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MIDEAST MIRROR 05.11.18, SECTION A (ISRAEL)

 

Almost there

 

In an apparent break from its previous stance, Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority, has reportedly given Egyptian negotiators the go-ahead to mediate an agreement to quell violence between Israel and Hamas-led factions in the Gaza Strip. But Palestinian officials continue to insist that any formal ceasefire with Israel can only be inked after rival Palestinian factions achieve a reconciliation deal. Senior Palestinian sources told al-Hayat Sunday that Fatah officials gave their approval to the Egyptians in Cairo during a meeting with Hamas leaders. The meeting was attended by Fatah Central Committee member 'Azzam al-Ahmad and Hussein al-Sheikh, another committee member and close confidant of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud 'Abbas. The sources noted that the current Egyptian efforts, reportedly nearing a conclusion, are aimed only at achieving "calm" between Gaza and Israel and are not a formal agreement or ceasefire, which they said can only be reached after Palestinian reconciliation. According to the report, Fatah gave its approval in order to "restore normalcy" to Gaza and prevent another war between Hamas and Israel.

Arab media reports have said that if achieved, a ceasefire would include at least a partial lifting of Israel's restrictions on the movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza. Israel holds that its restrictions on movement serve security purposes, including preventing the entry of weapons into the Strip. Fatah agreed to a two-stage plan, under which over the coming two weeks Gazans would agree to end violent protests. In return, Israel will allow the entry of Qatari-funded fuel oil to power Gaza's power station, as well as easing other restrictions, al-Hayat reported. Over the next six months, more restrictions would be lifted if the quiet is maintained with the goal of returning to a 2014 ceasefire that brought an end to the last major confrontation between Israel and Hamas-led groups in Gaza.

An emerging agreement between Israel and Hamas aimed at easing violence on the Gaza border will last until the end of 2018, the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar reported on Saturday. The paper published a draft agreement said to be an Israel-Hamas deal that will limit protest activities near the border and restrict violence. According to clauses in the draft agreement, Egypt will pressure Israel to lift 70 percent of the blockade on Gaza and expand the fishing zone to 14 nautical miles; 5,000 Gazan workers under 40 will be allowed to enter Israel for employment; and Egypt will open the Rafah border crossing.

In news of Jordanian-Israeli ties, Jordan said it has received a formal request from Israel to open negotiations about the future of two parcels of land along the border that the kingdom last month said it would retake control of, in a move perceived as downgrading the peace treaty between the two nations. Jordanian Minister of State for Media Affairs said Sunday that Israel had asked to hold consultations about the Baqoura and Ghumar regions, Jordan's official Petra News Agency reported. As part of the peace agreement between the two countries, Amman had agreed Israeli farmers could access and work the plots as part of a 25-year lease that had been widely expected in Israel to be renewed. Meanwhile, Egyptian President 'Abdelfattah as-Sissi on Sunday affirmed that "the peace agreement with Israel is stable and permanent" and said most Egyptians support the nearly 40-year-old treaty.

In other news, Israel's burgeoning diplomatic ties with the Persian Gulf states suffered a minor setback when Communications Minister Ayoub Kara was detained at Dubai airport and missed his flight after apparently failing to heed instructions from airport officials, the Kan news broadcaster reported Sunday, calling the incident "a farce." Kara has a long history of diplomatic snafus, but this incident comes at a particularly sensitive time, when Israel's previously clandestine ties with Arab states are coming out into the open. Kara, who was on a week-long visit to the United Arab Emirates to attend a telecommunications conference, was held for several hours at the airport last Thursday when trying to leave, the report said. Citing officials in Dubai, the report said that Kara was late for the flight and refused to follow instructions from airport personnel on the ground, prompting officials to detain him for several hours. "He was held up; there was chaos and arguments," the report said, calling the incident "a farce" and "an embarrassment" for those involved. Kara missed his flight but was later released and flew out.

