By Akiva Eldar
October 17, 2017
First, the good news. Speaking to soldiers and reporters at an Oct. 10 event marking the recent Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said, “When the next campaign begins, and it doesn’t matter where it begins, in the north or the south, it will immediately become a two-front campaign. There is no longer a single front, and that is our basic assumption.” The northern front is Lebanon and Syria, and the southern front will open up from Gaza, he said.
Now, the bad news, which Liberman spared his visitors and the people of Israel: The next war could well include a third front. He might have forgotten that the previous war, in 2014, during which Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, started on Israel’s eastern flank, in the West Bank, following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli youths. The Cabinet's decision Oct. 17 to link the resumption of the political process to disarming Hamas is a prescription to confrontation with the Palestinians
After 10 years of the cruel blockade of Gaza, the Israeli “segregation policy” differentiating the West Bank from Gaza has collapsed. Gaza remains part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict equation, and its 2 million residents still comprise part of the demographic balance in the territories Israel controls. The reconciliation agreement signed Oct. 12 in Cairo by Hamas, which has ruled Gaza, and Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA), tightens the official affinity between the West Bank and Gaza, strengthening solidarity between them.
A flare-up on Israel’s southern border with Gaza should thus be expected to spark a clash between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank and incite Palestinian terror attacks in Israel, and vice versa. Security cooperation between Israel and the PA, already hanging by a thread, is unlikely to survive the next barrage of Israeli aerial attacks in Gaza and photos of bleeding Palestinian children.
Liberman peppered his apocalyptic prophecies of a two-front war with citations from Vegetius, the late Roman writer who 1,500 years ago advised, “If you want peace, prepare for war.” Liberman and his friends in the right-wing government are known the world over for their yearning for peace. On Sept. 27, they displayed this “desire” by attending the jubilee celebration for “50 years of Jewish settlement in Judea, Samaria, the Jordan Valley and the Golan,” all the territories Israel has occupied and settled since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. On the occasion, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged never again to uproot Jews from those lands. A week later, on Oct. 3, he promised to annex the settlement of Maale Adumim to Jerusalem, a city that, as everyone knows, Israel is determined never to share with the Palestinians who live there.
Hamas is counting on this Israeli interpretation of “peace.” In the next election campaign in the West Bank and Gaza, no one will be able to blame Hamas for undermining negotiations on a permanent peace arrangement with Israel. The auspices granted by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the Palestinian reconciliation deal, and the rare unspoken approval by a US president, Donald Trump, provides Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a lot of leeway for such negotiations. Experience has given Hamas firm grounds for believing that Israel will ensure that the rope handed to Abbas turns into a noose with which the movement can strangle any diplomatic solution to the conflict.
All Hamas' leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, has to do to win over the Palestinian public is absolutely nothing. Suffice it for him to watch from the sidelines as Israel continues to build West Bank settlements and to document the nationalistic declarations of the Israeli leadership. If, for some unexpected reason, progress is achieved in diplomatic negotiations, Netanyahu’s demand of the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, and by so doing deny the history and rights of their own people, will remind them who is to blame for the occupation.
As always, Netanyahu and his allies have barricaded themselves behind the three principles set forth by the Middle East Quartet — the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States — for political cooperation: unconditional recognition of the state of Israel, adherence to previous diplomatic agreements and renunciation of terrorism. They are right, but should not Israel also adopt the principles embodied in these three conditions? What better way to manifest the desire for peace that Liberman touts than for the Israeli government to recognize the Palestinians’ right to an independent state right off the bat? It shouldn’t be so hard. After all, the prime minister declared eight years ago in his landmark Bar Ilan speech that he supports a two-state resolution to the conflict.
In accordance with the second Quarter principle, Israel would abide by all the agreements it signed with the PLO, as well as by the Quarter’s resolutions, going back to the 1998 Wye River Memorandum, which bears the signature of none other than Benjamin Netanyahu. To date, Israel has not fulfilled its part of the agreement, which requires it to transfer territory from West Bank lands designated Area C, under total Israeli control, to Area A, which is under full PA control, and to Area B, under partial PA control. Netanyahu would also have to drop his refusal to reconvene the committee established under the agreement to monitor and prevent incitement to violence. It would appear that blaming the Palestinians for incitement is far easier than dealing with Israeli incitement against Palestinians.
To set an example of adherence to previous agreements, Israel should also dust off the so-called road map for peace, issued by the Quartet in 2003, which that year was subsequently translated in full into the unanimously adopted UN Security Council Resolution 1515. The resolution requires that Israel “immediately dismantle” settlement outposts erected in the West Bank since March 2001 and to freeze “all settlement activity, including natural growth of the settlements.” Instead of immediately dismantling settlements, Israel continues to perpetually expand the construction it committed to suspending.
On the third Quartet principle — the cessation of terrorism — which embodies the desire for peace more than anything else, Israel is hardly a role model. Whereas Abbas insists Hamas lay down its arms under the reconciliation agreement, Israel displays tolerance for armed Israeli settlers attacking the property and persons of their Palestinian neighbors. Of the 289 cases of ideologically motivated crimes committed by settlers against Palestinians monitored by Yesh Din between 2013 and 2016, only 20 resulted in indictments, while 225 complaints were dismissed. Forty-four remain open.
Instead of disseminating a pack of lies about a “desire for peace” and risking war on three fronts, the minister of defense and his government colleagues would do well to read the oh-so-logical advice of the father of modern warfare, Karl von Clausewitz. “War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means,” the Prussian historian wrote in the 19th century. The problem is that the policies adopted by the current right-wing government are founded on a book written more than 2,000 years ago.
Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.