The Israeli Security Cabinet 28.03.13
As I wrote in my last blog (Israel Government and Cabinet), Benjamin Netenyahu seemed to best Yair Lapid in terms of the percentage of posts allocated in both the cabinet and the government. Whether this was because Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, was a) inexperienced; b) feared going the way of Tzipi Livni and the risk of being left out of government; c) were convinced by Netanyahu that he needed more experienced ministers in cabinet; d) Lapid, in pushing for a reduced cabinet size, for leaving the religious parties outside of government and for specific cabinet posts, sacrificed his political capital represented by the Yesh Atid proportionate share of posts in relationship to his strength in the Knesset; is difficult to say. In any case, the role played by parties and individuals is not determined solely by ratios but by positions occupied and who occupies them.
The two most important committees of cabinet are the security and the finance committees of cabinet. The security cabinet, formally the ministerial committee for national security, includes, in addition to the Prime Minister, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni head of HaTnuah, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett head of HaBayit HaYehudi, Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan and Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch. As I will argue in today’s blog, the Security Cabinet is predominantly right wing. Further, one of the main issues for the Finance Committee will also be security, namely the settlements, and I will suggest that there are clear problems for peace on that front.
In today’s blog I will examine the track records of enough key ministers to indicate that there is virtually no chance of re-launching meaningful peace negotiations. The Palestinians will already have undertaken this analysis. Beginning in reverse order, Yitzhak Aharonovitch is a policeman’s policeman. He served in the IDF from 1968 to 1971 and rose to become a Lieutenant Colonel at the age of only twenty-one. He joined the Israeli Border Police (Mishmar HaGvul or Magav) responsible for both internal security as well as security along the borders and in the West Bank and Jerusalem, He rose quickly earning a degree in history from Haifa University on the way. In the 1980s, he headed the northern command and then became Commander of the Israel Police Force from 1993-1995. He then took up a diplomatic post and served as Israel Police Attaché to the Americas from 1995-1997. He was the Israeli Police Representative on the National Security Council from 1997-1998 and then became Commander of the Judea Samaria District from 1998-2000 and Commander of the Southern District from 2000-2002. He became Deputy Commissioner from 2002 to 2004, but at the time of the Gaza disengagement in 2005, he had left the public sector for the private sector and became Director General of the Dan Bus Company. In 2006, he was elected to the Knesset on Yisrael Beytenu’s list.
In March 2007, he was appointed Minister of Tourism until 2008 when his party left the coalition. In the 2009 elections, he was fourth on the party’s list and became Minster of Public Security with the formation of the Netanyahu government on 31 March 2009. He has always maintained close ties with minorities in Israel, especially the Druzim and the Circassions who have such a strong presence in the Israeli Border Police. He was part of a committee with Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman, and Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin that recommended at the end of 2010 strong efforts to integrate Israeli Arabs to reduce tendencies to radicalism among Israeli Arabs. In addition to internal security issues that became especially acute during hostilities in Gaza, given the recent shooting of the mayor of Acre, Aharonovitch also has to oversee the issue of organized crime in Israel and enhancing the morale of the police force charged with being ridden with corruption. The police are especially susceptible since they probably suffered disproportionately from cuts during economic hard times. With inadequate finances, the police have had to cope with emergencies when rockets land internally and with internal protests by Israeli Arabs.
In the first Obama administration foray into the Palestinian conflict, Aharonovitch was perceived by the American administration as undermining the peace negotiations in 2010 by maintaining the policy of demolishing the homes of families in East Jerusalem of Palestinians arrested on security charges. When, as Public Security Minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch insisted that Israel would still demolish Arab homes in East Jerusalem, the United States warned Israel against steps that would incite the conflict and undermine the efforts for peace. More recently this past month, Aharonovitch remarked on the recent ominous and dramatic increase in stone throwing not only in Judea and Samaria aimed at both civilians and the IDF, but in Jaffa, the Negev and on the streets of Netanya. There has also been an increase in the number of robberies on the road. (The Algemeiner, 13 March 2013)Aharanovitch, conscious of that danger, has expressed his support for the renewal of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority but is sceptical of any success. "I want to believe that there will be peace, but we must be realistic…To say that we can reach an agreement in one year? I’ve got a problem with that, because it’s impossible to solve a 60-year conflict in one year."
Aharanovitch also has on his desk the scandal over Prisoner X, the Australian-Israeli Mossad agent Ben Zygier who had been held incognito in an Israeli prison and hanged himself. Aharonovith has vowed that no other prisoners are being held in Israeli prisons incognito. He has also made his objections well known on the misuse of administrative detention – the practice of arresting and holding persons without trial or laying any charges – as a substitute for undertaking proper criminal or intelligence investigations. In that regard, he still has the problem of the spread of Palestinian hunger strikers in the prisons as an urgent issue to be resolved.
