Analysis

7 Days to Election: Netanyahu Prays Gaza Won’t Shoot Down His Skyrocketing Polls

Islamic Jihad reminds Israelis that Netanyahu has no solution to Gaza rocket attacks – and might not even want one

Chemi Shalev
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An Israeli boy walks past an electoral poster of Benjamin Netanyahu in Haifa on February 23, 2020.
An Israeli boy walks past an electoral poster of Benjamin Netanyahu in Haifa on February 23, 2020.Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP
Chemi Shalev

Ever since it served as one of five fortified cities from which the Philistines launched their marauding raids, Gaza has been a toxic thorn in Israel’s side. The balance of power may have shifted since David beaned Goliath, but Gaza remains, to borrow from Winston Churchill, a quagmire laced with hostility wrapped in misery inside a true hellhole, as Gaza residents would be the first to admit.

Never a place to be taken for granted, a week before pivotal elections, Gaza has reared its head once again. Iron Dome missiles may have intercepted dozens of rockets launched by Islamic Jihad over the past 48 hours, but nothing could stop Gaza from forcing itself on the agenda during this election campaign and occupying it by force, much to Benjamin Netanyahu’s chagrin.

Bernie, Bibi and the brutal occupation: Listen to Gideon LevyCredit: Haaretz Weekly Ep. 64

Even though the eruption of an acute national security crisis seven days before elections would have been welcomed by Netanyahu under most other circumstances, Gaza is an exception to the rule. Gaza is an embarrassment best swept under the table, which is why Netanyahu has gone so far as to press Qatar to persist in its monthly payments to Hamas and to promise dramatic goodwill gestures if only the terrorists would try to contain themselves, at least for a few days.

This, from Benjamin “Terrorism: How the West Can Win” Netanyahu, whose first commandment is never bargain, never negotiate, never concede and never reach any kind of agreement with any kind of terrorist organization. But perhaps the rules were only meant for lesser mortals, not for the man once considered a guru in the field of counterterrorism.

Netanyahu also threatened to rain fire and brimstone if the rocket launches don’t stop, and backed up his words with increasingly harsh and thus risky air force bombings in Gaza, but yawns were heard nonetheless, on both sides of the border. The problem with Netanyahu suggesting a remedy to the never-ending rocket attacks that have plagued Israel’s south is that this is the same Netanyahu who has been prime minister for the past ten years. Sufficient time, presumably, for him to have implemented his own brilliant solutions, if he’d had any.

What Netanyahu has instead of a real solution is a strategic vision, one in which Hamas is a key player. Its continued control of Gaza is key to preserving disunity among Palestinians and to decoupling Gaza from the any future Palestinian rump state that Israel may one day allow, supposedly, in the West Bank.

It is a delicate balancing act, propping up a lethal enemy while vowing to destroy it, but one that Netanyahu has been keeping up since taking over from Ehud Olmert in 2009. And while Netanyahu has successfully kept Israel away from a potentially bloody full-scale incursion in Gaza while allowing for periodic confrontations, he has done so at the expense of Israel’s southern residents, in both Likud-dominated development towns and Labor-founded kibbutzim.

Theirs is a double misery: They have borne the overwhelming brunt of rocket attacks from Gaza, but not to the extent that justifies a full-fledged military response, as is the case if and when Tel Aviv and other locations in central Israel are attacked. Election eve, from Netanyahu’s point of view, is not the ideal time for them to tell the public of their ongoing fears and frustrations.

Netanyahu is thus caught between a rock and a hard place. If he exercises restraint it will be construed as more of his ineffective same. If he strikes a belligerent pose, however, he will come under increasing pressure to make good on his threats; but if he does, he risks embroiling Israel in a military conflict most Israelis don’t support. It’s a classic damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, and equally damned if he does nothing at all.

Netanyahu’s dilemma is compounded by the apparent reversal of the electoral trends – in his own favor. A spate of new polls released this week indicated growing support for Netanyahu, coupled with diminishing enthusiasm for Gantz, which translated into the Likud outperforming Kahol Lavan for the first time since the third straight election in a year was called. As things stand now, Netanyahu seems to have escaped the threat of an outright center-left victory that would have seen him ejected from the prime minister’s office forthwith.

At worst, the ongoing stalemate will continue, which serves Netanyahu just fine, even though it won’t relieve him of the need to answer charges at the opening of his criminal trial, currently scheduled for March 17. If current trends hold, however, Netanyahu could be looking at his dream come true: A majority of at least 61 seats in the Knesset that would allow him not only to have his way with the rule of law and to facilitate his own private prison break, but to remake his country into the Israel he and other right-wing nationalists have long dreamed of. It’s the same Israel that is his opponents’ worst nightmare.

If he has to grease a few palms, make a few concessions, promise Hamas the world both over and under the table in order to ensure that Gaza lies low, if only for a week – Netanyahu will weather the potential embarrassment. It’s a small price to pay in exchange for personal liberation, for what his political camp views as national salvation, for the taste of victory on March 2 and for the exquisite pleasure of schadenfreude and the thrill of wreaking revenge on those who dared deny his infinite wisdom.

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