A Quick Note On Rockets At Jerusalem

November 16, 2012 § 3 Comments

There are all sorts of reports and firsthand accounts over Twitter that Hamas has started shooting rockets at Jerusalem and Hamas itself has claimed that it shot a rocket toward the Knesset.  It doesn’t appear that any rockets have hit Jerusalem proper, and it sounds as if they fell instead on Gush Etzion, which is a large settlement bloc south of Jerusalem. Where the rockets have landed is not as important as where they were intended to go though, and shooting at Jerusalem is a big, big deal for a couple of reasons.

First, the limited historical experience that Israelis have with this sort of thing is that Jerusalem is generally not targeted. During the Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein shot 42 Scuds at Israel and 39 of them landed, and they were all aimed at Tel Aviv and Haifa, but not at Jerusalem. During the 2006 war with Hizballah, Jerusalem was not targeted despite the rumored presence of long-range rockets in Hizballah’s arsenal. When Iran has made threats to attack Israel, Tel Aviv has been mentioned but not Jerusalem. The oft-stated Palestinian desire to liberate Jerusalem is a reference to pushing Israel out rather than destroying the city. Targeting Tel Aviv is not a surprise to Israelis, but sending large scale ordinance in the direction of Jerusalem is very much out of the ordinary.

Second, leaving aside the historical experience, there has been a presumption that Jerusalem would be left alone because of the makeup of its population and what the city contains. There is a large Palestinian population in East Jerusalem of over 200,000 people, and shooting notoriously unreliable and inaccurate rockets at Jerusalem is taking a huge chance of killing large numbers of Jerusalem’s Arab residents. While Hamas sent suicide bombers to Jerusalem with alarming frequency in the past, blowing up a bus or cafe in West Jerusalem meant killing large numbers of Jews. Sending rockets is a crap shoot, and while Jews are the obvious target, there is by no means a guarantee that Hamas will actually hit where they are aiming. In addition, Jerusalem is a patchwork mosaic of sites holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, whereas Tel Aviv and Haifa are not. Just imagine what would happen if a Hamas rocket hit the Old City and did any damage at all to the Temple Mount; the consequences of that are literally unimaginable.

Targeting Jerusalem is an enormous escalation and very risky, much more so than rockets toward Tel Aviv. Rocketing Tel Aviv to my mind guaranteed an eventual Israeli ground invasion, but attempting to bombard Jerusalem just exacerbates the situation to an exponential degree. Blake Hounshell tweeted earlier that Hamas firing at Jerusalem is the equivalent of scoring on your own goal, and I think that analogy is an apt one. It says to me that Hamas is getting desperate, and I think this move is going to backfire in a big way, both in terms of creating a more ferocious Israeli response and costing Hamas important points in the court of public opinion. Hamas is now acting in ways that could cause large numbers of Palestinian casualties and damage to Muslim holy sites, and I think that there will be consequences for this strategy.

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The Barak-Bibi Bromance Begins To Break

September 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

Remember on Friday when I wrote that Ehud Barak is looking ahead to elections and is going to try and distance himself from Bibi Netanyahu? We got some further confirmation of this yesterday with Barak’s interview in Israel Hayom (the full interview was published today), in which he advocated that Israel pursue a policy of unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank while holding onto the three largest settlement blocs – Ariel, Gush Etzion, and Maale Adumim – which contain 90% of the settler population in the West Bank. Predictably, Barak got blasted from both the left and the right and was accused by everyone of naked electioneering and fishing for votes.

There is something slightly off about Barak calling for unilateral withdrawal though in an effort to make himself more popular with voters. First, Barak was the first Israeli politician to attempt this maneuver when he withdrew Israeli forces from Lebanon during his stint as prime minister, and in the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon War it is widely perceived to have been a strategic failure. Given that Barak is already associated with a failed unilateral withdrawal, it seems strange for him to remind voters of his previous failure by advocating for another unilateral move. Second, as Yesha head Dani Dayan and others pointed out in the course of criticizing Barak, unilateral withdrawal is not particularly popular with the Israeli public, and so you have this curious anomaly where a bunch of politicians are calling out Barak for trying to gin up votes while simultaneously reminding everyone that there are no votes to be had in what Barak is advocating. If Barak is trying to appeal to voters, why would he do so by pushing a policy that is massively unpopular? Third, new elections have yet to be scheduled and are unlikely to be held sooner than six months from now, so if Barak thinks that unilateral withdrawal is the key to his political resurgence, why bring it up now rather than closer to the election?

I think that Barak does indeed have politics in mind, but it is not so much about trying to lock down votes right now as it is about beginning the process of breaking up with Netanyahu. Barak is smart enough to see that while Netanyahu is almost certainly going to remain as prime minister after the next election, his stock and popularity have suffered a big hit. Barak at this point is going to do everything he can to put distance between himself and Bibi and try to make voters believe that he and Netanyahu have not been as close as everyone thinks. He is going to seize on any high profile issue, irrespective of its popularity, that creates a contrast with Netanyahu – unilateral withdrawal, dismantling illegal settlement outposts or neighborhoods, prosecuting settlers who build without a permit, etc. – in an attempt to reestablish his street cred with the center and the left, who think he has given cover to Bibi’s war talk on Iran. I am also going to go on record with the controversial call of the day, which is that at some point before the next election, Barak is going to go so far as to quit his post as defense minister. As I’ve written, I don’t think that an Israeli strike on Iran is in the cards at the moment, and that means that Barak’s raison d’être in this government is largely over. He is not going to be allowed to run on Likud’s list and there is no way or reason for him to continue to hitch his wagon to Netanyahu’s star. The visit with Rahm last week – which, by the way, Netanyahu did not know about - and the interview with Israel Hayom are the beginning of the end for the Netanyahu-Barak relationship of convenience.

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