Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cut short his trip to the US, after Israel called up reservists in preparation for a new attack on the Gaza Strip.
Netanyahu had been due to spend two days in the US, today visiting US President Donald Trump at the White House and tomorrow addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington DC.
He announced this morning however that he would now only briefly visit President Trump, before returning to Israel "to manage our operations up close". Before leaving, Netanyahu – who is also Israel's defence minister – reportedly held a remote meeting with the Israeli army's chief of staff, the chief of Israel's intelligence agency Shin Bet, and the head of Israel's National Security Council, Haaretz reported.
This comes after Israel today deployed two army brigades to the Gaza fence and called up reservists for aerial units in preparation for a potential assault on the besieged Strip. Chief of Staff of the Israeli army, Aviv Kohavi, ordered two brigades be sent to Israel's Gaza Division which, according to the Times of Israel, "represent[s] over 1,000 additional soldiers deployed to the area, a significant troop increase".
Israel has also locked down the Gaza Strip, closing the Kerem Shalom (Karm Abu Salem) and Erez (Beit Hanoun) crossings which allow goods and medical supplies into the enclave. Israel has also reduced the fishing zone it imposes off Gaza's coast, further blockading the territory. At the time of writing, Israel had just begun its attack on the Strip, with Palestinians living there bracing for further attacks overnight.
The Israeli army has claimed these measures are a response to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. The alleged rocket hit a house north of Tel Aviv, leaving seven wounded. Israeli army spokesperson, Ronen Manelis, claimed the rocket was fired by Hamas – which governs the Gaza Strip – a claim that Hamas denies. A Hamas official told Agence France Press (AFP): "No one from the resistance movements, including Hamas, has an interest in firing rockets from the Gaza Strip towards [Israel]."
That this has occurred just two weeks before Israel's upcoming general election on 9 April is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, Netanyahu's visit to the US was widely expected to act as a pre-election PR exercise, demonstrating the strong relations between him and the Trump administration. Netanyahu has been keen to stress this relationship throughout his campaign, using billboards of the pair shaking hands and pointing to President Trump's decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem in May as evidence that Netanyahu has "got things done".
With elections weeks away, Israel pounds Gaza
This tactic appeared to be holding true once again last week, as President Trump tweeted that "it is time for the United States to fully recognise Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights". The decision – which reversed decades of US foreign policy under which the Golan Heights was declared "Israeli occupied" in line with international law – was seen as an election gift for Netanyahu, and a potentially much-needed boost to his struggling poll numbers. President Trump was slated to sign a decree recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights while Netanyahu was in the US, though it is now unclear when this will go ahead.
In addition, by cutting the trip short Netanyahu has not only deprived himself of this PR opportunity but also left the AIPAC conference open to his biggest electoral rival, Benny Gantz. In what was interpreted as a blow to Netanyahu, earlier this month it was announced that Gantz would give the keynote speech at AIPAC, an opportunity that would represent his first major address to the US.
In a statement about the keynote, Gantz's Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) alliance said: "Gantz will use his speech to emphasise that, after the election, he will work to rebuild the relationship with American Jewry and ensure that Israel will once again enjoy the support of its friends across the spectrum in the United States".
Giving his AIPAC address today, Gantz said: "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families whose homes were attacked by a rocket this morning in Israel. The strong resilient people of our nation were attacked yet again, forced to live with constant reminders of our enemies' hate and unwillingness for change."
The former chief of staff of the Israeli army also praised Netanyahu for the decision to cut his trip short, saying: "I will return to Israel today as well to stand, and if needed, to fight in defence of our people […] I am a soldier. That is who I am. That is what I do."
Gantz was less supportive of Netanyahu on Twitter, however, writing: "Those who do not respond with force and instead [pay] Hamas […] now get rockets in the Hasharon region [north of Tel Aviv]. Will [Netanyahu …] finally focus on the security of the citizens of the state and not on his legal issues," referring to the myriad corruption investigations levied against the prime minister.
However, commentators have speculated that the threat of another war on the Gaza Strip could actually be of benefit to Netanyahu's re-election bid. Netanyahu has been criticised as weak on Gaza, with the right-wing claiming he has failed to "deal effectively with Hamas". One such critic is co-founder of the New Right (Hayemin Hehadash) party and current Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, who has long advocated for a heavy-handed approach to Gaza.
In a statement today, the New Right party said: "Israel's deterrence has collapsed, and we have to say honestly, Netanyahu failed against Hamas. The release of the terrorists, the fear of destroying their homes, the restraint in the face of the rockets to the south – all of these led Hamas to stop being afraid of Israel."
If Netanyahu now responds forcefully against the Gaza Strip, he could win the support of those portions of the electorate who support Bennett's interpretation. The Times of Israel points out that, weeks before Israel's 2009 and 2013 elections, Israel launched its 2008 and 2012 wars on the Strip after being spurred on by "appeals for a strong retaliation" to alleged rocket fire. If the same happens again, with just 15 days to go until the election, Israel could face a "khaki election" in which the country goes to the ballots during wartime.
This prospect has not been lost on the Palestinian factions, with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO)'s Executive Committee saying in a statement that "Netanyahu's government is seeking to use these developments [for] the Israeli elections early next month, as well as for the benefit of Netanyahu personally [and] his allies in the far right."