Analysis

Netanyahu's Gaza Dilemma: How to Avoid a War Without Being 'Weak on Terror'

After the army and Hamas exchanged more fire overnight, Israel no longer has any doubt the group wants to establish a new formula of deterrence

A Palestinian demonstrator is seen during a protest marking al-Quds Day, (Jerusalem Day), at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, June 8, 2018.
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

The exchange of fire on the Gaza-Israel border on Wednesday morning followed the same pattern as in recent weeks: Israeli forces attempting to combat Palestinians sending kites and helium balloons with flaming tails into Israel bombed the car of a Hamas officer whom Israel says is involved in the attacks. In response, Hamas fired rockets and mortars at Israeli towns in the southern Negev.

Israel no longer has any doubt that Hamas, not “rebel” organizations, is responsible for the ballistics, and that the group wants to establish a new formula of deterrence: Every Israeli attack on the Strip will carry an immediate price.

Meanwhile, the frequent incidents along the border are disturbing Israeli politicians’ equilibrium. They were especially unsettled by a poll broadcast on Israeli TV news this week that revealed that in the space of less than a month, public opinion on how well Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet are handling the Gaza problem has flipped. In a previous survey, 62 percent of Israelis thought their functioning was good, while 28 percent said “Not good.” Now, though, 64 percent are dissatisfied, while 27 percent say they are pleased.

That is the backdrop for the onslaught of trial balloons that have been floated toward the media in recent days, including the announcement of an agreement with Cyprus (which Cyprus denies) to build a seaport terminal there for Gaza’s use; and the recycled plan to build a solar farm initiative in Israel that would supply energy to the Strip. For months, these projects were discussed with the United States, Egypt and the Gulf nations – which U.S. President Donald Trump hopes will finance them – but the obstacles remain legion.

The Arab nations are proving slow to respond. The Palestinian camp, meanwhile, is split between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which refuse to cooperate and somehow help improve the Gazans’ sorry lot. The most immediate stumbling block is the matter of Israelis and Israeli soldiers’ bodies being held by Hamas in Gaza. The Hamas leadership still seems to believe it can wring a major prisoner release from Netanyahu in exchange.

If that’s the case, Netanyahu finds himself stymied. Humanitarian relief for Gaza without a prisoner exchange deal would be bitterly opposed by the families of the missing and deceased Israelis. In the meantime, his own ministers and other would-be “advisers” in the media and on social media have slammed him for being weak on terrorism. The longer the Israeli leadership remains in the quagmire, the more it sinks.

Back when the army brass was mulling the meaning of victory in an era of asymmetrical fighting against terror and guerrilla organizations, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot defined another target for military campaigns: significant improvement in the political and military situation.

The question Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the army brass must face when thinking about the options in Gaza is how a campaign in the Strip would achieve that goal. Can a campaign constrained in time and cost achieve that end? Ultimately, Israel still perceives Hamas’ government in Gaza as the lesser evil compared to the alternatives – Israeli conquest (expensive over time); re-anointing the PA (unlikely); conquest by Islamic extremists like ISIS or protracted anarchy (God spare us). Ergo, the political leadership is stumbling over its own lies – to itself and to the public.

The leadership promises firmness and strength, when all it really wants is for the mass border protests, rocket fire and flaming kites to go away. It feels the military cost of achieving that would be too high. But it also feels that making humanitarian gestures will exact a political price.

Meanwhile, a dispute in the Israeli intelligence community is coming back to life. As Yaniv Kubovich reported earlier this week, some intel sources feel Hamas is losing its fear of a military confrontation in the Strip and is thinking of provoking Israel with that aim in mind, to ultimately gain an arrangement over the Gazan infrastructure and its economy.

A JNF forest burning near Be'eri and Kissufim after flaming balloons were sent over from Gaza, June 26, 2018.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

In another Gaza-related event, the annual Israel Defense Prize ceremony was held at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Tuesday night. The winners were IDF units, the Defense Ministry and defense contractors that have worked together to create solutions to locate and destroy “attack tunnels” emanating from Gaza into Israel. That project only ensued after Operation Protective Edge in 2014, when Israel felt the consequences of sidetracking the problem for 10-plus years. The army calls that the “lost decade”: they didn’t know where all the tunnels were or how to technologically handle them.

Israel may be approaching a solution for the attack tunnels, but it isn’t even close when it comes to political processes: The state has hardly managed to advance anything on the Palestinian front.

The arrogance characterizing the government on the security front, after its impressive successes elsewhere in May, have been replaced with concern over the simple but harmful challenge presented by people sending incendiary drones, kites and balloons into Israel from the Strip, causing millions of shekels-worth of damage to crop fields and nature.

It makes sense to assess that Hamas doesn’t want any kind of political agreement with Israel. It is even reasonable to assume that the chances of any such deal with the PA in the West Bank are also remote at this time. But sitting back and waiting for the Trump administration’s peace plan to bring relief to Gaza cannot be a substitute for policy.

With all due sympathy to the families of missing Israeli soldiers and civilians in Gaza, the fact that negotiations about their fate have stalled should not result in zero progress on other burning issues. Even before the last major blowup in Gaza in 2014, the cabinet and defense officials knew perfectly well that without change to the economic state of the Strip, another collision would eventually come. Yet they did nothing, even though back then Hamas didn’t hold a single Israeli in captivity.