Meanwhile, Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz flew Sunday to Oman at the invitation of his Omani counterpart to present a plan that could see a rail link between Israel and the Gulf. Katz was to participate in an international transportation conference in Muscat and to present a regional transportation initiative, which he is advancing jointly with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who visited the Sultanate last month. It is the first time an Israeli minister has been formally invited to participate in an international conference in Oman, reflecting the strengthening ties between the two countries. The transportation initiative, called "Tracks for Regional Peace," is based on the planned extension of railway tracks in Northern Israel, which would link Haifa's seaport to Jordan's rail network, which in turn would be linked with that of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states. The network is envisioned as creating a regional transportation system to enhance trade relations and promote coexistence. The initiative, which seemed overly optimistic when it was proposed last year, now seems more realistic.

The United States re-imposed oil and financial sanctions on Iran today, significantly turning up the pressure on Tehran in order to curb its missile and nuclear programs and counter its growing military and political influence in the region. The move will restore U.S. sanctions that were lifted under a 2015 nuclear deal negotiated by the administration of Barack Obama, and add 300 new designations in Iran's oil, shipping, insurance and banking sectors. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman took to Twitter on Monday morning to thank Trump for re-imposing sanctions. "President Trump's bold decision is the sea-change the Middle East has been waiting for. In a single move, the United States is dealing a critical blow to Iran's entrenchment in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, and Yemen," Lieberman wrote. Iranian President Hassan Rowhani said that Iran will sell its oil and break the sanctions, pledging to government officials in comments aired on state TV that Iran would overcome the sanctions. "We are in a war situation", Rowhani said. "We are in an economic war situation. We are confronting a bullying enemy. We have to stand firm to win."

In other news, according to data published by the Ministry of Interior, voting rates in the Arab and Druze sectors were significantly higher than in the Jewish sector for the municipal elections held on Tuesday reports Yedioth Ahronoth. The data, which is yet to be finalized, also show that citizens whose socio-economic status is low vote in higher rates than citizens whose socio-economic status is high, people residing in small municipalities cast their vote in the ballot box more than those living in big municipalities, and that the voting percentages in the periphery are higher than those in the center of the country. Some 3,840,000 people voted in the municipal elections last week, with the national voting rate being 58%, a 7% increase in comparison to the previous municipal elections five years ago. In the Arab and Druze sectors, the voting rate was 84%, as opposed to 55% in the Jewish sector. Studies show that Arab citizens are interested in local politics, since they consider it the only vehicle for their political, social and economic development. However, most of the Arabs residing in East Jerusalem, who are permanent residents and not citizens, therefore have the right to only vote in the municipal elections and not for the Knesset, regularly boycott local elections, and this time was not any different.

The Times of Israel reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu gave the go-ahead Sunday for lawmakers to advance a controversial bill calling for the death penalty for convicted Palestinian killers of Israeli civilians and soldiers, reportedly rejecting the advice of the security establishment. Meeting coalition party heads to set the legislative agenda for the week, the prime minister said there was nothing preventing the proposal, which has been stalled since January, from being put to Knesset votes and becoming law. Netanyahu told coalition heads that opposition from both the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces should not prevent lawmakers from advancing the bill, Israel Radio reported Monday morning. Although the death penalty formally exists in Israeli law, it has only ever been used once — in 1962 in the case of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust. It is technically allowed in cases of high treason, as well as in certain circumstances under the martial law that applies within the IDF and in the West Bank, but currently requires a unanimous decision from a panel of three judges and has never been implemented. The bill, proposed by Yisrael Beitenu and championed by the party's chairman, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, would allow a simple majority of two judges to one to impose the death penalty. Lieberman said at the opening the of Knesset's winter session last month that the passage of the bill was a condition for his party to remain in the coalition.

