Now that the latest flare-up of fighting between Israel and Gaza has subsided, at least for the moment, here are nine thoughts on the clash, the outcomes, and the implications.
Although the timing is suspicious, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu probably did not launch an operation in Gaza to forestall a developing accommodation with Hamas. The Israeli incursion that sparked the latest conflagration in Gaza was of a kind that Israel carries out on a routine basis. It was, from all appearances, a routine intelligence operation gone awry. Gaza has been a steady source of political losses for Netanyahu, this time as well. His willingness to consent to Qatari cash coming into the Strip was unpopular in Israel, as was his quick agreement to a ceasefire. There was no good reason for Netanyahu to have intentionally gone down this path.
The fact that this wasn’t intentional on Israel’s part should (but won’t) serve as a warning. Netanyahu believes that he can manage the siege of Gaza indefinitely, and he has convinced the Trump administration to support that view. But he is walking a tightrope. This incident shows how easily Gaza can explode. Egypt stepped in very quickly to ensure that it didn’t escalate even further into something that might attract the interest of militants in the Sinai and other groups in Egypt. An extended encounter could also bring in Hezbollah, an even more frightening possibility now with U.S. and Israeli sights set even more firmly on Iran. Even Netanyahu, who might relish a conflict with Iran under the right circumstances, will not want to stumble into such a dangerous conflict without planning it. And Hamas knows such a conflict will bring devastation that even Gaza hasn’t seen before. That is why so much effort was expended to resolve it quickly.
The Israeli public, however, sees things differently. One can sympathize with the sentiments of residents of Sderot and Ashkelon, two Israeli cities near Gaza that bear the brunt of the retaliation Hamas and various other factions in Gaza can muster. Their voices become a rallying cry for an all-out offensive on Gaza that would topple Hamas. Netanyahu correctly recognizes that this would mean either reinstating full Israeli control of Gaza—which would not only be difficult and costly for Israel, it would likely reinvigorate international calls for a resolution of the conflict, including in the United States, even with the protection Israel gets from Trump—or leaving Gaza in such a state of chaos that groups much more militant than Hamas could take over and attacks from Gaza, feeble though they might be, would become much more frequent.
The surprising resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his party’s subsequent departure from Netanyahu’s governing coalition will not only bring elections much sooner—probably by early May 2019, and quite possibly as soon as March—they leave Netanyahu in a weakened position. Israelis disapprove of his handling of the latest Gaza incident by a large margin. Netanyahu will now face a demand from HaBayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett for the vacated defense portfolio that Netanyahu has taken on temporarily. If Netanyahu refuses Bennett and he bolts, the government collapses immediately and new elections must be called. If Netanyahu relents, it will buy him more time to strategize, but it will significantly enhance Bennett’s position. Nothing about this timing works in Netanyahu’s favor.
On the other hand, there are still no better options than Netanyahu, from the point of view of addressing Palestinian rights. Nor are there serious challengers to his position as head of the biggest party in the Knesset. After Lieberman’s resignation, an immediate poll—carried out in the heat of anger at Netanyahu—had Netanyahu’s Likud coalition winning 29 seats in an election held today. Although this was the first time Likud had polled under 30 seats since March, the next biggest party—the slightly more moderate Yesh Atid—would carry only 18 seats. Netanyahu would face a challenge in cobbling together a coalition, but he has faced those before and won. Bennett would almost certainly emerge in an even more powerful position. Lieberman has probably saved himself from political extinction with this latest stunt, but he’s not likely to get the defense portfolio again. The next coalition, like each of its predecessors under Netanyahu, will very likely assume the mantle of most right-wing in Israel’s history.
The alternatives to Netanyahu who support a return to negotiations and a two-state solution— such as Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, Labor/Zionist Union’s Avi Gabbay, and current opposition leader Tzipi Livni—have all attacked Netanyahu for not using much more force against Gaza. Livni heads a party that couldn’t survive outside the Zionist Union’s umbrella, and neither Gabbay nor Lapid are capable of forging a ruling coalition. None offers any serious hope of reinvigorating a peace process, even if they could gain office. So, although Netanyahu may finally be facing the end of the road, it’s not a foregone conclusion. Even if it happens, it is not at all clear that it would imply hope for even marginal improvement in the West Bank, much less in Gaza.
On many occasions, Hamas has crowed about victories that were pyrrhic at best, non-existent at worst. This time is different. Israel insists that it has thoroughly abandoned Gaza to Hamas, yet it infiltrates the territory with regularity and impunity. This time, the Israeli operation was exposed, and Hamas retaliated. When the smoke cleared, both sides had taken hits—Gaza getting the worst of it from the vastly superior Israeli military—but it was the Israeli government that fell as a result, not Hamas. The victory is real, although it doesn’t promise anything in the way of tangible gains. Hamas has scored a moral victory, and that’s one of the reasons Netanyahu emerges from this as the biggest loser. Perhaps Hamas is the “biggest winner,” but it, too, suffered a setback. Hamas chose to escalate the confrontation when the Israeli operation was exposed, and, at the very least, that will delay any other concessions Netanyahu might have been prepared to make to his Qatari and Egyptian interlocutors on Hamas’s behalf. As usual when guns are fired and mortars launched, there are really no winners.
It was disappointing, though hardly unexpected, to see the barrage of international condemnations omit any mention that Israel sparked this latest round with its incursion. Although statements ranged from absolute support for Israeli actions—led, of course, by the United States—to calls for both sides to refrain from violence, there was scant mention of what set these events in motion. This has been a repeated problem with eruptions in Gaza, one which, at times, Israel has taken advantage of with quiet provocations until Hamas responds, creating the appearance of Israeli, rather than Hamas, retaliation. When public perception in the United States, Europe, and, especially, in Israel is so badly skewed, the political pressures pull away from, rather than toward, a reasonable resolution of not only the Hamas-Israel conflict, but the Israeli-Palestinian one writ large.
The Gaza exchange of fire and its tenuous resolution served to underscore the increasing irrelevance of the Palestinian Authority. Whatever one thinks of Mahmoud Abbas and the PA, there is no cause to celebrate this widening rift. The Palestinian people are never going to get the rights they are due until they have a unified leadership that can speak with one voice. Instead of progress in that direction, Hamas’s ability to deal with Israel and with countries like Egypt and Qatar without the PA being involved at all only deepens the conflict in the Palestinian body politic. It pours more dirt over the concept of the West Bank and Gaza as a single, Palestinian entity. This is a reality that neither Hamas nor the PA want, but with the PA repeatedly sanctioning Gaza, withholding promised money, and taking other punitive measures, Hamas had little choice but to try to find support on its own, which it did in Qatar, infuriating the PA. Abbas’s attempt to press Hamas into surrender may have instead pushed him even farther into irrelevance. And, as usual, it is the Palestinian people who lose the most from this senseless fighting over the crumbs of authority that Israel has left for the divided Palestinian leadership.