Senator George Mitchell completed his visit to the Middle East today after meeting with Netanyahu. After the meeting he said he would be back after the elections. He stated that that there were substantial hurdles standing in the way of reaching an agreement. He did not have to spend a week in the Middle East to come to that conclusion.
Today the Spanish government promised to take action to end indictment against Israeli officials. They promised to change the law in Spain, in the same way Belgium changes its laws a few years ago. The Spanish decision mirrored public opinion in Spain that may not be particularly pro Israel, but resented the use of the Spanish courts for use by outside parties in political disputes.
The police have indicated that they have enough evidence to seek an indictment against MK Avigdor Lieberman. Reportedly, the charges will be the most severe ever charged against an Israeli politician. According to reports the police will make their recommendation to the attorney general within two months. That's two months after the elections. The pace and direction of the Israeli judicial system continues to amaze me.
There was an interesting piece on the Israeli Arab participation in election on Israeli television recently that I thought would share. In the early years of the state the Arabs participation in elections was similar to the Jewish participation: 80+ percent. This was during the time of a military administration of the Arab areas. In the last election it was 56%. Arabs make up 18% of the population of Israel, but they make up 13% of the electorate. This statistic is due to the young age of the average Arab Israeli.
In past elections the vote in the Arab sector has been divided evenly between three parties. The first and oldest is Chadash, the communist party that has its routes as far back as the mandatory eras. While almost all of its voters today are Arab, it strives for Jewish Arab coexistence and always makes sure it has a Jew on its list. The second party is Balad, which is a Pan Arab party. It is an interesting hold out for an ideology that barely exists in the Arab world at this point. The final party is Ram Tal, which is the Islamic party. The Arab parties together receive about 70% of the Arab vote with the rest going to Jewish or what is called the "Zionist parties".
Palestinians fired two missiles at Israel today. Israel responded by killing one of those responsible a few hours later. There is a disagreement within the defense establishment whether these are the last bumps on the way to an agreement or whether Hamas needs to receive another serious blow before it realizes that change is necessary. With Senator Mitchell in Israel at the moment, now is not the time for significant action.
The Israeli news was dominated today by the news that a Spanish court had indicted top Israeli defense officials, from the Chief-of-Staff on down, for the 2002 killing of Salah Shehadeh. Shehadeh was the founder of the military wing of Hamas and was directly and indirectly responsible for the bus bombings that were taking place at the time. Shehadeh's assassination caused the death of the rest of his family. The indictment came as a complete surprise to those indicted.
I had the pleasure of watching an hours worth of political commercials today. The ads by the smaller parties were quite humorous. The direct attack ads are between Kadima and Likud. Likud ran an ad similar to those run by McCain against Obama. Likud quoted the nasty things that were said against Livni prior to the Kadima primaries by Shaul Mofaz. I must say that they used the most unflattering pictures of Livni that are imaginable. All the Likud ads end with a picture of Livni and a line that says the job is too big for her. Kadima ran a very good ad that described everything that Livni has done and stated if she was a man there would be no question that she would be qualified. Polling shows that Livni does very well among women, but male Israelis seem very reluctant to vote for a woman.
Last night the IDF destroyed three tunnels in Gaza that had not been destroyed during the recent war. This was in response to the bomb explosion that killed and IDF soldier near the Gaza border yesterday. Expectations are that there will be additional responses to the attack. Meanwhile, Senator George Mitchell arrived in Israel today. According to all sources the meetings were cordial and he was indeed on a fact finding mission in Israel. He clearly realizes that before he can deal with issues of any peace agreement he needs to deal with the ceasefire in Gaza. After meeting with Prime Minister Olmert, Mitchell spoke about the ceasefire and clearly stressed the need to end smuggling into Gaza. He also spoke about implementing the 2005 border crossing agreement. That agreement placed the Palestinian Authority in charge of the crossing and gave Israel the ability to electronically monitor the crossings. Hamas does not accept either of these conditions. Mitchell's first stop on his trip to the Middle East was to Egypt where he heard the Egyptian positions, which were very similar. For the first time, Olmert publicly stated that the Israel would not open the crossing permanently without an agreement for the release of Gilad Shalit.
Palestinian President Abbas spoke today and tried to lower expectations about both the Mitchell mission and President Obama's administration in general. He said that he is sure they are going to be more active and take slightly different approach, but Obama will not be able to change the basic facts.
