Netanyahu’s would-be successors are out to prove their security credentials, seeing who can outrival whom in the ferocity of their hatred for Hamas
Last week, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned his post, leading to a crisis in the coalition government.
Although Lieberman and Israeli media couched his decision as having been motivated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leniency towards rocket fire from Gaza aimed at southern Israeli communities, it’s much more likely that this is political posturing in preparation for national elections, likely to be called soon.
Without Lieberman’s party, the ruling coalition has only a one-seat majority, making for a very shaky government. Netanyahu also needs to retain the participation of his leading rival, Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party - but Bennett has been driving a hard bargain, demanding the defence ministry role in return for his continued support.
‘Israel has stopped winning’
Instead, Netanyahu announced that he himself would assume the portfolio. Bennett then indicated that he would also step down, but in a statement on Monday morning, he backed away from that threat while also slamming Netanyahu’s leadership. Under this government, “Israel has stopped winning”, he said.
“We impose constraints upon constraints on our fighters, legal constraints and conceptual constraints. Our fighters are more afraid of the military prosecutor than of Yahya Sanwar,” Bennett said, referring to the leader of Hamas in Gaza.
Netanyahu has numerous rivals itching to take his place. They all see weakness and wish to exploit it. Eventually, someone will upset the apple cart and destroy the coalition
It’s a tune Israelis have heard before, many times. If force doesn’t work, then use more force. There can never be enough. Yet, every time Israel invades Gaza, it kills more than it did the time before - but it never quells Palestinian resistance.
Still, somehow Israeli voters want to believe that there’s an ultimate solution that will bring permanent peace without giving up anything vital to Israeli interests (settlements, Jerusalem, etc). It’s a tempting, but illusory pipe dream.
Regardless of Bennett’s decision, the handwriting is on the wall. Once a threat of resignation by a senior minister is out there, it sets a tone. With Lieberman’s departure, the balance of power within the government has shifted. Netanyahu has numerous rivals itching to take his place. They all see weakness and wish to exploit it. Eventually, someone will upset the apple cart and destroy the coalition.
A formidable enemy
Whenever the election does happen, there will be fierce jockeying among Netanyahu’s Likud, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Bennett’s Jewish Home, as to which is toughest on security. In Israeli politics, the way to assume the strong-on-security mantle is by looking tough on Palestinians. It’s much like the sloganeering about who’s tough on crime or “illegal immigration” in other Western countries.
Netanyahu remains in a strong position. Though the public does not particularly like him, they trust him to protect Israel’s security interests. Polls say Likud would win the same number of seats today as it did in the last election. So, despite his internal rivals seeking to unseat him, he is a wily, formidable enemy.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the foreign affairs and defence committee meeting at the Knesset on 19 November 2018 (AFP)
In recent months, the Netanyahu government has undertaken steps to loosen the siege of Gaza. It increased the number of trucks importing goods into the enclave and opened the Kerem Shalom crossing. Qatar sent briefcases filled with $15m to pay partial salaries for Gaza workers who had not been paid for months, and shipped in fuel to power the electric, sewage and water treatment plants.
The fishing zone was expanded to nine nautical miles in southern Gaza.
The most hawkish Israeli ministers complained bitterly about the softening of Israel’s position towards Gaza and its Hamas rulers. There was grumbling and sniping by Lieberman, Bennett and others. At one point, Lieberman shut the crossing, prohibiting trucks from entering Gaza.
Then, a week ago, the Israeli army sent a commando unit into Gaza, which according to Israeli army version, was meant to install electronic surveillance gear, sparking a massive firefight. Hamas commander Nour Baraka and six other Palestinians were killed, along with a senior Israeli officer.
In the fallout, the Israeli unit was forced to leave behind gear intended for spying on Gaza militants. It is now reportedly in the hands of Hamas, with Israeli media outlet Walla noting that the Israeli army was “evaluating the situation regarding the damage caused by the capture of these electronic [surveillance] methods by Hamas. One can assume that this has caused significant damage to the army’s [spying] activities in Gaza.”
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This is precisely the sort of trove that would interest both Hezbollah and Iran, which are also targets of Israeli spying. Walla based its reporting in part on Palestinian media accounts of the raid.
The timing of the raid seems odd, coming just after Netanyahu had sounded downright moderate in declaring that Israel had no interest in an “unnecessary war”. It seems likely that the Israeli army viewed the commando operation as routine, not expecting it to be intercepted.
Once it was, all hell broke loose. In response to the killing of their fighters, Hamas launched hundreds of rockets into southern Israel. Dozens of Israelis were wounded, and a Palestinian worker was killed inside Israel.
Just as it seemed that Israel and Hamas were headed for a new war, repeating the disaster of 2014, Egypt stepped in to broker a ceasefire. Both sides have taken a step back from the brink and calm has been restored.
But Israel has never honoured such ceasefires for long, violating them routinely whenever its interests dictate. Then, when Hamas responds with counter-measures, firing rockets into Israel, the latter blames the militants for commencing hostilities.
Palestinians in Gaza celebrated Lieberman’s resignation as a political victory. They were right, in the sense that Israel lost a high-ranking commander in its botched mission, its spying capabilities were compromised, and southern Israel was thrown into a period of abject terror, despite the supposed protection of the Iron Dome anti-missile system.
He can now say to them that he served as a strong defence minister, but when his approach was overruled by Netanyahu, he resigned, as he could not support leniency towards Palestinian 'terrorists'
But his resignation had little or nothing to do with Gaza. Rather, it was meant to lay down a marker among Israel’s most hawkish voters, who constitute a decisive sector of the electorate.
He can now say to them that he served as a strong defence minister, but when his approach was overruled by Netanyahu, he resigned, as he could not support leniency towards Palestinian “terrorists”. He also heads off criticism from Bennett, who has attacked Lieberman for “weakness” and “left-wing” policies that have coddled Gaza.
The battle is on to determine who will replace Netanyahu as he nears the end of his political career, now marked by four different corruption scandals. A conviction on any of them would end his rule. His potential successors are now out to prove their security credentials, seeing who can outrival whom in the ferocity of their hatred for Hamas and the residents of Gaza.
- Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the collection Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield).
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Palestinian demonstrators burn pictures of former Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Gaza on 14 November 2018 (AFP)
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.