At times of crisis, strategic questions are ignored and tactical issues take precedence in public discourse: Who was assassinated? What was his role? Was the prime minister interested in the current crisis for political reasons? How long will this round of fighting last? The big, strategic questions are relegated to the sidelines.
The most important strategic question now is: What has Israel done since reaching understandings with Hamas following the 2014 war (“Cast Lead Operation”) to make the temporary ceasefire a permanent one? The answer: almost nothing.
Ceasefire talks are moving at a snail’s pace
Ceasefire talks with Egypt’s mediation are moving at a snail’s pace, if at all. Likud ministers and others have proposed solutions to the crisis years ago. Minister Israel Katz suggested establishing an artificial island with a maritime port opposite Gaza’s shores back in 2011, and in June 2016, launched a media campaign to advance the idea. Minister Avigdor Liberman supported establishing a cargo shipping connection between Gaza and Cyprus in early 2018. Former head of the IDF’s Intelligence Director and the current Commander of the Southern Front, Major General Herzi Halevi, warned the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee back in February 2016 that the fragile economic situation in Gaza may lead to war with Israel. The writing, as the cliché goes, has been on the wall for a long time.
Today, after the assassination of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad northern sector commander, Bahaa’ Abu al-‘Ata, the security establishment is congratulating itself over the precise and successful assassination of a senior terrorist leader. It should not be blamed – the role of the army is to provide military solutions. But no one in sight is willing to take credit for the utter political failure of unending Israeli rounds of violence in Gaza.
In the press conference he held alongside the IDF chief of staff and the head of the Shin Bet, Prime Minister Netanyahu chose to focus on the “ticking time bomb” that was Abu al-‘Ata, instead of the bomb that has been ticking for years now – the entire Gaza Strip. This bomb has been ticking for much longer, and the bomb squad, – namely, policy-makers – are nowhere in sight. It is much easier to eliminate one person than to eliminate a strategic, structural problem affecting the lives of millions. “Israel does not seek escalation, but we will do everything we need to protect ourselves,” said Netanyahu at the press conference. But this narrow and short-sighted view of self-defence, which misleads the public about the real meaning of “whatever it takes,” will necessarily lead to renewed and deeper conflict in Gaza.
When the guns roar the muses are silent. “There is no government and no opposition,” as Israeli politicians say. But who is served at this time by the lack of opposition?
Frustration of Palestinian citizens
On the Palestinian side, similar political standstill exists. The unending reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah, along with their unwillingness to conduct general elections for the parliament and presidency, are increasing the levels of frustration and desperation of Palestinian citizens. Iran has stepped into the void, financing the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (and to a lesser extent, Hamas). Similar to the political dynamic in Israel, the troublemakers determined to act win the day. Again and again, the illusion of a sustainable status quo promoted by Netanyahu crashes to the ground as the most militant actors win public accolades.
At this time, the role of journalists is particularly crucial in asking the hard questions.. Here are some examples of questions Israeli journalists should ask their leaders, chief among them Netanyahu:
Why hasn’t a long-term ceasefire deal been reached with Hamas to date? What are Hamas’ demands for the prisoner exchange deal, and why is Israel refusing to meet those demands?
Hamas has long asked Israel to allow the entry of day-laborers from Gaza as a condition for a long-term ceasefire. The physical infrastructure is in place: a large passengers’ terminal at the Erez Crossing, which includes the technology to biometrically scan those passing, similar to crossings in the West Bank. Why is Israel refusing to meet this demand?
Is there any development in planning a sea port for the Gaza Strip? Are the challenges bureaucratic, stemming from security concerns, or lack of governmental action?
Did Hamas specify the duration of the ceasefire it is willing to abide by in exchange for meeting its conditions? If so, what is it?
Is Hamas capable of controlling the rocket fire of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and is avoiding doing so, or is the latest escalation a sign of its loss of control? What are the implications of such a loss of control?
Israeli self-satisfaction with the operational success should be replaced with a demand for substantive change in the strategic relationship between Israel and the Gaza Strip.