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Israeli Labor's Primary / Dilemmas in Gaza

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Update from AIJAC

May 31, 2007
Number 05/07 #11

Today's Update leads with a good general summary of the results and implication of former PM Ehud Barak's narrow victory in the first round of the Israeli Labor party primary on Monday. This backgrounder from BICOM looks at how the vote panned out, the prospects for the next round, where Barak will face Ami Ayalon (where the supporters of deposed Chairman Amir Peretz could play a crucial role) and the implications for unpopular Israeli PM Ehud Olmert's government of the various possible outcomes. For all the background you need on this important political development in Israel, CLICK HERE.

Next up are two pieces about Israel's dilemmas countering the rockets coming out of Gaza. First up, Steve Erlanger of the New York Times has good summary of the various arguments in Israel about what should be done, the reluctance to engage in a full-scale military incursion into Gaza towns, and other options being canvassed by Israeli officials and military and political leaders. To read it, CLICK HERE.

Next up is a Jerusalem Post piece on Israel's extraordinary and largely successful efforts to use pinpoint accurate air-launched weapons to avoid civilian casualties as it takes out rockets crews and leaders from Hamas and other terror groups. It illustrates the IDF's recognition that avoiding such casualties is essential to sustain politically the military efforts. For this good discussion of current Israeli tactics in Gaza, CLICK HERE.


Ehud Barak wins first round of Labour Primary

BICOM Notes, 29 May 2007

As the final votes in the Israeli Labour Party's leadership elections were counted this morning, it became clear that former prime minister Ehud Barak had received the largest number of votes of all the candidates. Barak did not, however, reach the 40% mark which would have given him an overall victory. As a result, a second round run off between Barak and runner-up Ami Ayalon is set to take place on 12 June. This is the first time since the introduction of the primary system in Labour that an election has failed to indicate a clear winner in the first round of voting. The election was also notable in producing diametrically opposed exit poll predictions last night from respected Israeli polling agencies.  Professor Camille Fuchs for Israel's Channel 1 predicted a score of 38% for Barak against 36% for Ayalon. The Ma'agar Mochot agency for Channel 2, meanwhile, predicted 39% for Ayalon, against 33% for Barak.1

With the final votes counted, Ehud Barak was found to have received 34.2% of votes cast.   Runner-up Ami Ayalon was on 31.7%.  There was a significant gap between the close scores of the two leading candidates and the remainder. Current party chairman and Defence Minister Amir Peretz trailed far behind, as had been predicted, with 21.8% of votes cast.  Former Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz scored 7.9%, and MK Danny Yatom 2.8%.2

Barak and Ayalon are now expected to return to a two-weeks intensive campaign and struggle to gain the support of the remaining 30% of Labour members. It is widely believed that Amir Peretz, whose poor showing in the Monday primary put him out of the running to keep his position, will back whoever is most likely to obtain the treasury portfolio, sources close to the defence minister said Tuesday. Labour Party Secretary General Eitan Cabel, a supporter of Barak's candidacy, told Israel Radio on Tuesday morning that "Barak will have to sweat profusely in order to win the support of the Peretz voters," and that Barak's camp will do all that it can to win them over.3

What were the key issues raised in the election campaign, and what are the likely scenarios for the next phase, leading up to the run-off on 12 June?

The first and clearest issue to be noted, of course, is that the election results represent a diametric turn for Labour from the direction taken in its last leadership primary, on 9 November 2005, when Amir Peretz soundly defeated acting chairman Shimon Peres.

At that time, Labour was seen as setting out on a new path. The Israeli Labour Party in Israel was the party that commanded the Zionist movement in the days of the establishment of the state, and in Israel's first years. As such, in contrast to other social-democratic parties, Israeli Labour has traditionally been seen in Israel as the party of established, veteran Israelis - containing within its ranks many former members of the country's military and administrative elite. In 2005, with the election of Amir Peretz, a Moroccan-born former union leader from the southern town of Sderot, the party appeared to be striking out in a new direction. Labour began to resemble European social-democratic parties, which seek to represent the less-privileged sections of society. This new turn was reflected in votes cast for Labour in the elections of March 2006. Analysis of the areas where Labour received most votes showed that the party had begun to make headway in under-privileged, peripheral parts of Israel - traditional strongholds of Likud and Shas - while losing support to Kadima in traditional areas of strength. 

