Caught between status quo and power vacuum

Israeli PM under growing domestic criticism over “no war, no peace” policy, which risks deepening regional instability.

PM Netanyahu Convenes Weekly Cabinet Meeting
Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, is increasingly catching flak for his ‘no war, no peace’ policy [AP]

Disregarding the old adage that politics  like nature abhors a vacuum, Benjamin Netanyahu could until now sing his own praise and declare that Israel under his premiership was an anchor of political stability, whereas the wider Middle East was fast sinking into a power vacuum.

Most Israelis believed him. Now they wonder whether, in midterm, their own leader has not lost his compass.

Notwithstanding the revolutions convulsing their Arab neighbours, the suspended peace talks with the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the continuation of settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, Israelis suddenly find themselves caught up in violent turmoil after a long lull.

Within two weeks, the first bombing attack in Jerusalem in three years killed a British citizen and wounded scores of Israelis; five members of a Jewish family were killed in a settlement in a terrorist attack; and four Palestinian family members and more militants were killed during Israeli bombings in retaliation to a barrage of more rockets fired on cities in southern Israel by Hamas in one single day since the 2009 Gaza war on the Palestinian Islamic Resistance movement.

Most Israelis long for the days when, under, Egypt was Israel’s main ally in the region, its main address when it wanted to rein in on Hamas.

But the new Egyptian government has clearly been more involved with the transition to democracy than with transition from conflict to peace-building.

Israeli leaders have long warned that through Syria, Iran has asserted its influence over Israel’s neighbours, particularly Lebanon and Gaza. The Islamic Republic, they suspect now, is testing the regional power vacuum created by the Egyptian revolution.

They recall the Iranian frigate which recently crossed the Suez Canal en route to Syria, and the shipment of surface-to-sea missiles and other weaponry smuggled from Iran and bound for Gaza which Israeli commandos intercepted two weeks ago.

Antithesis of a gung-ho leader

Celebrating two years at the helm, Netanyahu has been the antithesis of a gung-ho leader, in sharp contrast with his predecessor, the more centrist and peace-seeking Ehud Olmert, who left his mark with two inconclusive wars, one against the Muslim Shiite movement Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, the other in Gaza, and with unfinished peace negotiations.

Netanyahu’s first term in office (1997-1999) was characterised by reluctance to both peace initiatives and military adventures. Exhorted at present by the extreme fringes of his right-wing coalition that Israel “invade” Gaza, and “finish Hamas off”, cautious procrastination prevails as the main trait of his leadership.

So, when on Friday, ahead of his meeting with visiting US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Netanyahu declared that Israel is ready to react forcefully to missile attacks from Gaza official sources at the Prime Minister’s office stressed that during the meeting Netanyahu spoke of a “measured” reaction.

Faced with looming diplomatic isolation in the absence of peace talks, a situation blamed increasingly by the international community on his settlement policy, Netanyahu has only a limited freedom of manoeuvring.

He could hardly justify a ground invasion of Gaza at the same time as the UN-approved no-fly zone in Libya against Muammar Gaddhafi’s regime prohibits the involvement of ground forces.

Another reason for his self-constrained prudence lies in the Goldstone Report released in 2009 in the wake of the Gaza war during which more than 1,200 Palestinians and thirteen Israelis were killed.

Endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council, the report concluded that Israel had committed “serious violations of international humanitarian law”, employed “disproportionate force”, “targeted Palestinian civilians”, used them as “human shields” and “destroyed civilian infrastructure”.

Israel rejected the report as “biased”. Though its dire conclusions were subsequently neutralised (largely due to US pressure so as not to embarrass the PA and Israel, then engaged in indirect talks), the report’s conclusions could still limit Israel’s military use of force in Gaza. Besides, the new Egypt might not stand by Israel’s side as in the past.

Growing domestic criticism

Hamstrung politically, diplomatically and militarily, Netanyahu has come under growing domestic criticism. The complacency which he has demonstrated with his policy of clinging to a “no war, no peace” status quo risks exacerbating regional instability even more, warned Yossi Sarid, a renowned Israeli opinion-maker.

In a Ha’aretz article entitled “When Israel’s politicians sit idle, terrorists step forward“, Sarid wrote sarcastically: “Hamas cannot believe the good fortune of Israel doing its bidding by weakening Israel’s partners.

“The status quo is always followed by the status quo ante. The wheel of fortune always comes back to where it started; what was is what will be,” he added gloomily.

“Say farewell to peace,” lamented columnist Ari Shavit, also in Ha’aretz. “The status quo has become a firetrap, and all the familiar ways of escaping it have been blocked.”

In mid-term, Netanyahu faces his greatest test, say political pundits. He has promised a “bold initiative by May”.

But most expect yet another “familiar way of escaping” the status quo reportedly, an interim agreement with the PA over only fifty per cent of the West Bank. That would not satisfy the US, let alone the Palestinians.

On Tuesday, answering to criticism of the opposition that the standstill in peace talks creates propitious conditions for renewed hostilities, Netanyahu retorted in the Israeli Knesset parliament that the “Palestinians are not ready for peace”.

For statehood, though, the Palestinians are ready. After he was updated on the Gaza situation by Netanyahu, the US defence secretary was updated by prime minister Salaam Fayyad on the PA plan for Palestinian statehood in September.

The only political ‘ace’ left with Netanyahu’s fast depleting play of cards is that the Hamas rockets will convince the international community that were Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, the area would quickly turn into more launching pads against Israel.

This argument, Netanyahu still seems to hopes, might put the brakes on the drive for international recognition of a Palestinian state.

An independent Palestine that would still be under Israeli occupation would trap Israel in between a status quo and a power vacuum of its own making.

Pierre Klochendler us a Jerusalem-based reporter and documentary filmmaker for the Palestine-Israel Journal (PIJ). He is also the PIJ fundraiser and development coordinator.

This article was first published by IPS.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.