Analysis |

What Lapid Stands to Gain or Lose From Gaza

It’s not just Lapid’s leadership being tested now in Gaza, but the entire vision of Israel's 'change government' over the past year

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Yair Lapid.
Credit: Oded Balilty, Khalil Hamra/AP, Youssef Massoud / AFP. Artwork: Anastasia Shub
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

A day into Operation Breaking Dawn, Yair Lapid is in the position known in the Israeli Defense Forces as either tzalash, or tarash – either you get a citation for bravery, or you get demoted to the lowest rank. There’s nothing in between. Exactly five weeks since he took office, the prime minister is facing his first security crisis and at this point it could be the perfect boost to the credibility of a leader who has no real military record or experience in senior security posts. Or it could fatally brand him as an eternal civilian who should leave these matters to the real professionals.

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At the time of writing, it still looks as if the decision to act preemptively against Palestinian Islamic Jihad, before its fighters could launch the missile strikes they were planning on Israeli communities near the Gaza border, was well-timed. So far the hostilities haven’t escalated beyond the Gaza front and the larger Palestinian armed movement, Hamas, has not joined in.

If this remains the case – if Hamas doesn’t join the battle and if hostilities do not spread to Jerusalem, the West Bank and Arab-Israeli towns and neighborhoods within Israel, and if this round of warfare ends in a few days without major civilian targets or a large number of casualties in Gaza or Israel – it will be an achievement for Lapid. In other words, he needs Operation Breaking Dawn to end in a similar fashion to Operation Black Belt in November 2019, the three-day confrontation between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in which no Israelis were killed, despite the launching of 450 rockets towards Israeli targets.

The main indications working in Lapid’s favor are Hamas’ inaction so far and a statement by his coalition partner United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas saying that “we are prepared to be partners to decisions for calm and peace and our approach is that our role as Knesset members is to take care of matters that directly concern the Arab public and its rights.” In other words, for now it looks like events are being contained and only the relatively small Islamic Jihad is in the fight this time.

But matters could change very quickly. With Jewish pilgrims heading to the Temple Mount for Tisha B’Av on Sunday, clashes with Palestinians at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound could serve as a flash point. And at any moment, an IDF air strike could go astray causing major casualties or an Islamic Jihad rocket could hit a home full of Israeli civilians, triggering a much wider escalation. In such a scenario, Lapid will be accused not only of mishandling the situation, but of having acted precipitately in the hope of proving he isn’t an inexperienced leader.

It’s not just Lapid’s leadership being tested now in Gaza. It’s the entire strategy his government has pursued over the past year. Lapid may support, in principle, the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. In practice, this government which he formed, which was headed for most of its existence by Naftali Bennett, has had a strategy of “shrinking the conflict” – giving the Palestinians nothing in terms of political rights, but trying to reduce military friction by improving living standards in the West Bank and Gaza and helping the Palestinian economy grow.

On the face of it, another round of warfare in Gaza is proof that “shrinking the conflict” doesn’t work. But that really depends on the length and breadth of this round. If the fighting ends in a few days, remains contained within Gaza and involves only the relatively small Iranian-supported Islamic Jihad, those who support the concept will be able to say that this is actually proof that Israel is fighting Iran, in this case represented by its fully-funded proxy Islamic Jihad.

Over the past year, the government has granted over 14,000 permits for Gazans to work in Israel and intends to boost the number to 20,000. The government expects that these “levers,” along with other measures easing the 15-year closure of the Gaza Strip, will pressure Hamas not to escalate matters and jeopardize the livelihoods of Gazans, not to mention its own cut of the money entering the Strip.

The outgoing government has been more aggressive than the previous Netanyahu administrations in responding to smaller provocations from Gaza, retaliating with airstrikes even against balloons floating incendiary devices over into Israel. Despite that, there has been no escalation like the current one for nearly 15 months now. If this ends in a couple of days, Lapid will be able to claim that the policy he led together with Bennett was more effective than that of the man who is trying to replace him in the prime minister’s office.

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