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Netanyahu chose not to choose

With ground operation off the table, and an agreement with Hamas politically difficult, Israel opted to do what it knows best: targeted killing

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a news conference yesterday, the Israeli public wanted to hear one main thing from him: whether Muhammed Deif, the head of Hamas' military wing, was alive or had Israel finally succeeded in killing him after four unsuccessful assassination attempts.  

Netanyahu did not give a clear answer - probably because he himself was not sure if Deif is dead or alive. The only sure thing is that the airstrike on a building in Sheikh Raduwan neighborhood in Gaza did  lead to the killing of his wife and seven-month old son.

In a way, this airstrike encapsulates the current Israeli war with Hamas.  The targets were considered by Israel as military, yet the victims ended up as mainly civilians. The goal is to hit Hamas so hard that it will lose the will to continue on fighting. But Israel fails continuously to achieve this goal so it is forced to go for one more strike, one more blow, which will allow it to present to itself and to the world the "victory image" it is looking for.

Netanyahu may claim, as he did yesterday, that Hamas has sustained "the hardest blow since its foundation" in this war, but the fact remains that yesterday, 44 days after the fighting began, Hamas launched a record of 168 rockets and mortar shells into Israel. Hardly a beaten organization.

Above all, Netanyahu's press conference yesterday reflected the confusion within the Israeli leadership regarding the way to move forward. If during the fighting the option of full occupation of the Gaza Strip was raised, this option seems now off the table. In a document presented to the  government two weeks ago, the army estimated that such an operation would take two months, hundreds of soldiers will be killed and that Israel would have to bear the huge cost of the reconstruction of Gaza.

Dr Roni Bart, until recently a senior  member of Israel's National Security Council, claimed in an interview to Channel 10 that these figures were exaggerated and that  Gaza could be taken "within a week". But there is little doubt that this document, leaked probably to the press by Netanyahu himself, reflected the lack of enthusiasm  within the army for a wide scale ground operation. Such an operation is even less probable now, after the Israeli forces already withdrew from positions inside the Gaza Strip.

Against this background, it is understandable why Netanyahu was tempted to participate in the talks in Cairo on a long-term cease agreement. It seemed the only way to secure an honorable way out of a war in which no side, at least for now, is able to win. The terms of the Egyptian proposal – widening the fishing zone or opening the crossings in cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority – certainly did not pose any threat to Israel's security.

Yet at the same time, Netanyahu understood that signing an agreement with Hamas (actually not with Hamas but with a Palestinian delegation with the participation of Hamas) would amount to a political suicide.  Netanyahu was reelected prime minister in 2009 with the slogan "Netanyahu, strong against Hamas"', after harshly criticizing his predecessor Ehud Olmert for not crushing the organization during Operation Cast Lead.

His opponents within the government, above all Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennet and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, did not let him forget these promises even for a moment  in the last few weeks. They will certainly repeat them and ridicule Netanyahu should sign an agreement with Israel’s arch-enemy. His days as prime minister after such an agreement may well be numbered. It is no wonder that a large part of Netanyahu's press conference was dedicated to an attack on unnamed  ministers who "are acting with unbased and irresponsible slogans".

Whether  Hamas did fire three rockets first on Tuesday afternoon, violating the cease fire, or whether it was an Israeli "fabrication" as Hamas claims, it is clear that Netanyahu used to opportunity to summon the Israeli delegation back from Cairo and suspend the talks. A "successful” assassination of Deif could have given him the image of victory so needed to face his political opponents. The fact that a cloud of uncertainty hovers over the fate of Deif deprived Netanyahu of this goal.   

With few options left, Israel returns to point from which it started Operation Protective Edge: airstrikes on Gaza met by rocket launching by Hamas. The problem is that the Israeli public and maybe even the Israeli army has little patience for a prolonged war of attrition. Voices calling for "crushing Hamas" will surely be heard, but it is not clear what is the meaning of these words, given the fact that ground operation has been ruled out. Israel will surely try to continue targeting high level Hamas officials, as the killing of the Raad al-Atar, the commander of the Rafah area this morning. But nobody really thinks that these killings will force Hamas to give up. At least for the short term, it will only intensify the conflict.

In his press conference yesterday, Netanyahu referred to  "a renewal of the political process with the Palestinian government". As a direct agreement with Hamas' participation seems improbable, the more plausible option is some kind of internationally drafted agreement "imposed" on both parties, maybe through the UN Security Council. Netanyahu, a "refusenik" towards talks with the Palestinian Unity government, may use this government as a tool to put an end the current operation. Whether this will be the beginning of "a new political horizon for the State of Israel in view of the changes in the area", as Netanyahu said yesterday, is yet to be seen.  But this seems the way Netanyahu has chosen.     

Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for an inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the News Department in Haaertz, and now an independent journalist. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.


Photo: Netanyahu was reelected prime minister in 2009 with the slogan "Netanyahu, strong against Hamas". (AFP)