This new turn of Labour toward a socio-economic agenda, however, was ended by the Second Lebanon War, and the sudden, profound sense of a return of existential security issues to the agenda in Israel. The return of former prime minister and chief of staff Ehud Barak to the arena, and the rise of former Admiral Ami Ayalon, reflect this shift back to an older model, in which foreign and security policy issues are assumed to dominate the debate.  The levels of support achieved by Barak and Ayalon show that voters were prepared to support candidates who were able to present sound credentials in the arena of national security.

This salient fact made Barak and Ayalon the only two serious contenders. Each of these candidates then sought to present himself as the most suitable, in a campaign which has centred on personal, rather than substantive policy issues. Ayalon has stressed his reputation for integrity, and even the element of asceticism, which he is perceived to possess - in contrast to the hedonism and materialism that Israelis tend to associate with their politicians. In this, he has been helped by his relative newness to politics. Barak's decision after his election defeat to Ariel Sharon in 2001 to withdraw from politics, and his subsequent success in private business have been used against him in this regard.

Barak, for his part, has stressed his security credentials and greater experience of high office as compared with Ayalon. He has also placed stress on his centrist image, as opposed to Ayalon, who is associated with more leftist positions. As such, Barak yesterday asked voters, pointedly, to consider who they thought more able to defeat Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud.4 Since Israeli elections are generally won and lost depending on who wins over the floating voters of the centre, this pragmatic factor may well have played a role in Barak's higher first-round showing. Ayalon, in the period following his retirement as head of Shin Bet (Israeli security service) and before he entered party politics, was noted for making a number of statements which would clearly associate him with the ideological left of the Israeli political spectrum.5 Barak was no doubt eluding to these statements and positions, which would undoubtedly be used to full effect by Likud strategists in a general election campaign. 

The key issue as the second round of voting approaches is which of the candidates Amir Peretz will endorse.  Peretz is understood to control a disciplined, loyal camp of voters in the party, and his endorsement may well prove the decisive factor in the second round.  While it had been thought that Peretz was likely to back Ayalon, in the next days representatives of both Ayalon's and Barak's camp will be in contact with the Defence Minister, and Peretz may well choose to offer his support to the candidate who can make him the best offer in terms of his own future position.6

On the substantive issue of whether or not Labour will stay in the coalition following the primary - again, there is no clear dividing line between the candidates. Neither have expressed an unequivocal position on the matter, and both men would clearly benefit from a period as incumbent defence minister in the current government - Ayalon in order to gain much-needed ministerial experience, and Barak in order to offset the sense that his previous period in high office as prime minister included significant errors. Both Barak and Ayalon have called for Olmert's resignation - but neither has set a clear time frame in demanding this, allowing them room to manoeuvre.7 Thus, analysts in Israel are not predicting the rapid demise of the current governing coalition, regardless of the result of the primary. 


1 Mazal Mualem, "Labor taps Barak, Ayalon to vie to replace Peretz," Haaretz, 29 May, 2007.  www.haaretz.com

2 Gil Hoffman, "Barak defeats Ayalon but will have to face him in 2nd round," Jerusalem Post, May 29, 2007.  www.jpost.com

3 Mazal Mualem, “Peretz camp: We'll back candidate strongest on social issues,” Haaretz,  29 May 2007. .  www.haaretz.com

4 Mualem.

5 See Ami Ayalon interview with Alain Cypel, Le Monde Diplomatique, 22 December, 2001.  www.zmag.org  The interview includes such statements as "Israel must accept the principle of the right of return and the PLO must commit itself to not question the Jewish identity of our state." And "Arafat dreams of being accepted by the international community -- since 1993, he has constantly made reference to it, demanding the application of the UN resolutions, while we, Israelis, refuse!"

6 Attila Somfalvi, "Seeking a 'golden deal,'" Ynetnews, 29 May, 2007.  www.ynetnews.com

7 "Barak, Ayalon emerge as front-runners in Labor race,"  Associated Press, 22 May, 2007. www.pr-inside.com

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Israelis Don’t Want Gaza to Be Their Next Lebanon

By STEVEN ERLANGER
New York Times, May 23, 2007

JERUSALEM, May 22 — For the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, badly battered by last summer’s inconclusive war against the rockets of Hezbollah, launched from Lebanon, the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip seems a similarly intractable problem with no easy, popular response.

