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Netanyahu is at a crossroads over a truce or war in Gaza and Syria

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on October 4, 2018 [Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images]
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 4 October 2018 [Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is at a crossroads. He has to choose between a truce to deal with the Gaza Strip and Syria, or war on both fronts.

If his speech to his party's MKs last week is anything to go by, it seems that he has opted for raw power. "Power is the most important component of foreign policy," he told them. "Occupation is baloney. There were huge countries that have occupied and transferred populations and no one talks about them. Power changes everything and it changes our policies vis-a-vis Arab states, and there are other countries on the way."

None of the senior Likud members present asked him to elaborate; their silence is acceptance. As for the illegal settlers, they were amused by his speech and cheered him. Only Zehava Gal-On, the former leader of the left-wing Meretz Party, dared to question what Netanyahu had said: "Just 30 years into his political career, Netanyahu finally told the truth (whispered and behind closed doors, of course): The occupation isn't the issue. Populations under occupation aren't important. Millions of people whose rights are trampled day after day, whose lives are intolerable, are of no interest to Israel's prime minister. He doesn't bother with such things. Power is the only thing that matters."

READ: Netanyahu compares Israel to settler colonialists

Nevertheless, most Israeli media suggested that the majority of the members of the Ministerial Committee on National Security Affairs leaned towards an agreement on continuing the efforts to implement a truce between Israel and Hamas, which Egypt has been tasked with. Israel's right-wing newspaper, Maariv, claimed that sources in Hamas have revealed that the first phase of the expected truce includes allowing fuel to enter Gaza through Israel, funded by Qatar. This is in exchange for an end to the launching of incendiary balloons and kites from Gaza towards the Israeli settlements surrounding the besieged territory. The next phase is expected to include a prisoner swap, establishing a feasible port in Gaza and other aspects of easing the siege, such as opening the Gaza border crossings and increasing the number of Palestinians authorised to enter Israel for work.

It seems that there are some within Israel's governing coalition who believe that intensifying the hardship suffered by the Palestinians in Gaza, including rising unemployment and poverty, will only lead to an explosion, and that this would cause untold human and material losses, neither of which are in the best interests of the state. This is especially relevant as Israel itself is facing threats and dangers, the main source of which is Iran's presence in Syria and Lebanon's Tehran-backed Hezbollah.

However, there is nothing to indicate that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are on the verge of agreeing to any truce on Israel's terms or, indeed, on any terms which do not benefit the Palestinians. This is evidenced by the ongoing Great March of Return protests on the nominal border with Israel, the latest of which took place on Friday.

Palestinian protesters at the Gaza-Israel border during the Great March of Return on 2 November 2018 [Middle East Monitor]

Palestinian protesters at the Gaza-Israel border during the Great March of Return on 2 November 2018 [Middle East Monitor]

To avoid a war on two fronts, Tel Aviv has been desperately trying to arrange a meeting between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin, but to no avail. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied setting a date for such a meeting. It is clear that what Netanyahu wants is to persuade the Russian President to prevent Iranian troops from being stationed in Syria, by force if necessary, and to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring new strategic weapons that would disturb the current imbalance of power.

Moscow seems unwilling to respond to Israel's demands in Syria or Lebanon for three reasons. The first is its unwillingness, and perhaps inability — not to mention its lack of interest — to remove its ally Iran from Syria. The second is its unwillingness to weaken Syria itself, also an ally, which needs Iranian support until its S-300 air defence system, delivered recently by Moscow, is operational and capable of confronting the Israeli air force. The third is that Israel still refuses to extend the advance warning period given to the Russian military before the launch of its warplanes in Syrian airspace, exposing Russian bases on the Syrian coast to the risk of bombing. This happened a few weeks ago when a Russian reconnaissance plane was downed, killing 15 senior Russian advisers near the Khmeimim Air Base.

Washington supports Tel Aviv in what it wants from Moscow. US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, James Jeffrey, expressed the hope that Russia would allow Israel to strike Iranian targets in Syrian territory because, "Israel has an existential interest in blocking Iran from deploying long-range power projection systems inside Syria to be used against Israel." He did not forget to remind Moscow that, "We're no longer pulling out by the end of the year; we're going to stay in until we have an enduring defeat of Islamic State." As well as the complete withdrawal of all Iranian-commanded forces, and all other forces with the exception of Russian forces, from Syrian territory, he might have added.

READ: Russia should allow Israel air strikes in Syria

What if Netanyahu fails to convince Putin to respond to his demands in Syria? Many Israeli military experts agree that Iran's presence in Syria poses an existential threat to the Zionist state, a matter that must be prevented at all costs. There are other experts who fear a worse scenario. "Iran's leaders appear one day on a stage in Tehran and declare that they possess nuclear weapons that they secretly finished developing. In this case, what will the military suggest to the political level?" asked military analyst Amir Rapaport in Makor Rishon last week.

This question was, of course, being posed to Netanyahu. What will his answer be? Will he hasten the formulation of a deal that responds to most of Hamas's conditions in order to spare himself and his army the concerns and challenges posed by Gaza, albeit temporarily, in order to free himself to face Iran, Syria and Hezbollah? In doing so, he would be pre-empting the fast-paced military and technological rise of the resistance axis as well as the resulting tip in the balance of power in the region in its favour, thus posing an existential threat to Israel. Or will he rush, along with the US, into a war against Iran and all of the members of the resistance axis, believing that by doing so he will stunt the growth of its military, technological and economic capabilities?

Netanyahu is at a crossroads and it seems that his decision to reach a truce or engage in a confrontation must be made before the next election. This is likely to be held next spring. The clock is ticking.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 12 November 2018

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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