Channel 10 released a poll today, two weeks before the election:
Likud (Netanyahu) 28 mandates
Kadima (Livni) 25 mandates
Yisrael Betenu (Lieberman) 15 mandates
Labor 14 (Barak) mandates
Shas 10 mandates
Meretz 5 mandates
Yehadut Ha'Torah 5 mandates
Ram Tal 4 mandates
Ichud Ha'Leumi 4 mandates Chadash 3 mandates
Bayit Yehudi 3 mandates
Balad 2 mandates
Gimlaim 2 mandates
Based on these results the right will clearly be victorious and Netanyhu will be the next Prime Minister. Three-quarters of Likud supporters want the party to be part of a right wing coalition. It turns out that one of Netanyhu's advisors is one of Olmert's closest advisors. This goes together with the sense among Israeli political observers that he is doing what he can to help Netanyahu, and not Livni.
On Friday Ha'aretz ran an article on the illegal increase in the settlements based on the study that Shalom Achshav released. On Sunday 60 Minutes ran a story on the subject and it is clearly getting some traction. I was asked today on radio appearance about it. This will clearly be the first area that the Obama administration is going to deal with.
The quadrennial meeting of the World Jewish Conference opened today in Jerusalem. A large part of the conference was dedicated to discussing the perception of rising anti-Semitism that has occurred, especially during the Gaza War. The reports at the conference were that despite an overall decrease in anti-Semitism in Europe over the last few years, during the war there was a marked increase. What was particularly striking according to observers is that many of the demonstrations were patently anti-Semitic with demonstrator yelling, "Go for the Jews" and "Kill the Zionist".
President Obama met this afternoon with Secretary of State Clinton and Senator Mitchell in advance of Mitchell's departure to the Middle East tonight. Obama spoke briefly to the press. He stated that he understood that Mitchell's mission is difficult, but stated that it is important to the United States and to him personally that progress is made.
The election campaign was officially re-launched today in Israel. Kadima began with a rally in Sderot. It is worth noting that this is the first Israeli election since 1984 that none of the candidates are currently Prime Minister. Since most of the Israeli campaigns have been against someone, this will be a little different. Of course, both Minister of Defense Barak and Opposition Leader Netanyahu were Prime Ministers in the past. As one observer noted, this is an election where two of the candidates were found lacking [Barak & Netanyahu] and the third is being accused of not being capable [Livni].
One of the major stories in Israel today is yesterday's arrest of many of MK Avigdor Lieberman's close confidants. He has been under investigation for almost a decade for a series of crimes. Yesterday his daughter, his lawyer, and a number of other members of his inner circle were arrested. His lawyer and a number of others, in the ways of the Israeli judicial circle, are being held without bail. Most of the questions relate to the timing two weeks before the elections. The state prosecutor was forced to defend his decision to proceed with the arrests.
Another major story in the news in Israel was the release of a recording a commander in the Golani infantry brigade made before the troops entered Gaza. The commander told his troops that if they were about to get captured they were to use their grenades to blow themselves up rather then become another 'Gilad Shalit'. There have been stories of other officers giving similar instructions.
Lastly, today the IDF announced how many people were killed in Gaza. According to the IDF, 700 Hamas fighters and 250 civilians were killed.
The war between Israel and Hamas ended a week ago and both sides are attempting to get things back to normal. In Israel the election campaign is beginning, as Israelis are going to vote on February 10th, and Hamas is trying to show that it is very much in control in Gaza.
Today Hamas announced that it was offering reparations for damage caused by the war. The organization will give 1000 Euros for those who died, 500 Euros for those wounded, 2,000 Euros for partially destroyed homes and 4,000 for fully destroyed homes. It is not at all clear how Hamas will receive the funds necessary for this project since so far everyone is claiming that they will only give money to the Palestinian Authority, i.e. Fatah. An incident that took place today sheds a little light on whether Israel established any level of deterrent from the war. There was a rumor that a Grad had been fired from Gaza and then two Israeli war planes flew over the Strip. Immediately word went out to all members of Hamas to leave their posts and many discarded their uniforms. The rumor was that the ceasefire had ended. Two hours later Hamas broadcasted a message that all was clear and fighters started returning to their posts. Negotiations have been taking place between Hamas and Egypt. Hamas has hardened its position since the ceasefire began. For the moment, Egypt is not accepting that. The Egyptians stated on television that the Rafah crossing can open tomorrow since the only thing required for that to happen is to allow the Palestinian Authority the ability to govern in Gaza, as opposed to the "band of thugs" [Hamas]. In an interview with a local newspaper today, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal stated that the fight between Iran and Egypt was basic and serious and that it is about the very essence of the Arab state.