Hoping that better market conditions and bidding terms will draw more interest than its last disappointing efforts did, Israel is planning a second auction of energy-exploration licenses over the next few weeks, the Energy Ministry said Sunday. The government will offer to oil and gas companies 19 offshore blocks in its waters offshore its Mediterranean coast, where there have been seven natural gas discoveries since 2004. "The aim is to continue the momentum of the Israeli gas sector's development, increase competition by bringing in new international energy companies and increase the energy security of the State of Israel," Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said. He pointed to plans to develop an undersea gas pipeline that would run from Israel through Cyprus and on to Greece and Italy. If the pipeline is indeed built it would enable Israel to export energy to Europe and make the blocs being auctioned more attractive to bidders who see little potential in the tiny Israeli market. Meanwhile, Israel's domestic pipeline network does not have the capacity to carry all the natural gas the Tamar and Leviathan partners have contracted to sell to Egypt, TheMarker has learned. The partners are scrambling to find a solution before exports begin in the first half of 2019.

Finally, the lights are going back on in the Gaza Strip, in a rare piece of positive news from the blockaded Palestinian enclave. In recent days, residents say they have received up to 16 hours of power from the grid per day, compared with as little as four previously. UN humanitarian officials report an average of between nine and 11 hours per day since October 25. It is the result of a landmark six-month deal, part of efforts to end unrest along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip that has raised fears of a fourth war since 2008. The deal emerged amid ongoing indirect negotiations between Hamas, which rules the Strip, and Israel, mediated by the UN and Egypt, in hopes of reaching a long-term truce. The fuel agreement, whose first deliveries arrived on October 9, has provided the most power to Gaza residents in years. Last month's deal sees Qatar pay $60 million for fuel delivered to Gaza's sole power station. The deliveries are sent through Israel, which agreed on condition that the United Nations monitors them to avoid interference by Hamas, which it has long accused of diverting humanitarian aid for terror purposes at the expense of Gaza's population. The tentative results are showing in the enclave's beleaguered economy: Companies able to work longer, restaurant costs falling, and even an increase in ice cream.

 

 

BACKING IRAN INTO A CORNER: Yoav Limor in Israel Hayom asserts the new sanctions imposed on Iran today are different than those levied against Tehran in the past. This time the edicts are only American, but the Iranians will have a hard time finding breaches.

"The sanctions imposed today on Iran are not the end of the story, but another, vital step in the long struggle aimed at blocking the aspirations of the ayatollah regime in all spheres – nuclear, territorial, and religious. This struggle has been going on for more than two decades at an alternating pace, combining a variety of actions: Economic, political, operational, and media related. Throughout this period Iran has deluded the entire world and stopped only twice – following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and with the signing of the nuclear agreement in 2015.

In both cases, Iran stopped when its leaders felt the sword on their necks and feared for their rule. First when Tehran believed that after Afghanistan and Iraq their turn would come and hastened to halt the activities of the 'weapons group' responsible for the production of nuclear weapons, and again when the sanctions threatened to overwhelm the Iranian economy.

The undeclared goal of the current sanctions is to push the Iranian leadership into a corner and force it to make other decisions. There are those in the United States and Israel who hope that the growing economic pressure on Iran will lead to the overthrow of the regime, but this scenario is far-fetched. Despite the increasing number of recent street demonstrations, the regime is strong, and the energies required for overthrowing it have yet to gather.

The current sanctions are different from those that existed up to three years ago. They are only American - Europe, Russia and China will not partake in them - and they do not envelop the entire banking system. It is likely that Iran will try to maintain its economy in the near future on the basis of cash and money-changing, and will look for loopholes or partners that will enable it to continue to survive. The likelihood of Iran succeeding in this is low. The European effort to develop a 'sanctions bypass route' is likely to fail, because it is doubtful that any Western company will prefer to trade with Iran than with the U.S. Russia does have the potential to sabotage U.S. efforts if it agrees to export Iran's oil for it – and transfer the returns in cash. Still, that would be no more than aspirin for a serious illness; not something that will save the Iranian economy, which is gasping for air regardless.

