Is Gaza Now Netanyahu's Biggest Problem?

While PM focuses on U.S. pressure, four Israeli fatalities in last week near Gaza may prove more urgent.

About the MESS Report

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's (second) first year in office has ended with almost no significant security challenges. The two offensives lead by Olmert's administration, the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, left the two regions in relative calm.

Now, as Netanyahu debates how he should respond to American pressure regarding construction in East Jerusalem and the future of the settlements, he will, for the first time, have to face an urgent security problem: Four Israeli fatalities along the Gaza border in less than a week.

The last thing Netanyahu needs right now is a war in Gaza. The ongoing crisis with the United States and the critical atmosphere against Israel in the international arena will make it difficult for the prime minister to enjoy the same freedoms for military strategizing that his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, enjoyed.

The difficulty lies in the identities of those involved in Friday's incident. For the first time, the Hamas military wing has claimed responsibility for the attack. Over the last 14 months, since the end of the Operation Cast Lead, small Islamist divisions have claimed responsibility for the small number of terror attacks emanating from Gaza. Hamas has even acted to restrain their activity; earlier this very week, the IDF exclaimed that it was impressed with the pressure Hamas has exerted to thwart the attacks.

Does Friday's incident testify to the fact that Hamas is trying to change the rules of the game, or, from their perspective, was it self-defense against the sudden entrance of IDF soldiers into the Gaza Strip?

When asked about this, Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that "Hamas will have to pay a price" for changing the rules of the game.

"The army will know to find the right time to retaliate," Barak told Channel 2 television's news broadcast hours after the deaths of the soldiers. The defense minister is usually very cautious about field security. Perhaps he wanted to avoid giving the enemy unnecessary information ahead of time. But his response also embodies his and Netanyahu's headache: Something has to be done, but how do they do it without dragging the southern border into another war?

Major Eliraz Peretz, the Golani regiment's deputy commander who was killed in Gaza on Friday, lost his elder brother, First Lieutenant Uriel Peretz, in an explosion in southern Lebanon in 1998, in the midst of Netanyahu's first term as prime minister. Lebanon was Netanyahu's most urgent security concern at the time (the Palestinian terror attacks had been reduced for more than two years at the time). But the prime minister preferred to avoid making a decision regarding the turbulent region. It was his successor, Ehud Barak, who removed the IDF from Lebanon a year and a half after later. The difference in Gaza, of course, is that Israel left the strip in 2005.

A common perception of Israeli politics claims that only a government with a leftist-centrist orientation can initiate military action, because they are backed by public consensus. While rightist governments can dare make peace agreements, by the very same logic. Netanyahu, by the way things seem right now, cannot do either.

Posted by Amos Harel, March 26, 2010

Previous MESS Report posts:

  • Despite U.S. anger over settlements, defense ties are flourishing
  • Netanyahu faces a U.S. adamant about East Jerusalem
  • Is Obama's problem that Netanyahu is a Republican at heart?
  • America's Mideast woes don't begin and end with Israel
  • U.S. anger over East Jerusalem row is excessive
  • Palestinians aren't missing the chance to fan the flames
  • Mubarak, Egypt regime change and Israel
  • Palestinian police chief knows 'the secret of the correct use of force'