Cairo hosts Gaza mediation talks as parties seek to avert Israeli invasion

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Cairo is host to four-way talks on the Gaza crisis Saturday, as regional parties seek to move Hamas and Israel to a cease-fire and avert an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is hosting consultations with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and several Palestinian leaders.

Speaking from Cairo, a senior advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas praised Egyptian mediation efforts, while lamenting Israeli action as further unravelling aspirations for a two state solution.

“President Abbas has consistently offered negotiations for a two-state solution, but Israel has shown no interest in these negotiations,” the senior Abbas adviser told Al-Monitor’s Andrew Parasiliti Saturday. “So this is the result. And the Palestinian people pay the price. We have warned for a while that such a confrontation could be the outcome of the Arab Spring, in the absence of a peace process.”

With regard to the role of Egypt, the Palestinian senior adviser added, “Egypt has a critical role to play for both Palestinian mediation, according to the mandate from the Arab League, and between Israel and Hamas in the present crisis.”

Hours into day four of Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel has hit some 800 targets in Gaza, while Hamas has launched some 750 rockets into Israel, including five in the direction of Tel Aviv and two towards Jerusalem, Yossi Melman reports from Tel Aviv Saturday:

Three Israeli civilians have been killed, and 40 Palestinians, both Hamas combatants and civilians, including children.

Eighty of the attempted Hamas rocket launches have failed, while 27 rockets hit urban areas and caused damage. The Iron Dome anti ballistic missile defense system has intercepted 230 Hamas rockets– about 8 out of 10 rockets it has attempted to intercept in the current confrontation.

Melman estimates that:

Israel is very reluctant to move in with a ground attack. The mobilization of reservists is mainly for psychological purposes to increase pressure on Hamas.

2. The chances of a cease fire are increased.

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Netanyahu aimed to provoke confrontation amid 2010 US peace push


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not planning to launch an all-out attack on Iran in 2010, before he was blocked by his national security chiefs, as has recently been reported in Israel. Rather, Netanyahu, together with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, was intending to provoke an attack that would potentially trigger a chain of events that would draw the United States towards confrontation with Iran, Yossi Melman reports on the front page:

The truth is that Netanyahu and Barak did not order the military to plan a direct, all-out attack on Iran. Their true intention was to trigger a chain of events which would create tension and provoke Iran, and eventually could have led to a war that might drag in the United States.

Israeli censors, notably, have blocked Israeli media from reporting when in 2010 the episode occurred. But sources told Al Monitor this week that the events occurred in mid-2010. Specifically, in September, 2010. (Update:The New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren, responding to a contact on Facebook, says she was reliably told the incident was in late 2010. But a source told Al-Monitor the incident occurred in September, adding “it would be out of the question late 2010 because Dagan”–Israel’s then Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who played a key role in thwarting the plan–“left office in December 2010.” Rudoren later told me ‘late 2010’ could include September in her understanding.)

The Netanyahu and Barak “push to put forces on alert was not confined to one meeting,” Melman writes. “They raised it repeatedly on numerous occasions.”

In the summer of 2010, President Obama was meeting separately with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House, as he geared up for a major re-launch of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in September. Those peace talks–announced with great fanfare at the White House in early September–collapsed just a few weeks later, when Israel refused to extend a partial West Bank settlement freeze. They have never resumed. Continue reading

Former Israel spy chief in Belarus for liver transplant


Former Mossad spy chief Meir Dagan underwent a liver transplant in Belarus last week and is in intensive care, Israeli media reported Tuesday.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, speaking at a press conference in Minsk Tuesday, announced “that a former Mossad chief had been operated on in the country ten days ago and was currently in recovery,” the Jerusalem Post wrote, adding that while Lukashenko didn’t identify the patient by name, Israeli media named him as Dagan.

“Dagan’s illness, cancer, was known for a couple of months to a small group of confidants and colleagues and me, but it was decided for reasons of not invading his privacy not to report it,” veteran Israeli intelligence journalist Yossi Melman told Al-Monitor by email Tuesday. “Tonight the Belarus President Alexander Lukaschenko revealed it in a press conference trying to gain pr for himself and his pariah regime.”