Those expected to pay the price will be first and foremost the Iranian people. Washington and Jerusalem hope that the sanctions will also affect others supported by the regime in Tehran; Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and the rebels in Yemen. This will not happen automatically and without a struggle between extremists and moderates in Iran, but it will soon be necessary for Tehran to decide between continuing to export the revolution and diverting funds to calm the Iranian street.

For Israel, this is good news. If Iran chooses the path of war, even the skeptics will acknowledge that its intentions are negative. If it chooses to withdraw, the threat from its proxies will diminish. Less money for terror means less weapons, less training and, by implication, less motivation and energy for war adventures.

Tehran will probably try to survive this process until the U.S. administration changes. It is doubtful that this will happen, and Iran may be forced to decide as soon as possible whether to 'go crazy' and go nuclear in the hope that will buy her immunity (based on the North Korean precedent), or reach a less convenient deal, but one that would give her some breathing space. For Israel, such an agreement must be much broader than the one from which the Americans withdrew. It must include not only nuclear issues, but also significant restrictions on the development of long-range missiles and Iran's involvement in terrorism and destabilization of the region. To date, apart from rumors, we have no knowledge of serious talks on a new agreement, but it is likely that mediators will soon emerge to promote the idea; the more Tehran feels the weight of the sanctions, the greater its willingness will be to compromise in order to secure their removal."

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NETANYAHU'S BLACK OCTOBER: Amit Segal in Makor Rishon cites the reasons why the past month was so difficult for the PM and claims that although they do not signal the beginning of his demise; they do explain why he has lost his appetite for early elections.

"Of the 115 consecutive months in office, October 2018 will not be remembered as one of Binyamin Netanyahu's best. In fact, he would prefer to forget it. The blows engulfed him from all sides: He got in trouble with his political base over the decision to postpone the evacuation of Khan al-Ahmar, his lawyer of many years Ya'akov Weinroth passed away, in Kiryat Shmona he needlessly offended a woman heckler who presented herself as his supporter, And then rammed into Gideon Sa'ar at a hundred Kilometers per hour – a political brawl that never benefits a prime minister against his junior. Above all, the ongoing situation in the South continues to disrupt many Israeli's peace of mind, and the new situation in the North continues to deprive a few senior Israelis of their sleep. The apparent difficulty of continuing the air attacks in the North is engendering whispers of nightmare events in Lebanon and Syria. Netanyahu's control of security and the international arena is his main source of strength, and these two situations are unpleasant, with no end to them in sight.

Politicians are sophisticated sensors for detecting weakness. Netanyahu is not weak. Far from it. But such a buildup of internal statements against him has not been recorded in a very long time. It began with Sa'ar's vehement reply to the putsch accusations, continued with Lieberman announcing the appointment of the new chief of staff while Netanyahu was on a visit to Oman, and later with Lieberman's disparaging remarks regarding the identity of the deputy chief of staff ('He will be chosen by the defense minister, as is the custom'). There were also secret recordings of MK Miki Zohar against him, with expressions that are unprintable in a newspaper, and the interviews given by David Bitan and Dudi Amsalem, who did not bother hiding off-record, questioning and debating his decision to support the Likud's opponent in the mayoral elections in Bat Yam. Bitan made clear that Netanyahu did not tell the truth and the decision was his, not the Likud's; Amsalem defined the decision as a grave mistake.

This is not the beginning of the end for the prime minister. Merely a seasonal cold in his popularity. But it does explain why he lost his appetite for early elections. There were those in his inner circle who urged him to finally cash in on the thirty-something mandates he has been receiving in the polls in the past half a year, but there were others who suggested that he first distance himself from recent events. This is the reason for the gap between Finance Minister Kahlon, who is in a hurry to dissolve the Knesset, and the dull tranquility with which the Knesset is approaching its fifth year. By the way, Deri, who had a good surprise showing in the municipal elections, will want to capitalize soon on his local gains in national elections. This has created a strange situation in terms of this coalition, although common in any other coalition. For the first time in a long time, Netanyahu wants elections less than a few of his partners."