There has been some talk about reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah in regards to a solution of who is to control the crossings. However, the situation has worsened, with Hamas killing a large number of Fatah members during the war and injuring many others. While somewhat surprising, a demonstration was held today in Jenin against Hamas and thousands attended.
Minister of Defense Barak reported in today's cabinet meeting that Egypt is doing more to try to stop the flow of arms into Gaza.
Al Qaeda launched an unprecedented attack on Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah today. They attacked him for encouraging Hamas to attack Israel and then not doing anything to help. They asked how claims to have 20,000 rockets that could hit Israel and then not assist the Palestinians.
Those who read yesterday's update have surely realized that I was wrong. President Barack Obama kept his promise to deal with the Middle East on his first day. This took place not only on his first day, but in his first hours at work. Shortly after 8 AM, Obama made his first call to the Middle East to Palestinian President Abbas. In the call it was reported that on one hand he spoke about the need for moving forward with the peace process, but also the need to make sure that Hamas does not attain new arms. Obama offered money for the rebuilding of Gaza, but only if goes through the Palestinian Authority. After speaking to Abbas, Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, Egyptian President Mubarak, and King Faad of Saudi Arabia. This was a clear message showing his support for moderate countries of the Arab world.
The Arab world has been enthusiastic about the swearing in of President Obama. All the television stations in the Arab world, with the exception of Syria and that of Hamas but including Iran and Hezbollah, carried the inauguration live. There is a hope that American policy is changing. In Iran there is hope that new relations can be established with the United States. The young and the opposition hope it can indeed be a new era; many in the regime cynically look at the possibility of negotiating with the US as a way of finishing their nuclear development without being disturbed. Al Jazeerah has been running continued stories on Guatanamo Bay, in the anticipation that the order will come to close it.
President Obama is expected to announce his Envoy to the Middle East tomorrow. It is expected to be Senator George Mitchell. Mitchell has already undertaken one mission to the Middle East in the past, and is trusted by both sides. He will no doubt come down hard on the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The last time he made recommendations, Mitchell came out very strongly against internal growth of any of the settlements.
For the third time, the Israeli Supreme Court canceled the elimination of the Arab Ra'am, Tal, and Balad parties from the upcoming Israeli elections. As has happened in past elections, the central elections committee ruled that they should be barred, since their members preach against the very nature of the state. The Supreme Court ruled that the actions of individuals do not necessarily affect the standing of the party. It stated that there is no evidence that the party themselves were undermining the nature of the state. While this was a technical ruling, it is one that will certainly allow Israel to avoid a great deal of bad public relations at a critical time.
The financial crisis is beginning to hit Israel in many different ways. The business class of flights in and out of Israel is no longer full, and housing prices have fallen an average of 5%, with rental prices down 10%.
Today Israel's news was dominated by one story, the inauguration of Barak Obama to the Presidency of the United States. Israel worked hard to ensure that ending the recent war with Hamas would not be on the top of President's Obama "to do" list. All ears were tuned to his speech, wondering what he would say–– would he specifically mention what happened in Gaza, or even the Israeli Arab conflict as a whole. Israelis could relax on this matter. Obama's speech, while soaring with rhetoric, was very short on specifics. He spoke in general about a new era in relations with the Muslim world. He did however, speak out strongly and specifically against terrorism. Finally he spoke the following line- "To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West — Know that your people will judge you on what you can build, NOT what you destroy." This line can easily be applied to Hamas.
There is no question the Obama administration will be more ambitious than the Bush administration in trying to negotiate some sort of agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. With his agenda so full, it's hard to see the Mid East as being his most important priority. It might do members of his administration good to read today's article by Shlomo Avineri, entitled: Can Obama do It
In it Avineri demolishes the claim of all those commentators who assert that if only the US did this or that in one of the negotiations things would have worked out.