Two months ago, Dagan went to Sloane Kettering hospital in New York for medical checks hoping to find a compatible organ, but in vain, Melman said. “He returned to Israel and his health was deteriorating.”

Dagan subsequently resigned from his position as director and consultant to various Israeli and foreign companies and flew two weeks ago to Minsk with his family for the surgery, said Melman, co-author with Dan Raviv of a recent book on Israeli intelligence, Spies Against Armageddon.

Since stepping down as Israel’s spy chief in 2011, Dagan has become a key voice in Israel and the United States expressing opposition to unilateral Israeli military action on Iran.

“An attack on Iran before you are exploring all other approaches is not the right way how to do it,” Dagan told CBS’s 60 Minutes in a March 2012 interview.

“I heard very carefully what President Obama said. And he said openly that the military option is on the table, and he is not going to let Iran become a nuclear state,” Dagan continued. “If I prefer that somebody will do it, I always prefer that Americans will do it.”

(Photo: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) hugs Meir Dagan, the outgoing director of Israel’s spy agency Mossad, after thanking him at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem January 2, 2011. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.)

Feldman: Case closed-for now-on Israel Iran strike?


Israel scholar Shai Feldman pronounces the Israeli debate on attacking Iran over. The two chief proponents of Israeli action, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, “did not bluff, but they were defeated”–at least for now, Feldman, a scholar at Brandeis and Harvard’s Belfer Center, writes at Foreign Policy’s Mideast Channel:

For all practical purposes this weekend ended the Israeli debate on attacking Iran. What tipped the scales were two developments. The first was the decision of the country’s president, Shimon Peres, to make his opposition to a military strike public. The second was an interview given by a former key defense advisor of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, questioning for the first time publically whether his former superior and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are fit to lead Israel in time of war.[…]

Contrary to what many think, Netanyahu and Barak … did not bluff, but they were defeated. With President Peres publicly joining the many formidable opponents of a military strike and General Sagi raising questions about the competence of Israel’s current leaders, Israel now lacks the minimal consensus required for a demanding military campaign to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations. The debate has been settled. At least for now.

But two veteran Israeli analysts said they were not convinced the debate is over at all.

“While Shimon Peres’ statement was of extraordinary importance, the logic underlining Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak’s rationale remains intact,” former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas told Al Monitor Monday by email.

“They are convinced that the ‘timetable gap’ that exists between the US and Israel will not change,” Pinkas continued. “The one game-changer that is still available are US assurances pertaining to a US military strike sometime around spring 2013, if all else fails.”

“No. I don’t think it’s over,” Israeli national security correspondent Yossi Melman told Al Monitor by email. Melman, co-author of a new book on Israeli espionage, Spies Against Armaggedon, noted that Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror on Monday briefed Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas political party, on Iran. The briefing was seen as an effort to try to sway Shas’ two cabinet ministers in favor of possible Israeli action on Iran.

“So it’s far from over,” Melman said. “I still think Israel will [probably] not attack before [the US] elections, but …. Netanyahu and Barak seem to be still very determined.”

(Photo: Israeli President Shimon Peres meets with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Presidential Palace in Jerusalem August 1, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool)

Israeli media mull leaders’ intentions on Iran


Israeli media reports give a sense of the intensifying debate and confusion in Israel and beyond over signs Israeli leaders are contemplating striking Iran in the fall:

Israeli columnist Ben Caspit, writing in Al Monitor partner Maariv and translated on our front page, expresses Israelis’ weariness and confusion over whether Israeli leaders’ rhetoric is a bluff or real, concluding:

Does all of this mean that they are really bluffing? I don’t know. They have the right to bluff, and they have the right not to bluff. They should sit, discuss, go over information, and decide already. They are leaders, and the power is in their hands. For the moment, their “determination” amounts to bluster. From the outside, it seems like they are not being taken seriously inside Israel, nor the rest of the world for getting too worked up. Who knows, maybe in the end they’ll bomb Iran just to prove they were serious.