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NEW DIRECTION IN THE GULF: Smadar Perry in Yedioth Ahronoth writes that Israeli agents are running around in all the Gulf States, alongside high-tech people and business men. Oman and Bahrain are not about to sign peace treaties with Israel, but there is a new generation there that accepts the Jewish state.

"Notice how in one week, Israeli delegations visited three principalities in the Persian Gulf: the prime minister and the head of Mossad were in Oman, culture and sports minister Miri Regev and a group of athletes were in Abu Dhabi, and a delegation of former academics and army personnel, and another small delegation of athletes, went to Qatar. Every country has its own separate agenda. After the meeting with the ruler of Oman, next in line is Bahrain, which announced yesterday that it would invite Netanyahu for an official visit. A date has not yet been set.

Here are the differences. Oman has a long tradition of mediation, parleying between embroiled elements within the country, between neighboring countries, and between foreign countries as well. This special mediation method is designed to sit the parties down at the negotiating table, after which Oman exits the scene and makes room for a more senior mediator. The ruler of Oman now wants to create negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians and then bring in his American allies. He also has a longer-term plan regarding the Iranians. He wanted to make clear to Netanyahu: First the Palestinians, a pause, and then Tehran. No pressure, no time restraints, no agenda. When they decide in Washington that the time has come, the Omani foreign minister is ready pave the way.

Abu Dhabi is an interesting country. Like Dubai, it is mainly a venue for the good life, has a lot more foreigners than residents, and a de facto ruler (who did not bother making an appearance for the visit of the Israeli delegation), Muhammad bin Zaid, who is assisted quite a bit by Muhammad Dahlan, who resides there. If Ben Zaid asks for advice on an Israeli issue, he knows whom to summon.

In Qatar matters are much more complex. Four Arab states, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, are waging a war against it. There were moments when Saudi Crown Prince MbS, who closed the borders, threatened not only to cut off Qatar but to turn it into a hovering island. But this is where the largest American base in the Arab world is situated. With a view to Iran, President Trump and his gang will not let the Saudi Crown Prince run wild. Qatar maintains a special ambassador to Gaza, Muhammad al-Amadi, who frequently visits Israel, and has managed to establish pretty good ties here. His official role: To transfer money (never a problem in Qatar) to Gaza. The money, as always, buys influence and special status.

I was in Qatar last week. It is hard to describe the wealth, the splendor, the momentum of construction and the preparations that are gaining incredible momentum, for the soccer World Cup games in about three years. For the first time in the Arab world, the competition will be held in this small, wealthy emirate, which dreams of becoming a 'sports empire'. Hotels, restaurants, and clubs are being built at a riveting pace, with promises of alcohol flowing freely in closed places. But Qatar is also striving for a political role in the region. The Saudi Crown Prince has hinted that he is willing to end the boycott, without committing to a timeline, but Egypt is pressing for Qatar to be expelled from the dialogue with the Palestinians. My bet: Ambassador Al-Amadi will be allowed to continue his work between Tel Aviv and Gaza.

In all the Gulf states there are Israeli agents running around, alongside high-tech and business people. You speak to an Omani or a Qatari or a Bahraini, and a new world is revealed to you. No pressure, no stress. They are not going to sign peace pacts with Israel, but they see the Israelis differently now. The sequence of meetings in the Gulf should be maintained. It will benefit Israel in Egypt and Jordan and will open new routes. Each of the princedoms has a link to a large Arab country, and Israel can take advantage of this bridge. It is also very important to listen to the young people in the Emirates. A new generation of business owners, factory managers and young academics who are not put off by Israel, provided of course they receive a green light from the ruler's grand palace."

