Will Gaza topple Netanyahu?

The few choices the Israeli prime minister faces will undoubtedly cripple his political fortunes.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is facing pressure from the extreme-right in Israel, writes Moor [AP]
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is facing pressure from the extreme-right in Israel, writes Moor [AP]

The current Israeli war against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is a war of choice. It was declared by an Israeli prime minister who sought to undermine a Palestinian reconciliation deal that was never really a threat to his goal of permanent apartheid and Jewish rule in a Greater Israel.

Yet, despite the negligible chance that true Palestinian rapprochement would develop, the gambit’s potential benefits still appeared to outweigh the costs. Striking the Palestinians in Gaza has always been a low-risk undertaking. However, the math that qualifies every Israeli attack against Gaza – dozens or hundreds of dead Palestinians for every Israeli casualty – is not immutable.

The Palestinians can extract their costs, both in Gaza and the West Bank, and those costs may be enough to alter the political landscape in Israel.

An unbalanced equation

The Jewish-Israeli public is highly resistant to arguments that humanise the Palestinians. The phenomenon is not particular to Israelis – plenty of societies and peoples have willfully ignored their victims’ humanity during periods of mass violence or genocide.

In Israel it’s partially the consequence of deliberate misdirection and the dissemination of propaganda by the government. In particular, the claim that militants in Gaza shield their weapons with the bodies of children and other civilians has been produced and reproduced to extreme effect.

Another, newly emergent, characteristic of the Jewish street contributes to the vanishing regard for Palestinian life. The rampant, and sometimes officially sanctioned incitement against Palestinians has produced a natural contempt for indigenous lives and aspirations. Indeed, the calls for vengeance that emanated from the office of the prime minister contributed to Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s immolation by Zionist ultras in Jerusalem. Those same signals helped yield an environment that reinforces the subordinate humanity of the Palestinians in the West Bank.

By contrast, many Jewish-Israelis are highly sensitive to their own losses – both real and perceived. There is a low tolerance for battlefield deaths – and an even lower tolerance for the capture of troops by enemy forces. Both factors have contributed to the dissolution of more than one government in Israeli history and to the end of several political careers. For example, Amir Peretz was acting Minister of Defence in 2006.

He presided over the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, during which Hezbollah fighters succeeded in killing 121 Israeli troops. Eight years later, he is mostly an obscure figure who elicits expressions of loathing from members of the public.

A cost to Israel’s war

The Lebanon experience is wholly distinct from that of Gaza. Benjamin Netanyahu expected the attacks against the Palestinians would produce low numbers of Israeli dead, if any; that’s the historical experience. The political benefit derived by the assault – the end to the Palestinian reconciliation process – was perceived to be greater than the likely cost; 1000 dead Palestinians hardly weigh on political outcomes or the public conscience in Israel. Nor can the international community bring any meaningful pressure to bear.

Netanyahu’s decision to transition from aerial bombardment to a ground invasion exposed him to greater risk, however. Excessively broad pronouncements about eradicating Palestinian fighters and their armaments committed him to more than he likely was prepared for. But pressure from his extreme right-wing cabinet members proved to be irresistible as well.

The military wing of Hamas demonstrated its adaptability and capacity for military discipline within days of the ground invasion. As of this writing, Palestinian fighters had managed to kill 38 Israelis – 35 of whom are soldiers. In addition, they appear to have captured one member of the invading force. They also succeeded in demonstrating to the Israeli public that war carries an economic and psychological cost – something that became starkly apparent when international airlines interrupted their service to Tel Aviv for two days.

At the same time, Jewish-Israeli disregard for Palestinian lives and dignity in Gaza has begun to produce a third mass uprising, or Intifada, in the West Bank and Jerusalem. For years now Israeli government officials have sought to divide the Palestinians geographically. Yet they have failed to produce any deep effect; divisions exist only insofar as the Palestinian Authority elites are concerned.

Few Israeli leaders are prepared to acknowledge the fraternity and extensive commiseration that exists among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It is now being showcased in the West Bank, to Netanyahu’s disadvantage.

The governing coalition

The fact that the latest assault on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip has gone so badly for Netanyahu matters. Although he is the leader of the right-wing Likud Party, he is regarded as a centrist in his country. He hammered together the 33rd government in 2013 by making promises to Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, the leaders of the Yisrael Beiteinu and Jewish Home parties – both of which are firmly rooted in the extreme right-wing bog of Israeli public opinion.

Indeed, Netanyahu worked so hard to court the far right that he merged his party with that of Lieberman. Still, he has only managed to forestall challenges to his leadership by indulging the more extreme elements of his cabinet.

Lately however, both Lieberman and Bennett have issued caustic denunciations of Netanyahu’s management of the Gaza onslaught, mainly for failing to hit the Palestinians hard enough. Moreover, their words have been followed by some action; Lieberman, who has publicly spokenof his national leadership aspirations, broke his party from the merger with Likud, although Yisrael Beiteinu remained in the government. The pressure that the two ministers are applying is sure to produce cracks in public perceptions around the prime minister.

Netanyahu is now faced with an unhappy set of political choices regarding Gaza and the West Bank. In Gaza, he can continue to kill Palestinians and reject a reasonable ceasefire. That would increase the likelihood that Hamas rockets will shut down Israel’s only international airport again, a possibility Netanyahu would desperately like to avoid. That choice also likely means more dead Israelis which will worsen the backlash when it comes.

The prime minister’s other Gaza option is to agree to a ceasefire. But that ceasefire will likely accrue more benefits to the Palestinians who seem prepared to hold out for meaningful terms – like the end to the siege on the impoverished territory. In that scenario, Netanyahu will be accused of strengthening Hamas and the Palestinians. He will also be charged with incompetence for his loss of Israeli lives.

The West Bank scenario is still unfolding in unpredictable ways. It is likely, however, that the pacification of that territory will hinge on the benefits that emerge from the effort to produce a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. In other words, what emerges from the West Bank will only underline the failures of the Gaza policy.

In any event, it is likely that Jewish-Israeli politicians – in particular the opportunistic Bennett and Lieberman – will use this opening to weaken the prime minister. They may even be able to force elections.

It is far from assured that Netanyahu’s political career is over. His adventure into the Gaza ghetto is widely supported by Jewish-Israelis of all kinds. He is also the most talented politician in an environment that rewards guile, manipulation and theatrics. Yet, it is almost certain that Gaza will be regarded as his biggest failure in eight years of governance. And it will provide at least two of his cabinet ministers with an opportunity to challenge his leadership from the right. What they make of it is up to them. 

Editor’s note: When published, this article inaccurately reported that 240 Israeli soldiers died in the Lebanon war of 2006. It has been updated with the correct number, 121. 

Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American who was born in the Gaza Strip. He is a Soros Fellow, co-editor of After Zionism (Saqi Books 2012) and co-founder and CEO of liwwa.com.

Follow him on Twitter: @ahmedmoor

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