Analysis

Islamic Jihad Commander’s Killing May Not Be a Political Ploy, but It’s Certainly Advantageous for Netanyahu

Accusations of political considerations in launching military operations are rarely founded in Israel, where military and intelligence chiefs have ways to complain about abuse of their professional judgment

Benjamin Netanyahu IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi at a press conference in Tel Aviv, Nov. 12, 2019.
AP Photo/Oded Balilty

When the history of this bizarre year in Israeli politics is written, the role played in it by Islamic Jihad chieftain Baha Abu al-Ata will be a key one. The man who until very recently was unknown to Israelis has featured twice in key events.

Back in September, a week before the do-over election, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was rushed to a protected area in the middle of a live-streamed election rally in Ashkelon, it was Abu al-Ata who was behind the rocket launch. It’s impossible to gauge exactly what effect those pictures of Netanyahu under fire had on voters, but they undoubtedly tarnished his “Mr. Security” image.

Two months later, Abu al-Ata featured again in the political sequence when his targeted killing early Tuesday sparked off the latest escalation between Israel and Gaza. The strike that ended his violent life of 42 years changed the political calculus in Israel, ending the rife speculation in recent weeks that a narrow government led by Benny Gantz and supported by the Arab-majority Joint List from without was a serious option.

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As Gantz, who had been apprised in advance of the killing, arrived for security briefings with Netanyahu at the Defense Ministry supporting the move, and the leaders of the Joint List accused the prime minister of embarking on “a political war,” it’s hard to see how political cooperation between Gantz and the Joint List is now possible. Perhaps it was always an illusion.

In the weeks leading up to the election, Netanyahu didn’t carry out targeted killings in Gaza or risk a major escalation, though he toyed with the idea. A round of fighting in which hundreds of rockets rain down on Israel and major cities are shut down for days isn’t a vote winner during an election campaign. An escalation during the coalition talks, however, is another matter.

Amos Yadlin, a former head of Military Intelligence who is close to Gantz, speculated last month that despite the refusal of Kahol Lavan’s leaders to sit in a government under a prime minister facing criminal indictments, in a case of “war and peace” they could change their minds. By war he meant a major Iranian attack, similar to what took place against the Saudi oil installations in September. By peace he meant the unveiling of the Trump peace plan. Could it be Gaza that supplies the war excuse to join a national unity coalition?

The cynical view that Netanyahu ordered this operation to block Gantz’s path to a narrow coalition government makes for a convenient conspiracy theory — but it doesn’t jibe with the facts. The cabinet authorized the assassination last week, on the recommendation of the military and the Shin Bet security service, and the timing was due to operational circumstances. Accusations of political considerations in the launch of military operations are rarely founded in Israel, where military and intelligence chiefs have ways to complain about any abuse of their professional judgment.

It also has to be said that Netanyahu has been circumspect in using military power, even when it may have been politically advantageous for him to do so. He has always been acutely aware of the limitations of such operations and the difficulties of controlling their outcomes.

That doesn’t mean that when an operation has already been decided on, Netanyahu hasn’t been prone to cynically using his knowledge for political gain. Since last week, he knew that the killing of Abu al-Ata was imminent, and it’s hard not to connect this with the way he and his proxies have been ramping up the incitement against Israeli-Arab politicians and the possibility of their support for a Gantz government.

Shortly after midnight, just four hours before the airstrike on Abu al-Ata’s home, Netanyahu tweeted twice (at an unusually late hour for him). In one tweet he said that “forming a government with the Joint List would be a resounding slap in the face of IDF soldiers.” Twenty minutes later, he tweeted a photograph of Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi with Yasser Arafat, adding: “This is who Gantz and Lieberman are building their government [with]? A narrow government supported by the Arab parties = danger to the state.”

During the day, as rockets fell, Netanyahu’s social media adviser, Topaz Luk, tweeted: “Has the Joint List already made Gantz condemning the assassination today a condition of continuing its talks with him?”

This operation may not be politically motivated, but Netanyahu intends to squeeze every last drop of political juice out of it.