Haaretz‘s Ari Shavit, writing August 11, interviews “the decision maker,” an anonymous senior Israeli official universally believed to be Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak:

… “The United States and Israel currently agree on the diagnosis,” says my interlocutor. “The intelligence assessments are the same and the rhetoric is practically the same. We and the Americans both know that Iran is determined to obtain nuclear weapons and that it is deceiving the whole world in order to do this. We and the Americans both say that we will not accept a nuclear Iran and that all options are on the table. But the gap between the two countries derives from the fact that the U.S. and Israel have different abilities.

“As the Iranians continue to fortify their nuclear sites and disperse them and accumulate uranium, the moment is approaching when Israel will not be able to do anything,” he warns. “For the Americans, the Iranians are not yet approaching the immunity zone − because the Americans have much larger bombers and bombs, and the ability to repeat the operation a whole number of times. But for us, Iran could soon enter the immunity zone. And when that happens, it means putting a matter that is vital to our survival in the hands of the United States. Israel cannot allow this to happen. It cannot place the responsibility for its security and future in the hands of even its best and most loyal friend.”

You’re describing a tragedy, I say to the decision maker. Iran’s immunity zone versus Israel begins a little sooner than its immunity zone versus the United States. […] Because of this gap of six to nine months, Israel could find itself going into a terrible war all on its own.

“I don’t see it as a tragedy, but it’s true that there is a built-in gap here. The Americans understand what we’re saying but they want more time. Some people here think this is a plot, but I don’t think so. In terms of sanctions and diplomacy, this administration has done more than any other administration. It has also prepared a military option at various levels. But where you sit is where you stand. And from the point of view of the American president, the moment has not yet come. The United States will be able to act next year, too. So the Americans are telling us that it would be a serious mistake to act now. After all, they could deal the Iranians a knockout blow, while they think all we can do is give them a black eye. So it would seem that it would be worth it for us, too, for them to be the ones to act and not us. But as a sovereign state, we’re saying that on issues vital to our security, we cannot place our fate in the hands of others. …

Yedioth Ahronoth‘s senior commentators Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer wrote August 10th:

If it were up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, an Israeli military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be launched in the coming autumn months, before the US election in November. Of course, the fact that Israel’s two most senior figures are determined to adopt the decision and pass it in the cabinet is of immense significance. It is no less significant that not one high-ranking official in the Israeli establishment — not in the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) top echelons, nor in the defense establishment and not even the President of Israel — currently supports an Israeli attack.

Veteran Israeli national security journalist Yossi Melman, co-author with Dan Raviv of the new book on the Mossad, Spies against Armaggedon, writes in Walla, in a translation provided by the author, that the next 80 days are critical because Israel may have a limited weather window to act:

The next eighty days are the window of opportunity in which Israel could attack Iran, until the end of October — and the weather only gets worse in November.  After late October, even if Israel’s government wishes it, it would be difficult for the air force to carry out the intended attack.  The climate conditions over Iran at the end of autumn and the start of winter are mostly cloudy — and thus they’re not amenable to an air attack.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is more certain than ever that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities will be necessary.  Some commentators are describing that attitude as “ideology.”  They believe that the PM, when it comes to Iran, has a fixed worldview.  They believe that he is concerned that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, it would use them — so he is determined to prevent a second Holocaust.

But Netanyahu has never had a genuine “ideology.”  He just wraps his decisions in justifications and explanations that appear ideological.  That’s how it is with economic issues, and that’s how it is regarding a possible Palestinian state, and so it is also on Iran.

Yet despite his general image as a man who is cautious and avoids major risks, when it comes to Iran he is ready to gamble.  That’s because he believes that an attack would put him into Israel’s national Pantheon, with leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin.  Begin, of course, ordered the air raid that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. …

Update: “Although Israel’s leaders frequently lament all the Iran ‘chitchat,’ make no mistake: It’s they who are fueling the discussion,” the Associated Press notes in a report on “Israel plunged into unprecedented debate on Iran war.”

(Photo: Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a session of the Knesset December 23, 2009. Reuters.)