While the Hamas militants in Gaza seem to have taken a lesson from that war — how to use rockets against Israeli civilians to eat away at Israeli self-confidence and frustrate the Israeli military — Israel’s own lesson is less clear, because its ground assault on southern Lebanon did not end in a clear victory, let alone destroy its adversary.

The Israeli government is feeling constrained by its own weakness and damaged credibility. If it goes into Gaza too hard, it will be criticized for trying to overcompensate for its failures last summer against Hezbollah. If it acts with too much restraint and caution, it will be criticized for being intimidated by its failures last summer against Hezbollah.

“We don’t want to invade Gaza in a big way,” a senior official said. “But stalemate is impossible. We hope that a political process will prevail because we don’t want to be dragged into what Hamas wants us to be dragged into. But events will dictate. If a Qassam rocket lands on an Israeli kindergarten, all bets are off.”

Israeli helicopters and fighter planes, using their most precise weapons, are hitting Hamas camps, buildings, fighters and teams of militants charged with firing rockets toward Israel. On Tuesday, the Israeli Air Force struck a compound of the Hamas police militia known as the Executive Force in Jabaliya, in northern Gaza. No casualties were reported in the strike, the third against targets in Gaza since a rocket attack on Monday that killed eight.

Israeli politicians are talking of harsher measures, including the assassination of senior Hamas military leaders who order the attacks, and warning that senior Hamas political leaders may also be at risk.

But trying to calibrate the amount of military pressure that might persuade Hamas and the Palestinians to stop the rocket fire and recreate a working cease-fire over Gaza is not an easy calculation.

And there are significant voices inside the Israeli security establishment who warn that, rockets aside, Hamas is organizing a buildup of weapons, reinforced tunnels and explosive matériel in Gaza that resembles Hezbollah’s efforts in southern Lebanon in recent years.

Sooner or later, those voices argue, Israel will have to confront Hamas in a serious way inside Gaza, especially since Fatah is failing to do so.

But with the Palestinian unity government of Hamas and Fatah in tatters after fierce factional infighting, there is no obvious Palestinian address for Israel to apply pressure. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, to whom the Israelis and Americans speak, appears weaker after the infighting.

Even Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas, a popular political figure, is being overshadowed and undermined by the actions and oratory of Hamas’s military wing, the Qassam Brigades.

In general, Gaza’s gunmen — who come in many different stripes, with affiliations that cut across factional, institutional and family loyalties — appear to be listening less now than before to political leaders.

Hamas in particular appears riven politically, senior Israeli government and security officials say, with important figures like Mahmoud Zahar, the former foreign minister, and Said Siam, the former interior minister, opposed to the group’s participation in the unity government.

The Qassam Brigades have made it clear that they took the lead in the latest round of fighting, attacking the Presidential Guard of Mr. Abbas and the Fatah-dominated Preventive Security Force. They continued those attacks even when Mr. Haniya came out in favor of a truce.

Burned, Mr. Haniya took a harder line on Monday in his sermon at the funeral of the family of a Hamas legislator, Khalil al-Hayya, praising the fighters and saying, “We will keep to the same path until we win one of two goals: victory or martyrdom.”

Mr. Olmert is being careful, aides say, to keep on Washington’s good side. The Bush administration has openly supported Israel’s right to defend itself against rockets fired by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups, and has praised what it calls Israel’s restraint. But Mr. Olmert is also conscious that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is committed to pushing Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts forward in her time left in the job, as is President Bush.

A major incursion deep into Gaza would take at least a month, a senior Israeli officer said, and would inevitably cause significant civilian casualties. There would be nothing like a major Israeli ground offensive to unite all Palestinian fighters, and it would do further damage to the more moderate Mr. Abbas and the chances for peace. More than 30 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli raids in the past week.

Even the leader of the rightist Likud Party, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is riding high in opinion polls, is speaking carefully about the options and suggesting graduated responses.

Last week he proposed “a wide range of actions that we can do to apply pressure.”

“And the actions begin with a general closure of Gaza,” he said, “through a controlled stoppage of services such as electricity and water, up to targeted killings and actions from the area on infrastructure targets, or limited ground incursion to the radius of the Qassam range or a larger ground incursion.”

Asked if he favored a large-scale infantry incursion, Mr. Netanyahu said: “I think the problem here is to return to the balance of deterrence that was so very eroded in the last year. As a result of the last war, Gaza has turned into Lebanon Two with bunkers.”

