Benjamin Netanyahu, who unofficially began his election campaign last month with the chaotic passing of the nation-state law, did not plan on this. Gaza, which in between brief periods of escalation could usually be ignored, is now threatening to overshadow the campaign and seriously damage his “Mr. Security” credentials.
Netanyahu has been aware of this for a while. He saw how the barrage of flaming kites and balloons coming over from Gaza, setting Israeli fields and nature reserves alight, was starting to erode his ratings. Likud, which only four months ago was cresting in the polls, has started to trend downwards; some polls set the public dissatisfaction with the government’s Gaza policy as high as 70 percent.
There is no easy solution for Netanyahu. Gaza has become his biggest political liability. Trying to maintain the status quo, as the border refuses to stay calm and airborne firebomb attacks continue, is eroding his popularity. But Netanyahu fears that signing the long-term cease-fire agreement with Hamas will damage him as well. It will not include in the first stage a return of the two Israeli civilians and the two bodies of IDF soldiers held by Hamas, and will therefore open him up to more criticism, especially on the right and from his most hated rival, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett.
But the third option, sending the IDF into Gaza to “deal” with Hamas, is also not a palatable one. Netanyahu is a realist when it comes to the limitations of military power. He knows that another ground operation in Gaza will be inconclusive and lead to Israeli casualties as well as Palestinian ones. It will end with another dismal withdrawal that won’t save him politically. And besides, large-scale operations have never been his preferred modus operandi.
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In the 2009 elections, one of Netanyahu’s slogans was “strong against Hamas.” But once in office, he was reluctant to confront the group. And it was Netanyahu who gave Hamas its greatest coup ever, when he agreed in 2011 to exchange one soldier, Gilad Shalit, for over a thousand Palestinian prisoners. A year later, he ordered the airstrike that killed Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari, who had handed Shalit off at the Rafah crossing. This was in line with Netanyahu’s usual preference for small pinpoint attacks, rather than wider campaigns.
When the Jabari killing led to an eight-day long escalation, the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, in which six Israelis and 223 Gazans were killed, Netanyahu quickly agreed to a cease-fire led by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who hailed from Hamas’ patron, the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2012, Netanyahu avoided sending in ground troops; in the summer of 2014, as the situation escalated once again in the much more protracted and bloodier Operation Protective Edge, Netanyahu argued for weeks against sending ground troops into Gaza. He stood in opposition to both the majority of his cabinet members and the IDF General Staff, until he reluctantly gave the order, and even then allowed only limited incursions.
Netanyahu has always been wise enough to steer away from Gaza and foolish enough to think that somehow the problem could just go away. Now he has painted himself into a corner and what’s worse, Hamas knows it, and the group is trying to manipulate the situation by determining when each round of brief warfare begins and ends.
There is a deep and grim irony here for Netanyahu, the man who has so powerfully argued over his entire career, since he was a young diplomat, that the Palestinian issue is just a side-show to the much wider confrontations of the Middle East, and urged foreign colleagues not to “go down that rabbit-hole.” Netanyahu, who believes the Palestinian issue can be put on the back-burner perpetually, while he deals with bigger things. Netanyahu, who over the last nine years since his return to power had so many opportunities to work on a long-term solution in Gaza, had dozens of plans set before him, but always found more important and pressing things to deal with. Gaza is now blowing up in Netanyahu’s face at the most inconvenient time, at the start of a crucial election campaign.