The criticism suffered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend was earned fair and square. The photos of $15 million in cash from Qatar entering the Gaza Strip in suitcases cast a ridiculous light on his repeated claims of being tough on Hamas. The same goes for his attacks on his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, following the end of the first Gaza war in 2009 and his constant implication that his rivals on the left are undermining national security.
In reality, Netanyahu is conducting indirect negotiations with Hamas (though he and his government religiously refuse to confirm this). The Qatari cash, which will help preserve Hamas’ hold on Gaza, could not have entered without his approval.
Nevertheless, the left’s attacks on Netanyahu are also tainted by hypocrisy. Not only because any hypothetical government headed by Yesh Atid or Zionist Union would have done exactly the same, but also because this seems to be the right thing to do under the circumstances. True, the photos of the suitcases are embarrassing and carry the connotation of paying a bribe or protection money to the mafia. But the alternative seems to be war.
Continued economic pressure on Gaza will lead to an explosion, which in turn will lead to an Israeli ground operation in Gaza, heavy casualties followed by desperate negotiations over who will assume responsibility for Gaza’s population – or in other words, a return to square one. And if Israel has nothing to gain by invading Gaza, it ought to try any other possible solution before going to war.
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Anyone who’s enjoying taunting Netanyahu for his weakness now won’t be able to say that he didn’t foresee the consequences if the government, under the pressure of political criticism and public unhappiness, gets dragged into a war.
The right’s criticism of Netanyahu is also unpersuasive. If ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett are really so shocked by this monetary transfer, let them remove their parties from the governing coalition, forcing Netanyahu to call early elections.
Lieberman, as defense minister, cannot continue having his cake and eating it too for very long. And Bennett, by accusing Lieberman of weakness toward Hamas while completely ignoring Netanyahu’s responsibility (as well as his own, given his membership in the security cabinet), is clearly acting on the assumption that Israeli voters will buy any nonsense.
Incidentally, people have short memories. Back in the summer 2016, this very same government, headed by Netanyahu, Bennett and Lieberman, also allowed suitcases full of Qatari cash to enter Gaza, on the pretext of supporting urgent infrastructure projects.
Thursday’s cash transfer produced a relatively quiet weekend, the second in a row. Friday morning, Hamas was busy distributing the cash to 27,000 civil servants and some 50,000 families defined as needy. In the afternoon, its security forces generally prevented large numbers of people from nearing the border fence during the weekly demonstrations.
The fact that fewer tires were burned, reducing the amount of smoke and making it easier for Israeli snipers to see, reduced the number of Palestinian casualties (one Palestinian was killed and a few dozen wounded). The number of bombs and incendiary balloons launched by the Palestinians also fell sharply.
One serious incident did occur. A Palestinian penetrated to the outskirts of the Israeli community of Netiv Ha’asara and torched a greenhouse. The fact that he managed to penetrate Israel’s multiple lines of defense requires the military to conduct an internal investigation. But this isn’t the kind of incident for which Hamas can be blamed.
Israel should have woken up sooner and taken steps to ease Gaza’s distress during the three and a half years of relative quiet following the 2014 Gaza war, or at least during the past seven months of demonstrations along the border. During these months of violence, more than 200 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire and the sense of security of Israelis living near Gaza was badly undermined.
Over the summer, when incendiary balloon launchings were at their height – a threat played up by the media and on social media – Netanyahu was nearly dragged into a war he didn’t want and which the military forcefully advised against. The steps that will soon be approved to ease Gaza’s distress could have been taken much earlier, thereby reducing the damage on all sides.
There’s still no agreement on Gaza. The relative quiet has been achieved thanks to Egypt’s steamroller tactics against both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, causing the latter to temporarily suspend its threat of further sanctions against Gaza.
A long-term cease-fire in Gaza could still be thwarted by any of the Palestinian factions – Hamas itself (through a serious terror attack in the West Bank), the PA or Islamic Jihad and the other “rebellious” organizations in Gaza. Hamas’ leadership will also have to understand that its dreams of a serious relaxation of the blockade depend on solving the issue of the dead and missing Israelis held in Gaza.
But for the first time in many months, a window of opportunity has been created to end the cycle of violence sparked by the border protests. That is no small thing.