Analysis

Gaza Rocket Forced Netanyahu Off Stage, but Didn't Crush Army's Faith in Hamas Deal

On the eve of the Likud primary for party leader, the prime minister once again made it about himself

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves after addressing members of his right-wing party bloc at a conference in Tel Aviv, Israel November 17, 2019.
REUTERS/Nir Elias

The news on Wednesday night sounded somewhat familiar. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s associates couldn’t restrain themselves and publicized the timing of his election rally in the south in advance. Islamic Jihad also kept up with online updates and welcomed the prime minister with rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu, surrounded by bodyguards and an enthusiastic crowd, was forced to leave the stage when the sirens sounded.

This is exactly what happened in September, a week before the second Knesset election, as Netanyahu spoke to Likud supporters in Ashdod. But this week, the rocket caught him in Ashkelon, on the eve of the Likud primary for party leader. In finding the balance between killing yourself for that last vote and considerations of information security, at Netanyahu’s headquarters political needs always win, hands down. This is an alarming display of irresponsibility, but it didn’t prevent Netanyahu from turning the incident into something personal. “The person who fired last time is no longer with us. The one who just fired should start packing, too,” he told his supporters.

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This, pardon us, is not how a prime minister should speak, never mind the fact that between the incidents in Ashdod and Ashkelon rockets have been fired at the south at least ten times, including a violent two-day round in mid-November during which almost 500 rockets were launched from Gaza. However, these days the prime minister is finding it difficult to express empathy toward people whose last name isn’t Netanyahu – perhaps therein lies the entire story.

The repeating election cycles, and mainly the three indictments he is facing, are undermining Netanyahu’s judgement. For most of his tenure he stood out in his cautiousness and responsibility when facing security-related decisions. The first signs of change were evident that September night in Ashdod. As reported at the time in Haaretz, Netanyahu quickly gathered together senior defense establishment officials and demanded harsh action against the Islamic Jihad.

It took an appeal by the army to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to stop Netanyahu and make it clear to him that such a move, a week before the election, would require convening the cabinet so it could hear all the expected implications of such a strike from the chief of staff and the head of the Shin Bet security service. On Mendelblit’s instructions, the head of the Central Elections Committee was informed of the possibility that a deterioration in the military situation may lead to a last-minute postponement of the election.

In the end, Netanyahu got what he wanted – albeit on a smaller scale – two months after the election. On November 12, the Israel Defense Forces assassinated Baha Abu al-Ata, a senior Islamic Jihad commander, in Gaza. That night, according to Arab media, the second-highest ranking Jihad commander, Akram Ajouri, narrowly escaped the same fate when an Israel jet dropped a bomb on his house in Damascus, killing his son. If Israel was indeed behind that attack, the question again arises whether, as in past actions in the Strip, pilots were instructed to use a relatively small payload in order to minimize hurting uninvolved persons, thus not killing the intended target.

Following the assassination and a 48-hour round of fighting, the IDF believed there was a window of opportunity for attaining a long-term cease-fire arrangement in the Gaza Strip. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi repeated this analysis in public in a speech he gave at a memorial service for the late former army chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. Abu al-Ata, said Kochavi, was responsible for 99 percent of the rocket fire from Gaza. His removal could enable the achieving of long-term calm with Hamas, whose leadership was now focused on improving the economic situation in Gaza.

That was on Wednesday morning. But by the evening, it turned out that Abu al-Ata has an heir. Like most of the rockets that have been fired in the month and a half since his assassination, this time the rocket was probably also fired by Islamic Jihad, which was not satisfied with Hamas’ decision to hold their fire before Islamic Jihad had taken sufficient revenge – in their eyes – for the death of their leader. Is the IDF too optimistic in its reading of the map? The army is convinced that the intelligence assessment is correct. Accordingly, Kochavi and the generals continue to put pressure on Netanyahu and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett to go for an agreement that would entail an acceleration and expansion of economic moves in the Gaza Strip, including allowing thousands of Gazan workers into Israel.

Netanyahu is operating under his own constraints, mainly worries about being perceived as weak on Hamas ahead of the March 2 election. His political rivals can identify his weak link when it comes to Gaza, and pounce on it forcefully. Despite the justified frustration felt by people living along the border, this is not quite fair. The opposition is also aware of the military analysis – it is imperative to keep Gaza quiet in order to focus on the northern front.