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HAMAS'S RENEWED TRUST IN EGYPT: Tal Lev-Ram in Maariv comments that the sight of Egyptian vehicles in Gaza during the weekend is making us think that we are on the cautious path to an arrangement. Everything will continue to progress in small steps and the road ahead is very long.

"The picture of the three white vehicles belonging to the Egyptian intelligence delegation, which came to survey the fence area in Saja'iya, to see first-hand whether Hamas is working to curb the demonstrations, is probably the picture that best summarizes this weekend's events, which were completely different from what happened in the South last weekend, when Israel and Hamas were very close to further escalation. Despite the relative calm, more difficulties are expected as the pendulum swings between a deal and an escalation. It is too early to tell whether Egypt's efforts will indeed lead to a period of quiet in the South.

More than anything else, the weekend events in Gaza prove to what extent Hamas is capable of regulating the height of the violence according to its interests and its satisfaction with the pace of negotiations to reach the objectives it has set itself for the removal of the blockade on the Strip. The difference on the ground is not apparent only in the number of participants in the demonstrations. About 10,000 Palestinians are still expected to arrive at the fence in coming weeks. The major difference was in the method of protest and violence. It was yet again revealed that when Hamas wants to, it can control the territory and even prevent the burning of tires.

For Hamas, this weekend was mainly a gesture and show of confidence in Egypt and its leadership, for the efforts they are making to reach an arrangement. Hamas has absorbed some internal criticism of its actions to rein in the events on the ground over the weekend. It is much too early to judge this as a sign of things to come. Reality may change and make a complete U-turn, as we saw in the previous week. But this weekend, Hamas provided Egypt with what it requested, and did not embarrass the delegation that visited the fence.

Between Cairo, Gaza, Ramallah, and Jerusalem there remain great distances and differences of interests. Until the arrangement is reached many obstacles are expected to crop up. At this point the focus is on small steps, in an effort to calm the area from week to week. Beyond the steps Israel is taking, which are expected to begin in the near future – opening the crossings, expanding the fishing areas, approving international projects, funding salaries and transferring funds to the Strip – the crux of the problem is still the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

Despite his threats, Abu Mazin has refrained at this stage from imposing additional sanctions on the Strip. The meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh between him and Egyptian President Sissi was of great importance. The Egyptians seem to be succeeding in gaining some time, but the PA chairman has not given up his demand that the PA's control in Gaza be complete, including of the security services. Such a scenario is not currently viable. In recent months, whenever Israel and Hamas have come close to a lull, some event would routinely crop up and cause a breakdown. Despite the progress of the past week, Hamas, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are very far from a deal, and other security escalations are likely to emerge on the way to one."

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GAZANS BENDING ISRAEL AND HAMAS: Zvi Bar'el in Haaretz argues that Gazans have become a strategic force that cannot be ignored. They have managed to cultivate a political relationship between Israel and Hamas, even forging unofficial security coordination.

"The Egyptian delegation to Gaza arrived on Friday to watch Hamas work its magic on the demonstrators. They were indeed enthralled. There were fewer protesters – thousands, not tens of thousands. They kept a greater distance from the border fences and there were no fatalities. The Egyptian and Israeli conclusion is that Hamas not only holds the knobs on the stove, it can also adjust the height and intensity of the flames. If it chooses, the thousands will confront the Israel Defense Forces, and if it chooses, they will stop the attacks on the fence.

But this is a conclusion that did not need any proof, certainly since Israel constantly claims that Hamas is the sole responsible party in Gaza and controls everything that happens there. This conclusion should have made Israel realize years ago that trying to foment a civil revolt against Hamas through a blockade and sanctions is simply not realistic. The theory that replaced it said that while the punishments should not cease, they should be reframed as a means of pressuring Hamas and putting it in a position where it was liable to lose its legitimacy and public support if it did not do what Israel wanted, which would lead to an easing of Gaza's living conditions.

