A few hours later, Gaza terrorists opened fire on Israel using mortar shells; a second group of terrorists were attacked by Israeli aircraft when they attempted to launch rockets. Later, the air force conducted a series of attacks on terrorist weapons factories and smuggling tunnels, in retaliation for the earlier kidnapping attempt.
The army issued a statement saying that it “will not tolerate any attempt to harm Israeli citizens and soldiers and will continue to act against anyone who uses terror against Israel.” The statement said that the “the terrorist organization Hamas” was ultimately responsible for the incident which resulted in the death of Mashiashvili, because it is in control of Gaza.
OBAMA STILL PUSHING FOR NEGOTIATIONS WITH ABBAS
The ongoing violence underlined the continued diplomatic stalemate between Israel and Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority. Even though Abbas has abandoned negotiations with Israel, and assured that no new talks will take place by demanding clearly unacceptable pre-conditions, both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are still being pressured by the Obama administration to show movement towards finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.
At a national security conference last week in Tel Aviv. Netanyahu said that a peace agreement had to be reached so that Israel could remain a Jewish and democratic state. “We do not want to rule over the Palestinians, nor do we want the Palestinians to be citizens of Israel. That is why three times — in my speech at Bar Ilan, in my speech in the Knesset and later in my speech at the US Congress — I declared my support for peace between a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state, and Israel,” Netanyahu said.
He explained that the formation of his national unity government represented a rare opportunity to re-open negotiations with the support of most of the Israeli public. He issued a challenge to Abbas to return to the table, reiterating that Israel remains “ready and willing” to talk peace without preconditions.
CLINTON CALLS FOR DIRECT TALKS
Netanyahu’s invitation to Abbas was echoed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Speaking in Copenhagen, Clinton said, “we believe that there is opportunity for direct negotiations. But [the two sides] have to get to the negotiating table and deal with very hard issues.” Clinton added that the new Israeli national unity government has created “the best opportunity for several years to reach such a negotiated agreement. So we very much want to encourage the Israelis and Palestinians to do that.”
She made the comment as Israel released the bodies of 91 terrorists to the Palestinian Authority. The release was part of the deal reached last month to end a hunger strike by terrorist prisoners in Israeli jails, and has been referred to as a “good will gesture” to encourage Abbas to return to negotiating. He and Netanyahu last met in September 2010. Abbas discontinued their talks when Netanyahu refused to extend his voluntary West Bank construction freeze.
REGIONAL PEACE NEEDS MORE THAN A DEAL WITH THE PALESTINIANS
In Tel Aviv last week, Netanyahu warned that a negotiated agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would not, by itself, be enough to restore peace to the region. He emphasized that the situation in the Middle East is too fluid to believe that any one peace agreement could solve all of Israel’s security problems. “Tremendous historic forces are working in the area in opposition to regional peace, and they will continue to unsettle our environment. On a day to day basis, they work to destroy Israel and they are interested in undermining any peace agreement — those that have been signed and those that we hope to sign in the future.”
Netanyahu explained that Israel has survived in this hostile environment only by continuing to maintain a qualitative military superiority against the Islamic fundamentalists who seek to destroy it.
CONFRONTING THE THREATS TO ISRAEL
Netanyahu then outlined the four types of military threats confronting Israel today, including Iran’s nuclear program, thousands of terrorist missiles, cyber attacks, and vast stockpiles of conventional weapons that have been amassed by Israel’s enemies in the region.
He then addressed Israel’s specific objections to the current round of talks between the P5+1 nations and Iran over its nuclear program, which are scheduled to resume in Moscow on June 18 and 19. Netanyahu insisted that the sanctions being imposed against Iran “need to be harsher,” and that the US and its allies “must insist that Iran fulfill these demands in full. Iran must stop all enrichment of nuclear material; it must remove all materials enriched to date from its territory; and it must dismantle its underground nuclear enrichment plant at Qom. Only an Iranian commitment during negotiations to meet all three demands and a clear confirmation that they have been executed can stop Iran’s nuclear plan. This should be the goal of the negotiations. But I must say regretfully that this is not what is asked of Iran today.”
Netanyahu bemoaned the fact that Western demands on Iran have been reduced, and that it is no longer even being asked to halt its production of 3.5% enriched uranium, which is the basis of it nuclear weapons program.
Netanyahu welcomed the recent imposition of much harsher economic sanctions by the US and Europe. “This is a positive and important thing. We asked for it, and I must say with satisfaction that this pressure is being put on Iran. However, on the other hand, these sanctions must be accompanied by the demands I outlined. It is the combination of the two that will lead to the stopping of the Iranian nuclear program.
“It is very possible that the Iranians will temporarily stop their enrichment at 20%, but that is not enough. The test will be if the Iranians will agree to stop all enrichment, remove all enriched material and to dismantle their underground nuclear facility at Qom. This is the test and there is no other,” Netanyahu said.
