Publication date: November 15, 2018
The resignations of Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the secular right-wing party Yisrael Beitenu – mostly supported by voters of Russian descent – epitomise how the crisis that has been dragging on in Gaza has affected Israel’s internal political balance, a crisis that started with the launch of weekly “marches for the return”, held on Fridays since 28th March 2018.
After adopting a moderate stance at first, Lieberman had toughened his proposals over the last few months, putting forward a request to the Cabinet Council for a massive reaction to Hamas’s continual provocations, thereby re-establishing the deterrence that – in his opinion – Israel had lost because of Netanyahu’s overly cautious approach. Israel’s Prime Minister is determined not to be mired in a new war in the treacherous Strip that would lead to countless victims and extensive damages, at the expenses of both the Israeli armed forces deployed in the operation and of Israeli civilians. In addition, all this would take place during the run-up to possible early elections, expected to take place in the spring of 2019.
Drawing a metaphor from the game of chess, Lieberman’s move might be defined as the “knight’s move”: while polls have his party at risk of missing the threshold level for running in the coming legislative elections, Lieberman has based his electoral campaign on attacking Netanyahu’s weakness and bashing the submissiveness of his main right-wing opponent, i.e. Naftali Bennet, current minister of Education and leader of the national religious far-right party The Jewish Home. Bennet has long longed to replacing Netanyahu and, in the last few months, he accused Lieberman of being coward and lax.
After repeated announcements that an agreement between Israel, Hamas, and the other armed groups for a ceasefire in Gaza had been reached indirectly – thanks to the mediation of the Egyptian security services and of President Al-Sisi himself, together with the remarkably active UN special envoy to the Middle East Vladimir Mladenov, and with Qatar, Norway, and Switzerland –, there have been episodes of violence on the ground, causing negotiations to go back to square one. There is no denying that those who work to thwart these attempts aimed at preventing a new war from breaking out are getting increasingly stronger.
The most recent crisis has been the most concerning and the most violent so far: it started on Sunday and lasted until Tuesday and was ignited by Hamas’s militias discovering that Israeli special security forces had conducted a secret undercover raid on the Strip’s territory, with Israeli soldiers disguised as Arabs. Five hundred rockets were subsequently launched from Gaza against Israel, two of which hit the central regions of the latter – a warning of the potential range of the rockets owned by Palestinian militias. The commander in charge of the Israeli undercover operation was killed, and the deputy commander was severely injured; an Israeli bus carrying soldiers to the Israeli-Gazan borders was hit by a rocket and set ablaze, with one casualty. Israel, on its part, carried out almost 200 targeted airstrikes against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, causing heavy damages but with a relatively low number of civilian casualties.
However, a new ceasefire was declared on Wednesday – a temporary solution requested by Hamas through the already-mentioned mediators and much yearned-for by Netanyahu, who basically forced his ministers to accept it.
The reasons behind Netanyahu’s current overly cautious approach, at odds with the image of Mister Security usually adopted o describe the Israeli Prime Minister, were summarised very clearly in an important interview that had taken place in Paris on 11th November, during celebrations for the end of the WWI.
In that interview, Netanyahu stated that he did not want a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, and that it was for this reason that he had allowed Qatar to send fuel to Gaza to provide the population of the Strip with electric power, and to pay for public servants’ salaries. Furthermore, the Prime Minister declared that he wanted to take all necessary steps to avoid an unnecessary war – which incidentally would leave the current situation completely unaltered. He also added that, in the event of an Israeli conquest of Gaza and the ensuing removal of Hamas from power, nobody would be willing to take control over the Strip, including Israel.
At the end of the interview, Netanyahu stated that Israel is ready (and very close) to exercise the maximum of its power, and that Hamas is well aware of that. This is why the Israeli government is trying to restore law and order in the first place, and only then will it discuss a more complex and long-term agreement with Hamas – provided that the ceasefire is maintained. It is significant that such stance was stated once again during the Cabinet Council on Tuesday, despite the opposition of Lieberman and Bennet, and thanks to the strong support of the chiefs of the security services who took part into the meeting.
At the basis of such approach of Prime Minister Netanyahu there lies not only the afore-mentioned eventuality of an imminent electoral campaign and the risk of the repercussions on public opinion in case of a war with dramatic consequences, but also his aspiration to strengthen relations with other Arab states (as shown by his recent visit to Oman) and his conviction that a new war in the Strip would jeopardise the important ongoing process of opening to the neighbouring countries.
As for Hamas’s leaders, they fully understand the limits and constraints that Israel is facing, and therefore they are strongly tempted to up the stakes of the conflict.
The pendulum swinging between peace and war in Gaza is swinging increasingly faster, and in the last few days it has run the risk of coming off. However, war would be useless and senseless, and it must be prevented at all costs, also on behalf of of the international community and of the European Union – whose silent absence has lately been deafening.
NOTES ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janiki Cingoli has dealt with international issues since 1975. Since 1982 he has begun to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, promoting the first occasions in Italy for dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians and in 1989 he founded in Milan the Italian Center for Peace in the Middle East (CIPMO), which has since directed until 2017 when he was elected President.