Analysis

Shock Rocket Attack on Tel Aviv Pits Netanyahu Against Gaza at Risky Political Time

He’s damned if he reacts too harshly and triggers election-eve hostilities and damned if he shows restraint and exposes his right-wing flanks

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds security briefing with heads of Israel's security agencies, Tel Aviv, March 14, 2018.
Ariel Hermoni/Israeli Defense Ministry

The air raid sirens that sounded in central Israel were piercing and petrifying, especially because no prior warning preceded them. Israelis old enough to remember their terrifying sound from 1948 onwards – or too young to remember anything – were jolted out of their Thursday night routines by the spine-chilling wails of the sirens, and then startled further by the sound of explosions. It was short-lived and there were no casualties, but the shock and even trauma linger on.

Like many fathers and mothers, my immediate reaction was to search for my daughters to make sure they are safe. But their phone numbers suddenly slipped my mind while my fingers jabbed in vain at the “contacts” on my phone. I found them in a nearby shopping mall – where else? – where they had been herded into secure shelter areas. They told me that some of those with them broke out in tears and a few seemed on the verge of hysteria.

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The residents of the Israeli settlements around Gaza have experienced such scares for over a year, they are quick to point out, and politicians have assured them that they are no less precious than the residents of Tel Aviv. That, however, is a lie. Israel has proven it can sustain repeated attacks on small settlements near the Gaza border without public opinion protesting too loudly or demanding a harsh response. Threatening Israel’s most populous metropolis and scaring two million people to death is an event of another magnitude altogether.

The immediate analysis offered by the multitude of experts who popped up on television and radio is that the surprise firing of the two Fajr rockets is directly linked to the unprecedented protests that broke out in Gaza on Thursday, which were aimed, for a change, at Hamas and against their dismal living conditions. Hamas had already ordered its minions to escalate their Friday protests on the Gaza fence in order to deflect public rage from itself to Israel. Someone in Gaza, either in Hamas, Islamic Jihad or some renegade group, decided not to make do with halfway measures and to go for broke instead. Officials pointed a finger at Iran, which is reportedly unhappy with the progress in the Egyptian-brokered talks between Israel and Hamas on a long term solution.

The conventional wisdom holds that Israel, in general, and Benjamin Netanyahu, in particular, cannot let such a direct challenge go unanswered. The accepted formula in such cases is to respond with the maximal force possible, without triggering an all-out confrontation that neither Israel nor Hamas are interested in. Things get more complicated, however, when there is election being held in 25 days.

The unexpected flare-up serves Netanyahu’s interests in the sense that the public’s attention is redirected away from his criminal indictments and the public’s increasing focus in recent days on the failings of Israel’s health and transportation infrastructures – and toward the security situation, which is ostensibly the prime minister’s forte. Netanyahu, who exploits any and all opportunity to don his defense minister guise, will now have ample opportunities to wear his Uniqlo jacket and to authoritatively issue orders to army commanders with cameras recording nearby.

But the brazen defiance shown by an as yet unidentified Gaza group also highlights one of Netanyahu’s main vulnerabilities, especially on his right wing flank: The perception that he has been “soft” on Hamas, preferring to reach a modus vivendi with the terrorists that rule Gaza rather than delivering the decisive knock-out that Netanyahu’s critics maintain is possible. Nonetheless, the last thing Netanyahu wants or needs just before elections is a conflagration he cannot control, which could exact Israeli casualties and drag out to Election Day.

File photo: An Iron Dome missile defense battery in central Israel.
Hadar Cohen

Netanyahu’s predicament is compounded by the fact that his main rival in the elections is a former army chief of staff who is backed by two of his predecessors. Their combined experience – Benny Gantz led the army during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the last time missiles were fired on Tel Aviv – might suddenly seem more attractive to Israeli voters than Netanyahu’s tried and failed efforts to contain Hamas.

Netanyahu is stuck between a rock and hard place at the worst possible time. He is paying the price for maintaining Gaza on life support rather than seeking a more basic and permanent cure for its ills. In his defense, one can say that Netanyahu is far from alone. Israel in general does not know what to do about Gaza. And experience shows that whether it shows belligerency or restraint, benevolence or oppression, Gaza is a recurring nightmare that returns to frighten Israel periodically, especially when it is least prepared.