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Netanyahu strikes defiant tone to placate right wing extremists

This week, violence resumed in Gaza, after the collapse of peace talks between Israel and Palestine in Cairo. Israel's military said it carried out 92 airstrikes on Wednesday alone, in response to 137 rockets fired from Gaza. Both sides blamed each other for the breakdown of talks and the end of a ceasefire, which had lasted 10 days.

In a televised address, Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, vowed that the campaign in Gaza would continue. "We will not stop until we secure full security and quiet for the residents of the south and all citizens of Israel," he said. He added that he was "determined to continue the campaign with all means and as is needed".

Netanyahu's defiant tone may in part be due to pressure from the far right wing in his own coalition. Operation Protective Edge began on 8 July, with the stated aim of ending Hamas rocket fire and destroying the tunnels under the border with Israel that are used to launch attacks. At the beginning of the campaign, some of the most ardent hawks in Israeli politics accused Netanyahu of dithering over rocket fire – ironic, given that Netanyahu himself is a right wing, hawkish politician. Some demanded that he strangle Gaza – one of the world's most densely populated territories – even further, by cutting off electricity, fuel and food. "It is inconceivable that on the one hand we fight Hamas and on the other we provide fuel and electricity that are used to transport missiles that are fired at us," Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon said in early July. (He has since been dismissed from his ministerial position for being too critical of the government's Gaza policy). Others – including the foreign minister, the ultra-nationalist Avigdor Liebermann – demanded that he send in troops to reoccupy the Strip.

Even now, after a punishing air campaign has left more than 2,000 Palestinians – mostly civilians – dead, after negotiations with the Palestinian Authority were suspended, and after the demolition of the homes of several people convicted of no crimes, members of this faction still believe that Netanyahu has not gone far enough.

What is particularly interesting about the current conflict is the huge disconnect between international perception and public opinion in Israel. The sheer scale of civilian deaths – particularly the high number of children killed – has meant that the international media and political establishment have been far more critical of Israel than in the past, including media outlets that traditionally support Israel. This shift in international public opinion is a matter of concern for the Israeli authorities (although, crucially, US support remains); but public opinion polls in Israel show overwhelming support for the war. Around 90 per cent of Jewish Israelis support the war according to recent polls, while less than 4 per cent believe the army has used "excessive firepower". A survey conducted by the Knesset Channel suggested that right-wing parties would increase their share of the vote in the next election, following the war. Even left wing and centrist politicians such as the Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, the Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and the Finance Minister Yair Lapid have defended the war.

Netanyahu is a hawk and a right-winger, and back in 2002, secured his own political position by attacking then prime minister Ariel Sharon from the right. Now, it seems that members of his own coalition could do the same to him. But the indications so far have been that he does not want a return to occupation in Gaza; nor does he want to see a protracted war. Political columnist for the Maariv newspaper, Ben Caspit, recently told AFP that Netanyahu has "always been mistrustful of military adventures, and is one of the most prudent and calculating prime ministers in Israeli's history." However, the domestic pressure of public opinion and political consensus – as well as the need to keep his own restive coalition together – means that despite international condemnation, Netanyahu will feel he has little choice but to continue down the current path.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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