The scandals, however, are not restricted to military security issues but to the conduct of the police. In 2006, a 21-year old woman, Inbal Amram, was abducted from the parking lot outside her Petah Tikva home when she came upon a 20-yearold Palestinian from Kalkilya, Muhammad Jaidi, trying to steal a car. Jaidi forced Amram into the stolen car, drove her to an open area, and repeatedly stabbed her and left her for dead. She died the next morning from her wounds a few hours before police found the car and her body. Jaidi was sentenced to life plus fifteen years.
Amram’s family sued the police for negligence because they refused to investigate the report the evening before that she was missing and would not respond to the family’s plea to initiate a search. In 2011, Judge Hila Gerstl of the Central District Court approved an out-of-court settlement. In August 2010, she had already ruled that there had been a causal connection between the girl’s death and the conduct of the police and that the police had been negligent in Amram’s death for the family had been able to prove that the girl was still alive at 6:30 a.m. Aharonovitch commented that, "The court presents the matter in a harsh and truthful manner. It is certainly unacceptable for the police to treat citizens in this way," and added that, "These types of incidents will not become the norm; the police will kick these people out."
On the domestic front, Aharonovitch comes across as a law and order man who is sensitive to inclusion of minorities in spite of a whiff of scandal when he inappropriately reprimanded a soldier for looking like a scruffy Arab. He is also an excellent organizer as evident in how he managed dealing with the huge Carmel fire in December 2010 that took 42 victims. Nor did he forget those victims. In a story published in the Canadian Jewish News on 4 December 2012 ("Aharonovitch: Carmel fire victims dies in line of duty") on the second anniversary of the fire, he called for recognition of the victims as having the same status as military who die in the line of duty. On security more generally, he has advocated strong military attacks on Gaza and an effective zero tolerance for rocket attacks. (Israel Frontline, 3 August 2011) At the same time, he has defended reduced roadblocks and security checks in the West Bank. "Removing the roadblocks in Judea and Samaria was not a mistake; we cannot change our policy because of one or two incidents."
So while a hardliner when dealing with actual threats, he upholds the law and prefers preventive pre-emptive considerate policies, but there still remains a significant gap between his ostensible beliefs and actual Israeli police practices. On Land Day last year, he ensured that there were plenty of police conspicuously but not provocatively placed, 1200 in the north alone, equipped with non-lethal means to disperse crowds near mosques, especially at the Temple Mount where prayers that day were limited to males over 40 with residency permits. Aharonovitch announced wide and clear that the marches and rallies were legal and would be allowed “to proceed undisturbed," but if breaches of the law occurred, they would be dealt with “determinedly and with strength.” He negotiated with Palestinian leaders in advance in both Israel and the West Bank to prevent any descent into violence and had been reassured to that effect.
Although there were a few sporadic small clashes on the Temple Mount, at the Damascus Gate, in Bethlehem and at the Rachel Checkpoint outside Bethlehem, the only significant incident that took place was near north Jerusalem’s Kalandiya checkpoint where thousands of Palestinian protesters had gathered and started burning tires, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails; troops had to use stun grenades, tear gas, sound weapons and foul-smelling water to disperse Palestinian youths who were demanding "the right of return" and insisting that, "non-Jewish holy sites are at risk and the city itself is being ethnically cleansed." There were no incidents in the north where 10 people had been killed in clashes in 2011.
Gilad Erdan, previously the Environmental Protection Minister, a Likud political pro and apparatchik, is the minister in charge of Home Front Security and Communications responsible both for the Israel Broadcast Agency and the Government Publications Bureau. He will be in the security cabinet even though the responsibility for the strategic relationship with the United States was snatched away from him at the last moment and handed to Dr. Yuval Steinitz who will not be in the Security Cabinet but is the heir apparent as Foreign Minister if Liberman is convicted of his fraud and breach of trust charges. Steinitz will have the responsibility for meeting most foreign VIPs. Erdan, however, retains the seat in the Security Cabinet.
