11/19/2012 10:25 am ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

Did Israel Choose War Instead of Long-Term Truce With Gaza?

There follow excerpts from an article that appeared on Nov. 15 in Haaretz, the newspaper often called "the New York Times of Israel." The article describes how the Israeli government chose to assassinate a key Hamas leader in the midst of discussions with him that could have led to a long-term truce between the governments of Israel and Gaza. My own comments will follow the article, both on the realpolitik of today and on how Torah might address these issues. For the full Haaretz article see the home page of The Shalom Center.

Israeli peace activist: Hamas leader Jabari killed amid talks on long-term truce

Gershon Baskin, who helped mediate between Israel and Hamas in the deal to release Gilad Shalit, says Israel made a mistake that will cost the lives of 'innocent people on both sides.'

By Nir Hasson

Hours before Hamas strongman Ahmed Jabari was assassinated, he received the draft of a permanent truce agreement with Israel, which included mechanisms for maintaining the cease-fire in the case of a flare-up between Israel and the factions in the Gaza Strip. This, according to Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, who helped mediate between Israel and Hamas in the deal to release Gilad Shalit and has since then maintained a relationship with Hamas leaders.

Baskin told Haaretz on Thursday that senior officials in Israel knew about his contacts with Hamas and Egyptian intelligence aimed at formulating the permanent truce, but nevertheless approved the assassination.

"I think that they have made a strategic mistake," Baskin said, an error "which will cost the lives of quite a number of innocent people on both sides."

"This blood could have been spared. Those who made the decision must be judged by the voters, but to my regret they will get more votes because of this," he added.

Baskin made Jabari's acquaintance when he served as a mediator between David Meidin, Israel's representative to the Shalit negotiations, and Jabari. "Jabari was the all-powerful man in charge. He always received the messages via a third party, Razi Hamad of Hamas, who called him Mister J."

For months, Baskin sent daily messages in advance of the formulation of the deal. He kept the channel of communication with Gaza open even after the Shalit deal was completed.

According to Baskin, during the past two years Jabari internalized the realization that the rounds of hostilities with Israel were beneficial neither to Hamas nor to the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip and only caused suffering, and several times he acted to prevent firing by Hamas into Israel.

He said that even when Hamas was pulled into participating in the launching of rockets, its rockets would always land in open spaces. "And that was intentional," clarified Baskin.

... A few months ago Baskin showed Defense Minister Ehud Barak a draft of the agreement and on the basis of that draft an inter-ministry committee on the issue was established. The agreement was to have constituted a basis for a permanent truce between Israel and Hamas, which would prevent the repeated rounds of shooting.

"In Israel," Baskin said, "they decided not to decide, and in recent months I took the initiative to push it again...

... "I am mainly sad. This is sad for me. I am seeing people getting killed and that is what is making me sad. I tell myself that with every person who is killed we are engendering the next generation of haters and terrorists," adds Baskin.

[Baskin is the co-founder and co-director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, founded in 1988, which describes itself as "the only joint Israeli-Palestinian public policy think-tank in the world. It is devoted to developing practical solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." -- ED.]

The article says that although they knew about the discussions, the Israeli government "nevertheless" approved the assassination.

The question I think we need to ask is whether the Israeli government ordered the assassination not "nevertheless" but "therefore." That is, did top Israeli officials choose another round of war with Gaza rather than a long-term truce? They certainly knew that killing Jabari would for sure bring on new rocket attacks, which to the Israeli public would then seem a legitimate reason for a new war in "self-defense."

Why might the Netanyahu government have made this choice? With the caveat that there is no way to know for sure, without access to the inner governmental archives, let me put forward a hypothesis that seems at minimum plausible:

At home, elections are looming, and the major focus of the emerging campaign, till last week, was the domestic social and economic crisis -- not foreign policy. With that as the central issue, the pro-corporate, anti-poor-people, anti-middle-class policies of the Netanyahu government were vulnerable. A new Gaza War would shift the conversation and strengthen a government proclaiming "self-defensive war."

Meanwhile, President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority was preparing to ask the U.N. General Assembly to recognize Palestine as a state with "observer" status, not full membership. This was almost certain to pass, thus increasing the prestige of the Palestinian cause. Moreover, Abbas had just publicly renounced the "right" of millions of Palestinian refugees to "return" within Israel itself, thereby easing one deep fear many Israelis hold about the possibility of a two-state peace. Instead of encouraging this step toward peace, Netanyahu pooh-poohed it.

In this atmosphere, a long-term truce with Hamas, the de facto government of Gaza, would make the achievement of a two-state peace much more likely. But the Netanyahu government does not want that. It prefers the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the subjugation of Gaza.

Ironically, last week's and this week's Torah readings might teach us some profound truths about these choices. These passages, and much of the entire Book of Genesis, are about the relationships of older and younger siblings. In every case, God is said to favor the younger, weaker, brother. In every case but one, despite anger, the older brother -- legally and often in reality more powerful -- restrains himself when challenged by the younger one, and ultimately this makes possible a reconciliation.

Right now we are reading about what happens when a younger brother, Jacob, acts like his name, "Heel," and cheats his older brother Esau. He flees his brother's wrath. After decades away, he heads for home. When he does, Esau appears with 400 armed men -- but withholds his power when he sees that Jacob, after wrestling with God, has been transformed. Esau chooses peace rather than a "legitimate" retribution for the wrong that has been done him. The brothers embrace.

The one story in which the older, more powerful brother refuses to restrain himself is the case of Cain and Abel. It ends in murder, and in the exile of the murderer.

Today, the State of Israel is far more powerful than Palestine. The Jewish people, which has for thousands of years seen itself as weaker in the world but blessed by God, is now in a time of reversal where worldly power is in its hands.

If we were to grasp the deepest teachings of Torah, the lesson would be, "Do Not Over-Reach! Do not abuse your power!" For those who do may succeed in the short run, but will end up as murderers and outcasts or worse. Those who restrain themselves and seek reconciliation live in joy.

This teaching is repeated in Torah again and again, in many different contexts -- not just the family.

The Jewish people today faces the profound danger of becoming so addicted to our new power as to treat it not as a valuable healing from our past but as an idol -- and thus to over-reach, and thereby to bring ruin on ourselves.

If indeed a key leader of Hamas was prepared after his own wrestle with reality to choose not fruitless war but a long-term truce, then that is a choice the Jewish people and the government of Israel should have welcomed.

That peaceful choice might have led toward a free and prosperous Palestine, alongside a much stronger, prosperous Israel freed of the burden of being the oppressor.

As I say, "If." Without those secret archives, we cannot know for sure. But the Baskin article opens the window a crack. If it is accurate, to have chosen war instead was a profound strategic, ethical and moral mistake.

And it is a sign of deep idolatry that practically every "established" American Jewish organization is applauding that choice without even examining the "if."