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Netanyahu’s predicament is that the era of easy wars is over

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu [Yoav Lemmer/Getty Images]
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu [Yoav Lemmer/Getty Images]

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his army to carry out a limited operation in the besieged Gaza Strip on 12 November, he certainly did not anticipate that his military adventure would destabilise his government and threaten the very survival of his right-wing coalition. However, it did, far more than the multiple police investigations into various corruption cases involving Netanyahu’s family and closest aides have done.

Thanks to the botched operation in Gaza, which led to the killing of seven Palestinians and an Israeli army commander, Netanyahu’s coalition has begun to disintegrate. It just needs a final push for it to collapse completely.

It all began with the resignation of the country’s extremist Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who quit his post, two days after the Gaza attack, in protest at the country’s “surrender” to Palestinian resistance. The even more extreme far-right leader Naftali Bennett was expected to pounce on the opportunity and follow suit. He did not, in a calculated move aimed at capitalising on the fact that he had suddenly become the government’s ultimate kingmaker.

Now, Netanyahu’s once stable coalition is hanging by a thread, with the support of only 61 members in the Knesset. This means that his once comfortable majority is now dependent on a single MK. One wrong move, and Netanyahu could find himself forced into a snap General Election, a choice that, at least for now, he dreads.

READ: Does ‘creeping normalisation’ save Netanyahu from his problems?

Netanyahu’s options are becoming ever more limited. It seems that the age of striking Gaza with impunity in order to score political points with Israeli voters is, arguably, over.

While much political commentary is being dedicated to the Prime Minister’s future and the dirty politicking of his right-wing coalition, Israel’s burgeoning problem is bigger than any single individual. Its ability to win wars and translate its victories into political concessions from Palestinians and Arabs has been hampered greatly, and this fact has little to do with Netanyahu’s supposed “weakness”, as his domestic detractors often claim.

Almost every time that Israel has attacked Gaza in the past, its own politics factored greatly in the decision. Gaza has been used as a stage where Israel flexed its muscles and displayed its latest war technology. Some Israeli politicians, however, refuse to accept that the violence paradigm is changing.

READ: Netanyahu accelerates normalisation to cover defeat in Gaza

Israel’s 2014 military offensive — dubbed “Operation Protective Edge” – was a wakeup call for the over-confident Israeli leaders. More than 2,300 Palestinians were killed and over 17,000 were wounded, the vast majority of whom were civilians.

While that is quite consistent with Israel’s militarised trajectory, the number of Israeli casualties indicated a changing trend. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers were also killed in the offensive, and a few civilians, indicating that the Palestinian resistance has abandoned the randomness of its previous tactics and grown bolder and more sophisticated.

Four years down the line from “Protective Edge”, coupled with a particularly harsh stage of the siege which has been imposed on Gaza since 2007, and the equation has not changed. In fact, the fighting that was instigated by the latest Israeli attack accentuated this further.

As Israel pounded Gaza with a massive bombing campaign, Palestinian resistance fighters filmed a rare attack of their own using anti-tank missiles that targeted a military bus on the Israeli side of the nominal border fence. Hours later, a truce facilitated by Egypt was announced, to the relief of Netanyahu and the jubilation of Palestinians, who marched in their thousands celebrating the end of fighting. Considering the disproportionate military power available to Israel, and the desperate humanitarian situation in Gaza, it makes perfect sense that Palestinians perceived the outcome as a “victory”.

A ball of fire explodes over the Al Aqsa TV building in Gaza 12 November 2018 [Mahmoud Ajjour/Apaimages]

A ball of fire explodes after Israel carried out air strikes in Gaza 12 November 2018
[Mahmoud Ajjour/Apaimages]

Israeli leaders, on the right as well as the left, attacked Netanyahu, who understood that continued fighting would lead to another major war, with mostly unpredictable outcomes. Unlike Lieberman, Bennett and others, his political strategy is not driven by attempts to pacify Israel’s angry public, many of whom protested against the Gaza truce in various parts of the country. The Israeli Prime Minister has a twofold political outlook: labouring to divide Gaza politically from the West Bank; and maintaining a degree of “stability” that would give time and space for US political manoeuvring in preparation for Donald Trump’s so-called “Deal of the Century”.

Moreover, Israel’s growing challenge in Syria and Lebanon makes a prolonged military operation in Gaza quite dangerous and unsustainable. The pressure on the home-front is, nevertheless, relentless.

Seventy-four per cent of the Israeli public is “dissatisfied” with Netanyahu’s performance in the latest round of fighting in Gaza, according to an Israeli TV poll released soon after the truce was announced. Yet Netanyahu has no other option but to commit to it, which, as per Israeli political logic, means that he must stir up trouble elsewhere to send a message of strength and prowess to the disquieted public.

READ: Netanyahu asks ministers to stop threatening Gaza

This is precisely why the Prime Minister renewed his threats to ethnically-cleanse the residents of the village of Khan Al-Ahmar in the Occupied West Bank. “It will be demolished very soon,” he declared, in an attempt to move the conversation away from Gaza and regain the confidence of his right-wing constituency. Thus, while the Palestinians in Gaza are getting a badly needed respite, however fleeting, Khan Al-Ahmar residents will now become the main target for Israel’s political violence and chauvinism.

The question is, how long will Israel be able to sustain this violent paradigm and what will it take for the international community to hold Tel Aviv to account?

As for the Palestinians, those in Gaza have demonstrated that only resistance, popular or otherwise, works. It is the only language that registers with the Israelis, who must now surely understand that the era of easy wars is over.

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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