LAYERED MISSILE DEFENSES
With regard to the missile threat against Israel, Netanyahu said that Israel’s deployment of a multi-layered missile defense system consisting of Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow, combined with a more sophisticated civil defense warning system will ultimately be as effective in protecting Israel’s cities against missile strikes as the West Bank security fence was in halting terrorist attacks. However, Netanyahu emphasized that Israel’s response will not be solely defensive. It will also take the offensive to strike at enemies launching those missiles in order to deter further attacks.
Netanyahu discussed Israel’s cyber warfare capabilities just two days before the New York Times published a front page article describing the joint US-Israeli effort to develop the Stuxnet virus which was used to temporarily cripple Iran’s nuclear program. Without going into details, Netanyahu said that Israel has stepped up its investment in its cyber warfare capabilities, and that he was determined that Israel become one of the five leading countries in the world in this field.
He then addressed the threat to Israel from the political upheavals in the region related to the Arab spring. Specifically, he expressed concern “that extremist forces will take over regimes that today do not pose a threat to us and use the weapons found there against us.” For that reason, he said, Israel must continue to maintain its “qualitative advantage” in conventional military force.
THE NEWEST THREAT TO ISRAEL
Netanyahu spoke about the newest threat to Israel’s internal security, the infiltration across its southern border with Egypt by tens of thousands of Africans seeking work in Israel. He noted that the sheer size of this uninvited invasion posed a serious threat to Israel’s Jewish character, and the security of the long open border between Gaza and Eilat. Netanyahu’s answer has been to build a security fence to keep the workers out. Even though, at this point, it is only 2/3 complete, he credits the fence with the fact that there are only 60,000 illegal workers in Israel today, instead of potentially as many as 600,000 illegal aliens within a few years. In addition to closing the border to more infiltrators, Netanyahu promised to deport as many as possible back to their homelands.
A few days after Netanyahu’s speech, Israel intensified its security patrols along the Egyptian border following the conclusion of the trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his associates. There was widespread anger that Mubarak and his longtime interior minister received sentences of life in prison rather than the death penalty, and that six other Mabarak officials and his two sons were found not guilty and freed.
In response, Israel increased the frequency of its border patrols to guard against possible acts of terrorism in retaliation for the Mubarak verdict.
BARAK SUGGESTS ANOTHER UNILATERAL WITHDRAWAL
Also speaking at the same security conference was Defense Minister Barak, who suggested that
if Abbas refused to return to the negotiating table, Israel might have to establish its borders with the Palestinians on its own.
“We must aim to discuss all of the core issues, putting an end to the conflict, and an end to mutual claims. If it is impossible to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, we should consider an interim arrangement, or even a unilateral disengagement,” he recommended.
He stressed that Israel should seize the political initiative while it can, because, “we are on borrowed time. [Unless we act now] we are going to come up against the wall and pay a price for that. People who are now in a coma are later going to ask, ‘how did we get to this point?’”
However, the main subject of Barak’s presentation was his analysis of the Iranian nuclear threat. He stressed that the Iranians are patient, and willing to drag out the talks with the US and the West for as long as it takes to reach their nuclear goals without provoking an attack upon themselves. He suggested that the Iranians think, “We waited 4,000 years for nuclear capability – we can wait a few weeks and not do anything that will spark action by Israel or the Americans.’” Barak added that, “the Iranian threat is significant and is not disappearing. We are at a fateful crossroads.”
Former Israeli army intelligence chief General Amos Yadlin, who hosted the annual conference sponsored by the Institute for National Security Studies, said that, “attacking Iran would be less dangerous for Israel than a nuclear Iran, but we need to work out a strategic plan not only for the attack itself but also for the day after the attack.”
RIGHT WING CHALLENGE TO NETANYAHU
The biggest domestic news in Israel over the past week was a confrontation between the right wing government and the secular Israeli Supreme Court. The court ordered the government to destroy five 3-storey apartment building complex known as Ulpana, built a decade ago on the edge of the Beit El community in the West Bank. The court ruled that the houses were built on privately-owned Arab land, and that the only remedy was to evict the current residents and demolish the buildings.
The case was brought before the court last year by left-wing groups opposed to all West Bank settlements. Advocates for the residents of Ulpana claim that the secular Israeli legal system was discriminating against the Jewish settlers, while the same system routinely turns a blind eye to illegal Arab construction.
They also complain that the court’s order to demolish the buildings in Ulpana was inconsistent with its ruling in a very similar case brought against apartments buildings in a section of Kiryat Sefer known as East Matityahu. The anti-settlement Peace Now organization and the mayor of the Arab village of Bil’in, claimed that the houses had been built on village land.
The court issued its first ruling in January 2006, preventing the owners of the Kiryat Sefer apartments from moving into their new homes. That order was canceled in September 2007, when the judges ruled that the residents could move in after paying damages and court costs to the Arab village. In that case, the court also rejected a plea by the Arabs that the apartment buildings be destroyed. In their ruling, the judges argued that destroying the homes “would hurt innocent buyers,” who were not responsible for the decision to build them on Arab land. However in the current case of Ulpana, the court refused to accept the same logic.