In fact, it was the same theory and strategy as its failed predecessor. The real threat is the two million Palestinians who have been living under a brutal siege for 11 years. Both Israeli pressure on Hamas from above by reducing its ability to rule, and the attempt to provoke public protest against Hamas from below, relied on a role that the Gaza public was supposed to play. But the public in Gaza turned into a strategic force that led even the IDF to speak up about the severe living conditions in the Strip, and in the end forced Hamas to pursue an arrangement that is still being negotiated. For six months, tens of thousands of people were enlisted in a show of force called the March of Return. Some 20,000 to 30,000 people, young and old, women and children, take their lives in their hands, and they do not come to the confrontation line just because Hamas orders them to. They are the force that represents two million people who have nothing to lose.

One could ask why tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands more do not join them, but it is the same question that could be asked of the Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt, which in the best case drew half a million to a million people representing some 90 million citizens. If you compare the size of the Egyptian and Gazan populations, one could say that 20,000 Gaza demonstrators are equal in force to a million people, around half the Strip's population. The consistency and devotion exhibited by the demonstrators in Gaza have an enormous power that proved to Israel and Hamas that this was not a temporary show of strength, but a phenomenon unprecedented in Gaza or the West Bank since the second intifada ended, or at least since Hamas seized control of the Strip in 2007.

Israel chose to ignore this public display and aimed its sharpshooters at those launching balloons or who were identified as leaders of the demonstrations, or who dared to come too close to the fence. Thus it could bypass the substantive reason for the demonstrations by portraying its mission as the defeat of an 'armed' enemy endangering Israel's security.

There is no disputing that the balloons caused great damage and put lives at risk; this enabled Israel to present the conflict as a struggle against a terrorist organization and not as a confrontation with a civilian population. At the same time, it neutralized the danger of war, because who is going to launch a war against balloons? One can heap praises on Prime Minister Netanyahu for abstaining from war, but what prevented war was the nature of the conflict, which did not provide the required legitimacy for a full-scale military campaign.

The issue of an arrangement that has been accompanying the confrontation all along – and which has shattered the established view that one does not negotiate with terrorist groups – turned the talks with Hamas into talks with Gaza's population. The permit to bring in fuel, arranging for salaries to be paid through Qatar, the emerging willingness to allow 5,000 Gazan laborers to come work in Israel, the promise to build a port and to enlarge the fishing zone – these are all civil steps aimed at calming the Gazan public and giving Hamas means of control.

Israel is not demanding that Hamas disarm or that it disarm other groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Committees, nor is it demanding that Hamas give control over the border crossings or tax collection to the Palestinian Authority. PA President Mahmoud 'Abbas is making those demands of Hamas, not Israel. From this we see that the question of 'strengthening' or 'weakening' Hamas is no longer relevant, since Israel gave up testing the organization's power when it abandoned the diplomatic process and went over to a policy of splitting the Gaza Strip from the West Bank, which makes preserving Hamas' power important. This policy requires Israel to be concerned about Gaza's welfare, not for humanitarian or altruistic reasons, but as a strategic decision that ascribes power to this exhausted and impoverished populace, which has managed to fashion a diplomatic relationship between Israel and Hamas that even includes undeclared security cooperation.

This strategy cannot tolerate any more delays. It requires declaring the intent to totally lift the blockade, subject to practical security restrictions, to open the gates to large investments, to create jobs for thousands of Gaza residents and to implement the rehabilitation plan that was agreed on after Operation Protective Edge, and which Egypt and Israel agreed upon again a few weeks ago. The conflict is no longer with Hamas, but with a large population that has proven its strength."

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TOPPLING HAMAS IS NOT THE SOLUTION: Jeff Barak in The Jerusalem Post avows that even Prime Minister Netanyahu accepts there is no alternative to Hamas rule in Gaza, and perhaps come the 2019 election campaign he will for the first time in a decade spare us his empty threats to destroy Hamas.