Erdan places high in the Likud lists because he was head of Likud Youth and cultivates his ties with the Likud membership. He made a name for himself as a student Likud activist and led protests against Oslo. Since the Oslo Interim Agreement of 1995, the Joint Water Committee allocates water to the Palestinians and manages the treatment of West Bank sewage. That means to get water and manage their waste, Palestinians have to submit extensive detailed plans to the Joint Water Commission. The Palestinian Water Minister, Dr. Shaddad Attilli, claims they rarely get approval even when just asking to rehabilitate a village spring. Problems stem from the inequality between the parties – effectively the PA makes requests and Israel approves or rejects – most commonly the latter. Israel does supply more than the 10% water needs obliged in Oslo – 51.8 cu. meters vs the required 31 cu. meters – but Israel has rejected requests for a desalination plant for brackish water in Ein Freshkah and only recently approved a Palestinian wastewater treatment plant on the Palestinian side of the Alexander River. Recently, Erdan and Attilli agreed to dialogue more to enhance true cooperation.
As Environmental Minister Erdan saw to it that the charcoal making sites (making charcoal by burning citrus wood branches covered with hay for 21 days) in Area C in the West Bank were shut down but was not able to do the same in area B and asked the Cabinet to redefine making charcoal as a security issue because of the threat to the health of Arabs and Jews. The customers for the charcoal are all in Israel and the sale and purchase of that charcoal could be banned in Israel. In another case in May 2012, Erdan proposed cutting off the supply of power to Gaza even though he is fully aware that Israel is obligated by both treaty and international law to continuing the electricity supply. The Israeli Supreme Court has already ruled on the matter. The reality is that limiting the electrical supply already impedes the work of Gaza hospitals, the Gaza sewage system, local agriculture and industry not counting the disruption of the lives of ordinary Gazans dealing with daily blackouts. In accordance with Oslo, Israel is obligated to sell Gaza 120 megawatts of electricity, but since the bombing of Gaza’s power station in 2006, this has been insufficient and, with the blockade, Gaza has been unable to import the equipment necessary to repair the damage.
In contrast to Erdan, Moshe Ya’alon is by far the most experienced member of the security cabinet as former IDF chief of staff (2002-2005), deputy chief of staff, head of Army Intelligence and GOC of Central Command. Further, he and Benny Gantz, current IDF Chief of Staff, see eye-to-eye; Gantz served under Ya’alon when he was GOC Northern Command. Yaalon led the Israeli commandos in 1988 in the assassination of PLO’s Abu Jihad in Tunis. Ya’alon left the army over disagreements with Shaul Mofaz over the disengagement plan for Gaza. Ya’alon began on the left as a member of HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed. Originally his surname was Smilansky, but he changed it to Ya’alon after the Nahal group he joined. He became a member of Kibbutz Grofit near Eilat.
Ya’alon is a moderate on Iran even though in January 2008 when I was in Australia I recalled reading his insistence that, "We have to confront the Iranian revolution immediately. There is no way to stabilize the Middle East today without defeating the Iranian regime. The Iranian nuclear program must be stopped." (The Sydney Morning Herald) I thought he was a radical hawk then, but on further reading of his views, he is a hawk on confronting Iran before Iran gets a bomb but supports diplomacy before resorting to military means and, more currently, but only recently, is behind Barack Obama’s approach to the Iranian crisis and believes the USA will launch a military attack against Iran if Iran’s headlong thrust towards nuclear arms is not stopped. He clearly believes Iran is the most important security threat Israel faces. After that, he ranks the threat from the north and the new threats on the Syrian border, then Gaza and, at the bottom, the West Bank.
On Syria, Ya’alon does not expect Assad to use his chemical stockpiles against Israel and was, surprising to me, optimistic about a more moderate regime succeeding Assad, but that was a year ago. (Haaretz 5 February 2012) I was unable to find out if his views have changed since then since I expect Syria to implode and become a failed decentralized state. On the other hand, Ya’alon, though originally a supporter of Oslo, he has become a hawk on settlements and the West Bank, has visited illegal settlements, insisted that Jews should be able to live in all parts of Samaria and Judea and attended the right-wing Likud party faction opposed to dismantling settlements. At the same time, he supports peace negotiations but is opposed to the generous terms offered by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. Like Aharonovitch, he would enter talks without any expectations of a peace agreement.
Given that Netanyahu, Ya’alon and Aharonovitch will dominate the Security Cabinet with right wing pushes from Erdan and Bennett, do not expect progress on peace talks with the Palestinians even though Tzipi Livni has that portfolio. Aharonovitch has said that, "Netanyahu wants to make peace, he’s trying to get it started. He is sincere and is at peace with this direction." What he did not add is that he, Netanyahu and Ya’alon want peace on their terms, terms which are unacceptable to the Palestinians. Progress on peace with the Palestinians will have to be in terms of tactics and practices which increase and enhance Palestinian self-determination without compromising Israel’s security concerns and fears of re-creating another Gaza on the east to complement the danger of Hezbollah on the north and of Gaza in the south-west.
Aharonovitch, Erdan, Ya'alon, peace talks, Palestinians, Iran, Syria]