Netanyahu’s Politics and Gaza Violence

Netanyahu’s Politics and Gaza Violence
At one point during his shuttle diplomacy following the 1973 Ramadan War, Henry Kissinger, then US Secretary of State remarked, “Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics.”

This throwaway remark by Kissinger has since been much invoked. Leaving aside the context in which Kissinger said this (he was not only trying to work out a post-war peace between Tel Aviv, Cairo and Damascus, but also had to contend with Golda Meir’s shrinking negotiating options given widespread discontent with her government), it is perhaps truer today apropos of Benjamin Netanyahu and his politics and the latest round of ongoing violence in Gaza.

Netanyahu is in trouble. In May 2020, he became the first serving Israeli prime minister to go on trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Earlier, in November 2019 he was indicted on these charges. But his request for parliamentary immunity from prosecution had blocked the filing of the indictment in a court until Jan 2020. He was formally indicted in court on corruption charges after he withdrew his request for immunity from prosecution since he could not get sufficient votes in the legislature for approval.

While the trial can drag on, some say for months or even years, Netanyahu needs to stay in power to avoid a jail term. The problem is, he has not been able in four elections (in two years) to get a coalition that can help him stay in power. And by the looks of it, the election-fatigued country might be headed for another vote. But we are jumping ahead of the curve, so let’s rewind.

In 2020, after two election cycles and failed attempts to form a government, Netanyahu’s Likud party managed to stitch together a coalition government with his rival, Benny Gantz, a former Israel Defence Forces chief and leader of Blue and White Party. The coalition unraveled after Knesset (parliament) failed to approve a national budget for the second year in a row. This is what Gantz said at that time in a statement: “Netanyahu is taking us to elections just so he doesn’t have to show up in court.”

Gantz’ statement was in line with many analyses that seemed to suggest that Netanyahu never intended to work the power-sharing agreement with Gantz, wanting instead a pliant coalition that would pass legislation to shield him from prosecution in the corruption trial.

Israel went into a fourth round of elections on March 23, 2021. While Likud got 24.19 per cent vote and 30 seats, Netanyahu needed 61 votes in a 120-seat Knesset to become prime minister. As per the number of seats, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin invited Netanyahu to form the government after meeting with the heads of all political parties on April 5. Netanyahu had until May 5 to form a government, which he could not do. The next day, Rivlin invited Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid to form the government.

This is where Netanyahu’s political (mis)fortunes begin to coincide with the latest round of Israeli violence. On May 9, 2021, it was reported that Lapid and Naftali Bennett of  Yamina had made headway in the coalition talks. But Lapid and Bennett were also banking on the Arab Ra’am Party with its four Knesset members. On May 10, reports suggested that  Lapid could form a new government consisting of the current opposition, but for tensions that had flared up. The Islamist Ra’am Party froze talks with both Lapid and Bennett. The situation has become stalemated because they need Ra’am’s votes for the Change bloc to secure a majority.

By the looks of it, Netanyahu seems to have thrown an effective spanner in the Change bloc’s works.

This is where we need to get to where and how this round of violence began.

Beginning mid-April, six Palestinian families in Jerusalem’s Shaikh Jarrah district faced eviction from their homes. They had been living there since the 1950s. Emotions ran high. Clashes broke out in the district between Palestinian protestors and Israeli security forces. The situation further deteriorated when groups of young Israeli Jews marched in the streets of East Jerusalem chanting “Death to Arabs.” This led to riots and violence spread to other parts of the city.

On Friday, May 7, during the prayers, clashes broke out in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque when Jewish groups reached the area to celebrate Israel’s 1967 occupation of East Jerusalem. Israeli police entered the mosque compound using batons and stun grenades. Hundreds of Palestinian worshippers and around 20 policemen were injured in clashes.

Enters Hamas. In the afternoon, Hamas, which controls Gaza since 2007, threatened to attack if Israel did not withdraw its security forces from the mosque compound and Sheikh Jarrah. Israel ignored the warning. Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem as warned. Thus began the ongoing Israeli bombing and air raids of Gaza. Gaza health authorities say 222 people have been killed in the Israeli bombardment, including 63 children. At least 12 people have been killed in rocket attacks on Israel, including two children. Israel has also destroyed some high-rise buildings in Gaza, including at least two buildings which housed local and foreign media outlets.

According to Akiva Eldar, an Israeli author, “Netanyahu] has not made any significant efforts to contain the violence. Last month, he could have ordered the police to remove the roadblocks from Damascus Gate in the old city of Jerusalem. Why did he wait until it became a battleground between the police and hundreds of young Palestinians? Why did he allow the police to throw stun grenades in Al-Aqsa mosque during prayer times?”

Yossi Verter, a Haaretz writer, says Lapid suspected that Netanyahu would create a crisis even before the current escalation. According to Verter (as reported by Eldar), Lapid told Benny Gantz that “There is one thing you need to consider. If Netanyahu feels that the government is slipping through his fingers, he will try to create a security incident. In Gaza or the northern border. If he thinks that this is the only way to save him, he will not hesitate for a moment.”

Lapid is not the only one to point to a nexus between Netanyahu’s troubles and the current crisis. A former minister of defence and chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon tweeted: “The security escalation serves Netanyahu and Hamas, both for internal political reasons.” Eldar reported that another former defence minister and chairman of Yisrael Beitenu party Avigdor Lieberman declared that “The strategic purpose of the [military] operation is to improve the public opinion of Netanyahu. As long as the mandate to form a government is with Lapid, Netanyahu will try to extend the operation.”
It is ironic that as world leaders try to get Israel to cease fire, not much is being said about what might be driving the Israeli attacks. The narrative continues to refer to Hamas as a ‘terrorist’ organisation and Israel’s air raids and bombing as legitimate self-defence. This, despite the fact that there’s mounting evidence in the Israeli media itself of the genesis and purport of this Netanyahu-made and perpetuated crisis.

On May 20 (the day this article was being written), Jerusalem Post reported under the headline, “Netanyahu dragging out Gaza operation because of Lapid mandate”: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dragged out the operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip due to the fact that Yair Lapid currently holds the presidential mandate to form a government, sources in the Likud said on Thursday.”

The report further quoted a Likud source as saying: “It also doesn’t seem like there is any real intention to eradicate Hamas. He is leaving poor relations between Arabs and Jews and is racing toward a fifth election and taking the country hostage.”

It’s important for the current US administration — which has already failed its democracy and human rights test in this crisis — to remind itself of Kissinger’s remark from 1973. But, as Eldar wrote in his article for Al-Jazeera, it’s not just about taking Israel into a fifth election. It’s about the fact that Israel cannot be safe until Palestinians begin to live with dignity.

“The escalation in the occupied territories is a reminder that the ‘change bloc’ must… change its idle policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its discriminative policy towards the Israeli Palestinian minority….no Israeli government can afford to ignore this issue without harming the safety of Israeli citizens, jeopardising relations with neighbouring Arab countries and antagonising the international community.”

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.