For now, the Israelis are barely using tank fire in Gaza and are not firing artillery, which is less accurate and has hit Palestinian houses and families in the past. Instead, they are relying on the most precise airborne weaponry they have, trying to send a message to militant leaders, especially of Hamas, that every rocket will entail a painful price.

Those around Mr. Olmert say that they, too, are concerned about how Israel and its will to defend its people are perceived — not just by the militants of Gaza, but by the Syria of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrians are training defensively, “but it’s easy to move from defense to offense,” a senior Israeli official said. “We’ve made it clear to him through credible channels that Israel has no offensive intentions. But we’re very worried about miscalculation.”

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Analysis: Pinpoint accuracy is key to IAF's Gaza strikes

Yaakov Katz

THE JERUSALEM POST, May. 21, 2007

The key to any Israeli military operation is preventing collateral damage. The moment the IDF begins striking terror targets and accidentally kills innocent women and children is the same moment international pressure on Israel begins and the timer to the end of the military campaign starts ticking.

Since the IDF began its operation in the Gaza Strip last week - aimed at stopping Kassam rocket attacks on Sderot - it has been generally successful in keeping its strikes precise and on target. Cars carrying terrorists were bombed in the middle of streets and buildings housing weapons warehouses and factories were leveled. An international outcry - usually quick to come - was nowhere to be heard.

This impression was noted at Sunday's security cabinet meeting in Jerusalem by Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin. A proponent of pinpoint strikes and a vocal opponent of a large-scale ground operation in Gaza, Diskin told the ministers that the Palestinian street was currently not aligned against Israel. This, he said, would last as long as the air strikes remained on target.

"The moment we start to kill innocent civilians, the sentiment on the streets will shift," he explained.

This is not so easy to prevent. On Sunday night, the IDF had a close call when it fired a missile at a group of armed Palestinians walking down a street in the Gaza City neighborhood of Sajiya. The Palestinians immediately claimed that the missile had struck the home of Hamas lawmaker Khalil al-Haya and that six of the eight dead were his family members.

The IDF rejected the Palestinian claims and said that the strike was on a terror cell and had killed five cell members alongside three bystanders. One of those killed was Samah Faranwa, a known Hamas operative involved in the recent Kassam rocket fire on Sderot as well as the Independence Day kidnapping attempt.

To the IAF's credit, it has come a long way since it began implementing the targeted killing policy at the beginning of the second Intifada.

The air force no longer drops one-ton bombs as it did to kill Hamas leader Salah Shehada in 2002. Along with Shehada, 14 civilians, including children, died. Israel apologized for the loss of civilian life.

One of the reasons behind the IAF's improved operational ability is the type of missile used in air strikes.

Initially, the IDF had only one type of missile at its disposal. Today, it has at least five different weapons systems it can use in targeted strikes and is constantly on the lookout for new and more precise weapons.

When then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz raised the possibility of a targeted killing policy in the early years of the second Intifada, senior defense officials were opposed and asserted that the assassination of senior Hamas leaders would set the entire Middle East on fire.

Mofaz was determined, however, and took the proposal to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, who approved it.

After Hamas chief Abdul Aziz Rantisi and Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin were assassinated, Hamas went running to Egypt, asking for a cease-fire.

The policy has since become somewhat routine within the defense establishment.

Just look at the numbers: In 2004, only 10 percent of terrorists killed by Israel were eliminated in air strikes. In the first half of 2006, that number rose to almost 80%.

This prompted the security cabinet's decision on Sunday. Like Mofaz, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert oppose a widespread ground operation inside Gaza and believe that resumed pinpoint air strikes and targeted killings, largely suspended until the recent upsurge in Kassam attacks, can - if not stop the Kassams altogether - at least reduce them dramatically.

The IDF has greatly improved its strike method, and defense officials speak of a well-tuned Shin Bet-IDF mechanism that works on locating terror suspects. The controversial policy has even been adopted by other militaries, including the United States, which utilizes such air strikes in Iraq.

There is, however, great risk involved and the IDF knows all too well what a few failed strikes, or even one, can do.

By putting all of its emphasis on targeted strikes, the IDF risks botching a mission and repeating the events of last summer when three air strikes killed 13 Palestinian civilians in eight days.

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