Today, Foreign Minister Livni publicly stated what has been said behind close doors for the last few weeks. She clearly linked the future opening of the crossings into Gaza with the release of Gilad Shalit. She made it clear that if Hamas wanted to obtain their goal of reopening the crossings, it would only happen if Shalit was released. Livni also made clear that any rocket fire would be responded to by air attacks, there would no longer be any holding back. That is in fact what took place today after mortars were fired into Israel.
The ceasefire in Gaza is holding. Israel is rapidly withdrawing its troops from Gaza. The goal seems to be to have them completely withdrawn by Tuesday, noon Washington time, which is the time President elect Obama will be sworn into office. There have been no significant violations of the ceasefire since yesterday.
Today there was an Arab summit in Kuwait. It is seen as a victory of the moderates. The center point of the ceasefire was the pledge by Saudi Arabia to donate $1 billion to rebuild Gaza. The Saudi promise, which was carefully coordinated with Egypt, will be given through the Palestinian Authority and not through Hamas. The speeches at the conference, particularly Egypt's, were an attack on Iran's position of endless struggle. Instead, the moderates suggested that there are other ways of accomplishing the Arab goals.
Israeli officials note that there has been a very significant change in Egypt's attitude toward the smuggling. They believe that Egypt is now taking the smuggling very seriously and consider Hamas a severe threat to themselves. The days of prevaricating about their relations with Hamas are over. The view from the Arab summit was that Iran and Syria clearly have lost this round and their position in the Arab world has been seriously hurt.
At the same time, representative of the European Union announced that the EU will not provide any support for rebuilding Gaza as long as Hamas rules. There is clearly an international effort to further isolate and weaken Hamas. In Gaza, as people head out of their homes for the first time, the extent of the devastation is now becoming very clear. Hamas is trying to claim victory, but without even the symbolic victory of destroying a tank or downing a helicopter, that has proven very difficult.
Hamas announced this afternoon that it would also abide by Israel's one sided ceasefire. It waited half a day and fired 20 missiles first but in the end it realized it had no choice. The announcement was made in Damascus in a television appearance put together by the Syrian government. Hamas announced that it was giving Israel one week to withdraw from Gaza. Beyond that Hamas has been unusually silent. Ramadan Shalach, the head of the Islamic Jihad, gave an interview in Syria in which he stated that if Israel wanted to negotiate the removal of incidents from the circle of violence he was willing to. He stated that the Islamic Jihad was a responsible resistance movement and did not want to give Israel excuses to bring about further tragedies on the Palestinian people. This is quite surprising considering the Islamic Jihad is considered to be more extreme than Hamas.
When the ceasefire was announced yesterday, Israeli Minister of Defense Barak stated that this will not be the last war. Nobody can doubt the truth of that statement, but without jumping to any conclusion too quickly, it is possible that something may have changed fundamentally in the world of Palestinian resistance. This is the first time since 1967 that Israel has clearly won a one sided victory at a very low cost.
By watching the interviews with Gazans, it is certain Israel has not made any new friends, and yet ther e is clearly a sense that the direction that Hamas has been advocating is only leading the Palestinians into a new tragedy. I heard an interview with an old Palestinian man who looked over the rubble of his neighborhood and stated, “we have been resisting since 1948, what has it gotten us”. Hamas is going to have a very difficult time reasserting its civil rule in Gaza, and an even harder time convincing the people that armed resistance is the direction to go.
Today the leaders of Great Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Germany and the Czech Republic went first to Egypt and then tonight to Israel, to make a public statement that they support the ceasefire and that they will do what they can to support Israel's and Egypt’s enforcement of it. This includes helping to stop the arms smuggling from Egypt. There have been missions like this before, but it is a statement of the success of Israel's diplomatic efforts that so many leader of Europe came for a festive dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Olmert when the guns are still warm.
Israelis are not happy with the decision to enter into a ceasefire. Fifty percent of Israelis oppose the ceasefire. They state that they were expecting what is called tipul shoresh, which means root cannel work. What they got was less. Of course before the war there was overwhelming support for the attack even though most people did not be lieve it would end the rocket fire completely. They still do not believe that. One of the great dangers in the next few days in the midst of an election campaign is that Israel talks itself out of a victory. Psychology is very important in the conflict and Israel is three weeks away from an election. The right has no choice but to claim that the war was a failure. If that notion takes hold it will become a failure.
To summarize the 22 day war:
660 rockets were fired at Israel, 78% long range.
13 Israelis including 9 soldiers were killed 699 were wounded, most stress from close calls 1297 houses were damaged. T
he IAF carried out 1200 air strikes on Gaza.
