egypt's refusal to crack down on terrorists infiltrating its porous borders. Terrorists coming through the Egyptian-Gaza border are increasing their capabilities to fight Israel. In December 2007, Israel's Foreign Minister, Tzippi Livni talked to international leaders about the possible implementation of a NATO peace-keeping force on the Egyptian-Gaza border to stop cross-border weapons smuggling and terrorist infiltrations. The U.S. Congress also threatened to limit aid to Egypt if it refused to deal with the problem. After intense diplomatic pressure, Egypt is using some U.S. aid to receive training on how to find and destroy underground tunnels.
Yet, Oren indicates that the cold peace between Israel and Egypt could get much colder. "Where it is going to come to a head is when the Israeli army actually moves into Gaza. This is almost inevitable." Oren predicts that Olmert's government will wait until rockets launched by Hamas and Palestinian terror groups in Gaza hit and kill civilians in Israel's border towns; then the incursion into Gaza will follow.
In the meantime, Hamas is hoping that through third-party negotiations Israel will agree to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, some with "blood on their hands", in exchange for kidnapped Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit. This prisoner exchange could help Olmert, politically, as well. If Olmert can get Shalit released, stop most of the rocket fire through an incursion into Gaza, and continue to negotiate peace with Abbas, his popularity will likely increase, allowing him the leverage he needs to try and implement a final peace deal with the Palestinians. For Olmert and his government coalition members this is an important quest.
The one wild card is the much delayed Winograd Commission report, expected to be released on January 31, which includes the failings of the Second Lebanon War. This could implicate Olmert in such a way that he would be forced to resign. It would follow a pattern of other Israeli leaders, like Golda Meir, who resigned after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and Menachem Begin who resigned after the 1982 first Lebanon War. Oren thinks that if Olmert survives the Winograd report, his government could be sustained a long time, and he might even be re-elected to a second term as prime minister.
Politics change week to week in the Middle East, and no one really knows what it will be like next year in 2009. But, this year is off to a good start for Israel's current prime minister. Olmert's popularity has been bolstered by President Bush's recent visit to Israel, and, so far, his government coalition is still solidly in place....at least for now. He is already occupied with new confidence-building measures that will satisfy Palestinian demands. Yet, he knows he cannot afford to settle into the new year without also looking for confidence-building measures that meet the demands of the Israeli population. Olmert understands his political survival, and that of his current party coalition, depends on it.
Pro-Israel supporters would do well to pray for Israel's current government during what could be a rocky and tumultuous new year politically, diplomatically, and militarily for the Jewish state.
1 Timothy 2:1-4: "Therefore, I exhort, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men; for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence; For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."
Ms. Haves is a news analyst, reporting from Israel on political, diplomatic, military and spiritual issues affecting the nation.
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