Analysis

Early Elections Will Limit Netanyahu's Room for Maneuver in Gaza

An election campaign will put the PM in a bind: The restraint he could afford with a stable government will be hard to maintain when his rivals outflank him from the right

Palestinian demonstrators run for cover during a protest on November 16, 2018, on the eastern outskirts of Gaza City, near the border with Israel.
MAHMUD HAMS / AFP

The anticipated announcement of a snap election will reduce Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s maneuverability in handling his worrisome security challenge of the moment – the Gaza crisis.

The Gaza trap, which has haunted Netanyahu for quite a while and may now lead to an early breakup of his coalition, may worsen against the backdrop of an election.

The polls of the past week – after the last round of fighting with Hamas and Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as defense minister – have already predicted a significant drop in Knesset seats for Netanyahu’s Likud party, though it is difficult to see how any of his rivals would defeat him to head the next government.

Public opinion isn’t happy with the handling of the latest Gaza crisis and it seems a large number of Israelis would prefer the Israel Defense Forces be ordered to use a heavier hand in its reactions against Hamas.

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Netanyahu has responded to these complaints by saying that as a leader he must “face criticism while you know classified information you cannot share with the public.”

The prime minister has also said he is seeking to “prevent any unnecessary war” and explained that the best solution to the tensions with Hamas is to achieve calm.

But Israel woke up late to handle the acute problem of collapsing infrastructure and the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza. Just as Israel was indifferent to the economic crisis facing Hamas in the summer of 2014 on the eve of Operation Protective Edge (which may be blamed to a great extent for that war), when Netanyahu’s government delayed any comprehensive solutions to the problem until after the war was over.

The prime minister was aware of the plans to rebuild Gaza and of intelligence agencies’ warnings of a humanitarian disaster there, but he was worried that Hamas would exploit any easing of conditions for military purposes and apparently also concerned about right-wing criticism of any signs he was showing weakness against terrorism. When the Palestinian Authority increased economic pressure on Gaza by halting salary payments at the start of the year, Hamas was pushed to the wall and heated up the front by launching violent weekly protests along the border fence.

The intervention of Egyptian intelligence, plus money and fuel provided by Qatar, have helped to avert a major conflagration in recent months. But a more comprehensive solution has not yet been achieved. Israel and Hamas differ over the question of the captives and missing Israelis in Gaza, the pace for building infrastructure and how these activities would be monitored. In the absence of any binding arrangement, including a commitment to a long term cease-fire, the border protests will go on just as they did this past weekend. Past weeks have shown that there’s an array of incidents that are liable to reignite violence.

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Netanyahu’s trap has worsened because the borderline restraint he could afford to show will be much more difficult to muster during an election campaign in which his rivals pounding him with criticism, on the left and the right. His opponents would present any full deal with Hamas as a surrender to terrorism. A continuation of the existing situation will mean rocket attacks based on various rationales, once every few weeks, with the pictures of panic and anger in the southern region haunting him for the duration of the campaign. But Netanyahu wants to avert a war with Hamas for fear it could drag on and cost many lives without achieving its declared goals.

Twice in the past in the campaigns of 2012 and 2014, Netanyahu was dragged into Gaza wars by public criticism of abandoning Israelis living along the Gaza frontier. In both instances the governments ordered stepped-up action against Hamas after a deterioration in security along the border. In both instances, elections were held a few months later. This time, an election campaign itself may be held during a period of escalating security tensions.

There’s another important player in this arena, and that is the Palestinians. For several days Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been celebrating Lieberman’s resignation as a success in toppling Netanyahu’s fourth government and are selling the residents of Gaza a narrative of victory over Israel. Such demonstrations of arrogance are dangerous for them because they could provoke Palestinian organization leaders into further military provocations against Israel, which would force it to respond more severely.

In the current reality where the chances of declaring an early election are growing, there’s an even greater than usual propensity to mix political and military considerations. The prime minister is already recruiting the army to his defense. On Thursday he took the unusual step of forcing army chief Gadi Eisenkot and Southern Command head Herzi Halevy to join him at a meeting of southern community leaders. During the meeting greater budget allocations were approved for border communities as well.

The photograph was unusual in showing Netanyahu, flanked by army officers on one side, and local council heads on the other, in a discussion in which most participants except for those in uniform were politicians. Also unusual was the fact that the Prime Minister’s Office chose to publish photographs showing Eisenkot, not Netanyahu, providing explanations to an audience that listened intently. Participants in the last security cabinet debate about Gaza say the same could be said for much of the scene there, too. Assuming there will indeed be early elections, it seems the prime minister’s dependency on the generals will only grow, along with the number of photographs taken of him in the field wearing military-style blazers in the company of army officials.