NETANYAHU SEEKS A WAY AROUND A COURT ORDER
The Israeli government originally agreed to dismantle the Ulpana building by May 1, but intense pressure was placed on Netanyahu by right wing members of his Likud party to find a way to save the homes.
A number of ways to save Ulpana have been offered. Right wing MK’s sponsored a piece of legislation known as the Regulation law which would not only save the Ulpana housing, but any other homes in Jewish areas (Area C) of the West Bank which Arabs claim were built on their land. Unless the Arab owners of the land asserted their legal rights within four years of the start of construction, they would lose their rights to block it. After that point, the law would allow the Jewish residents of such housing to stay in their homes, and limit the legal options to Arabs who can prove their ownership of the land to financial compensation. Peace Now leaders claim that if the Knesset does pass the Regulation law, it would get the Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional.
Pro-settlement advocates claim that the law is necessary to prevent groups like Peace Now from using questionable Arab territorial claims to attack settlements using the leftist-oriented Israeli legal system.
However, Netanyahu would prefer to find a way to save the homes of the residents of Ulpana without passing legislation aimed at limiting the authority of the Supreme Court. He and other Likud ministers, including Benny Begin and Dan Meridor, fear that passing such legislation might open the Israeli government to international criticism.
Netanyahu has suggested, as an alternative to the Regulation law, physically moving the five buildings to another plot of vacant land on the outskirts of Beit El which was originally claimed by the Israeli army as a site for the construction of a military base. However, Ulpana residents have complained that the rocky terrain will not permit the buildings to be moved, and Israeli attorney general Yehuda Weinstein has raised doubts whether land obtained for military purposes can be legally transferred to civilian ownership.
DEFENDING THE LEGALITY OF THE COMMUNITY
Other right wing Likud ministers have come out against the Supreme Court’s Ulpana order, and criticized the government for agreeing to implement it. Vice Prime Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon said, “this neighborhood in Beit El was built with proper authorization and under the auspices of successive Israeli governments. We now find ourselves boxed in because the Supreme Court made its ruling on the basis of the government’s promise to dismantle Ulpana by May 1. We are facing a dilemma, with the court ruling on one side and the residents of Ulpana, who are not outlaws, on the other. If this neighborhood is evacuated or demolished it would be a great injustice to these people, and must be avoided if at all possible.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom. He said that “under no circumstances should the Ulpana homes be destroyed. The government’s efforts should revolve around the retroactive legalization of these homes rather than their demolition. The Regulations law is the solution, and there is no other recourse. This is a dirty trick employed by radical left-wing groups. After all, for years no one made any claims about disputed ownership of the land. Let’s be practical. We must devise a plan that includes compensation for the owners and leaves all the neighborhood’s homes intact.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, of Yisroel Baiteinu, said, “I don’t believe that bulldozers will flatten Ulpana. While the rule of law is definitely a cherished value, there are other values to be considered as well and there is the issue of justice for the residents. The government must look at the big picture, and take a common sense approach that looks at what is possible and what is not.”
REVIVING OLD SUSPICIONS
The dispute over Ulpana has revived old suspicions about Netanyahu within the Israeli right wing. Right wing members of his Likud party suspect that Netanyahu brought the Kadima party into the coalition in order to give him more political options to move toward the Israeli political center and to give in to some of President Obama’s pro-Palestinian demands. They still have not forgiven Netanyahu for agreeing to a voluntary 10-month West Bank construction freeze in late 2009. They also fear that he might betray their cause, as Ariel Sharon did when he initiated the Gaza Disengagement in 2005.
Pro-settlement activists have mobilized to try to generate public support for their cause. They organized a two-day march from the Ulpana settlement to the Knesset in Yerushalayim.
Another group of pro-settler activists staged a hunger strike in support of the Ulpana residents.
The bill was introduced by MK Zevulun Orlev of the right wing Habayit Hayehudi party, who was determined to prevent the destruction of the homes and the evacuation of the community.
LIKUD MINISTERS FACE A HARD CHOICE
On Monday, Netanyahu instructed members of his Likud party to vote against the Regulations bill. He said that its passage by the Knesset could “have the opposite of its intended effect, causing both the evacuation of the neighborhood and harm to the settlement movement. We have proposed other solutions that would strengthen the settlements.
Right wing settler advocates pressured Likud MKs to defy Netanyahu’s instructions and vote according to their conscience, but most of them appeared ready to vote against the bill. The pressure was especially intense on right wing Likud government ministers, who were warned by Netanyahu that they would lose their cabinet positions if they defied him and voted for the bill, and by settler leaders who warned that their betrayal would not be forgotten. Some chose to dodge the issue by arranging to be out of the country when the bill was scheduled to come up for a vote in the Knesset.
MKs of the left wing Labor, Meretz, and Independence parties, as well as the Arab parties opposed the bill, while the leaders of Shas supported it. A statement by the Yisroel Beiteinu party said that it would support the bill unless another solution was found that would satisfy all the parties involved, including the settlers living in Ulpana.