Israel is facing the consequences of the leaks of extracts from the State Comptroller’s report on the failures of the 2014 war against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. This has led to speculation by both Palestinians and Israelis about the possibility of Israel being able to avoid these failures in what some Israelis call the upcoming “fourth war” on Gaza.
Will Israel seek a victory against the Palestinians simply to counter its prevailing negative image from the previous war? Is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planning to go to war again in order to divert attention from police investigations into his activities? And how can Israel exploit the presence of Donald Trump in the White House to direct a final blow against Hamas?
The State Comptroller prepares a report on all of Israel’s wars. The report for 2014’s “Operation Protective Edge” looked at how decisions were made, the extent of coordination between the military and politicians, the duration of the war (more than fifty days), and how to ensure Israel’s readiness for the threat of tunnels used effectively by Hamas in some of its operations during the war.
It is true that the latest report did not set out to distribute victory medals to Hamas fighters, but leaked extracts indicate beyond any reasonable doubt that the Israeli military performance during the 2014 war was not as expected. The comptroller has stressed that things could have been better, in terms of operational performance, shortening the war, reducing Israeli casualties, and political results to set off against the human, military and financial losses sustained by Israel. This may all sound as if it is in favour of Hamas fighters, but that was no doubt unintentional.
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Until the full report is released, Israeli military and security circles will be preoccupied with how to avoid the repetition of such failures in the future. They don’t want the army to show any weakness in front of Hamas, which Israel believes has continued its preparations for the inevitable upcoming confrontation.
The Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement is, the Israelis have no doubt, following the discussions about the conclusions drawn from the 2014 war with interest. Hamas will be using the feedback to build on what happened before, especially in the use of short-range missiles which were effective in the last days of “Protective Edge”, as well as activating the tunnels.
Hamas will also be developing the capabilities of its marine commandos, which were given notable attention by the Israeli army. The movement’s armed wing is also increasing its propaganda directed at the Israeli public.
It is no secret that Netanyahu is struggling to stay in his position as he faces police investigations into allegations that he took bribes and gifts in violation of the law. Another war against the Palestinians in Gaza may just take the heat off him and provide some much-needed political breathing space.
Not for the first time, Israel may deal with its internal problems by turning outwards, although on this occasion things may be different. Every Israeli knows that Netanyahu is not having an easy time. His coalition partners are making life difficult, to the extent that he has made a series of concessions to keep the government from breaking apart, and so that he won’t face any motions of no confidence. It has reached such a stage that some people are now calling him the “follower leader”.
All of this may make restrict Netanyahu’s personal decision to go to war against Gaza, because it will be an exposed game. He will be jeopardising the security of the state and sending soldiers to die, simply so that he can stay in office. It is a crude attempt at a power play, and he may not find it as easy as before.
However, it may well be that his extreme right-wing coalition partners influence Netanyahu to go into a new war against Hamas in Gaza. This could be to cover up the failures mentioned in the comptroller’s report or to avoid giving Hamas the chance to get stronger militarily. Strangely enough, some ministers are now setting specific dates for the outbreak of the next war.
Although the state comptroller’s report criticises the performance of the security cabinet, the finger of blame is pointing straight at the leader; at Netanyahu himself. We could be about to see a “war of all against all”. The prime minister is fighting a war against his rivals within the coalition, such as Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, as well as with the opposition, such as former Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon, opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog, Yair Lapid and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Although they have their differences, all agree that Netanyahu alone should pay for the failures of the 2014 war.
Some of those ministers are describing the next war openly as the final war, raising the white flag, achieving sweeping victory, no tie and the next spring. Along with other terminology, this is intended to prepare the Israeli public for the outbreak of another war with the main aim of restoring Israel’s deterrent power; the hidden objective is the overthrow of Netanyahu.
In the midst of all of this, officially at least, Israel claims that it is not interested in a new war against Hamas in Gaza; that’s the public assertion, but there are definitely mixed messages being issued. Moreover, with Donald Trump in the White House, Hamas could be targeted as part of his threat to eliminate “Islamic terrorism”, which may prompt the US president to give Israel a green light to strike against Gaza, with full cover from Washington.
Hamas believes that the Trump era will see Israel free to put more pressure on the movement, through tightening the siege imposed on Gaza since 2006 or launching another military offensive. Trump’s inauguration coincided with Israeli statements against Hamas, notably Lieberman’s claim that the army could occupy a quarter of the Gaza Strip in the coming war.
Israel will thus find that the Trump presidency provides a favourable opportunity to direct a severe blow against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, as part of its frequent “mowing the lawn” of Hamas. Is this any different to what we witnessed under Barack Obama? Hardly. As president, Obama backed two brutal offensives launched by Israel ostensibly against the Islamic movement in 2012 and 2014. There were some political differences between Washington and Tel Aviv on when to end the wars, with Washington wanting to end them sooner, but they mattered little. Such differences may not arise in the Trump era.
Both Hamas and Israel would have to agree that the decision to go to war against the people of Gaza is largely unaffected by the identity of the occupant of the White House; it is Israel’s decision, and Israel’s alone. Nevertheless, whereas Obama was regarded as being not quite an “Israel right or wrong” supporter, the Israelis know that Trump is very likely to give more aggressive backing to the state in its offensives against Hamas and the Palestinians.
Fears about a future Israeli war with US support are compounded by the sight of the relative inaction of the international community in the face of horrific bloodshed in Syria, for example, and the oppression of the people in Egypt since the military coup. Such complicity by silence may well embolden Israel to commit yet more bloody atrocities against Palestinian civilians, supported by Trump, and always “in self-defence”, of course.
The political benefits of Israel’s wars against the Palestinians in Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014 have been minimal, so it is possible that a fourth war is not inevitable, even though Israel believes that the tunnels prepared by Hamas are a genuine threat. They could be the core of discussions seeking more US support. There are no guarantees, though, and the lack of tangible Arab support for the Palestinians leaves the possibility of another war very much open. Activity on both sides of the border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip suggests that the countdown has started. If and when it happens, it is likely to be shorter than 2014, but much more intense.
This is an edited version of a translation prepared from Aljazeera.net, 26 February, 2017.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.