According to Palestinian sources, 1300 were killed in Gaza among them 300 children and 150 women.
There was some good news from Israel today that would on a normal day have dominated the news. The Delek oil company led by Yisrael Shuva announced today that it has discovered an extremely large natural gas field 50 miles off the coast of Haifa. According to Shuva, the field will be able to provide for all of Israel's natural gas needs and even result in Israel becoming a gas exporter. Shuva may be overstating the results of the gas discovery, but this clearly is a very important positive economic development for Israel.
As expected, tonight, Israel announced a unilateral ceasefire, after the action was approved by the Cabinet. The Cabinet approved the ceasefire with two votes against, and one cabinet minister abstained. Immediately after the discussion and vote (which lasted three hours), both Prime Minster Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak appeared together on Israeli TV and radio addressing the country to announce the ceasefire. Both gave excellent speeches. Both spoke about the fact Israel has achieved the goals it set out for itself. Hamas has been seriously hurt and will now think three times before firing on Israel. Barak gave, what I think was a particularly thoughtful and moving speech. In it he read the names of the ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians killed during the war. He stated that from a military perspective, it was easy to state casualties from this operation were low, but Israel could never make that statement. Each person is world into his or her self. He also stated to Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, he could say only one thing– as Lieutenant General in the reserves, Ehud Barak, I salute you. He went on to say he wishes he could say this is would be the last war, but it is not. Our enemies, led by Iran, including Hezbollah and Syria, are not willing to make peace. They are already planning their next actions, actions for which we need to be prepared.
Both Ehuds made it clear Hamas is not a party to this agreement. They stated that if Hamas attacked either Israeli troops in Gaza, who would not withdraw until after the rocket fire ended, or if attacks continued on Israel, the IDF would respond in the strongest way. Both ministers spoke about Gilad Shalit. They both shared they wish they had good news, but over the course of this whole war, efforts were made to bring Shalit home, and these efforts were continuing. Barak went further and stated the IDF had an unwritten contract with every parent, when they draft their child, to be responsible-- whatever the circumstances-- to bring their children home.
Israel has indeed achieved its stated goals and many of its unstated goals. First, the IDF has regained its deterrent capabilities. A well-prepared army eliminated any questions that existed after the Lebanon War. Second, the fact it undertook this mission, with all the possible consequences, has helped restore Israel deterrence. Too many in the Arab world were beginning to believe Israel had lost its will to fight, that its people were weak and unwilling to fight. The fact Israel undertook this campaign, including an intensive ground campaign that took its troops into the very center of Gaza city, underscored how wrong that view was. Finally, the inability of Hamas to inflict any serious pain on Israel, either with strong resistance to Israeli troops, or rockets that did much more than keep Israeli school children home, should significantly undermine the credibly of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and beyond.
Continuing the war beyond this point was beginning to run into the laws of diminishing returns. There were fewer and fewer military targets left to hit and while the IDF southern commander has been widely quoted as saying that Israel should not miss this historic opportunity to destroy Hamas totally, the second part of his quote has been largely ignored-- that destroying Hamas would take a year. As anyone who has studied the Middle East conflict knows, Israel is always fighting with an international clock ticking. From the War of Independence, until today, Israeli leaders have always known that when Israel is winning a war, pressure from the international community will mount for a ceasefire. Israel's earlier forbearance in the face of Hamas' attacks gained it three full weeks to act in Gaza, but time has run out. It is easy to say Israel should ignore the world, but that is much more difficult in reality. Tuesday, President-Elect Obama will be inaugurated. It's clearly in Israel's interest to be seen has having done the maximum to remove this problem from his overburdened initial plate.
Hamas has, at first, announced it would not accept the ceasefire. It was not a party to the discussion and it plans to continue firing until the last Israeli soldier left Gaza and the border crossings were opened. What it will really do when the time come is unclear. It could continue as if there was no agreement. It could fire a few missiles to show it was not beaten, or it may abide by the ceasefire. It wants desperately to get to the next stage-- the opening of the border crossings. That has not been agreed to and is the next step in discussions, which may also include Gilad Shalit. Immediately following the speech, Hamas fired six rockets at Beersheva and two at Ashdod. All the rockets landed harmlessly, the rockets that landed in Beersheva did not reach the city itself. What will happen tomorrow is something only time will answer.