"Back in 2009, on the eve of the general elections that brought Prime Minister Netanyahu back into power, life was much more black and white for the man who has been our prime minister ever since. Talking about Hamas' control over the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu the contender had no doubts as to what Israel's policy regarding the Palestinian territory on Israel's Southern border should be: 'There is no choice but to uproot the Iranian-backed regime in Gaza.' Hamas, he said 'is at the service of Iran and militant Islam. Israel cannot tolerate an Iranian base next to its cities.' Talking at a conference a week before the elections took place, Bibi also harshly criticized the just-completed Operation Cast Lead, arguing that the then-government had not allowed 'the military to plug the hole in the South.'

One decade later, two terms in power and two large-scale major military offensives against Gaza (Operation Pillar of Defense and Operation Protective Edge), and the past summer skies filled with incendiary kites setting Israeli farmland and forests ablaze, Netanyahu's government today is, at one step removed, deep in negotiations with Hamas, seeking a long-term cease fire that will provide Israel with quiet in the South and maintain Hamas' rule over Gaza. As Netanyahu well knew back in 2009 and is totally aware of today, Israel has no alternative but to accept Hamas control in Gaza.

In a rare, on-the-record interview with Yediot Ahronoth a few days ago, Brig.-Gen. Dror Shalom, head of the IDF's Military Intelligence research department, laid out clearly the situation facing Israeli policymakers. The 2014 Operation Protective Edge, the senior IDF officer said, bought Israel a few years of quiet but did not resolve the humanitarian crisis inside the Strip. Rather than concentrate on relieving the suffering, Hamas continued seeking to improve its rocket capability, thus keeping the closure on Gaza firmly in place, further deteriorating the economic situation for ordinary Gazans. Much as Netanyahu and U.S. President Trump seek out and inflate external enemies to hide their failings and keep their base energized (my words here, not those of Shalom), Hamas turned the population's discontent against Israel and began the weekly demonstrations at the border fence, which sparked off this summer's round of violence, almost setting off another large-scale IDF ground offensive.

What is to be done? Not a lot, according to Shalom, the senior IDF military intelligence officer. 'Our challenge,' he said, 'is to keep the Gazan population's head above the sewage. Bringing about the collapse of the Hamas is not the solution. If Hamas falls, who will rule in Gaza? Poli (Yoav) Mordechai' (the former IDF Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories)? Without having the political courage to say so openly, it seems as if our prime minister has reached the same conclusion. In a briefing last week with reporters, part on the record and part 'senior political source' for those topics less on-message with his official talking points, Netanyahu made it clear that the humanitarian problem in Gaza was the most pressing issue there, not Hamas.

Sending in tanks and troops will not solve the need to restore Gaza's infrastructure nor resolve the deep economic crisis in the Strip. As Shalom said on the record, there is nobody in the wings to take over control from Hamas. The Palestinian Authority is unable to do so, Egypt is not interested and as Hamas leader Yahiya as-Sinwar himself pointed out last month in an interview, the last thing Netanyahu wants is responsibility for another two million Arabs.

This past weekend saw perhaps the beginning of the end of the current round of tension between Israel and Gaza. While the regular Friday protests at the border fence did take place, they passed relatively quietly and no incendiary balloons were launched into Israel. This was no coincidence. In recent days, Egyptian intelligence officials, and the United Nations Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov have been holding intense talks with the Hamas to bring about a cease-fire. While not officially part of the talks, Israel is closely monitoring and playing its role in helping bring these negotiations to a successful conclusion, supporting the Qatari-funded shipments of diesel fuel into the Strip, which is increasing the number of hours a day Gazans have electricity, as well as backing an arrangement under which Qatar would pay for government workers' salaries in Gaza. According to a Lebanese newspaper report over the weekend, there is a 10-step incremental accord on the table, including a prisoner swap toward the end of the process, to ensure long-term quiet.

Could it be that come the 2019 election campaign – whenever that falls – for the first time in a decade we will be spared Netanyahu's and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman's empty threats to destroy the Hamas?"

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