Despite his deserved reputation as an extremist and rejectionist of the first order, Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu has unlike most of his predecessors never initiated a war. He appears not to have planned one this time either.
The 1996 Tunnel Intifada, named after several days of clashes that followed Israel’s festive opening of a tunnel in the heart of occupied East Jerusalem, may well have been Bibi’s template for the current assault on the Gaza Strip. It after all transpired during his previous term in office, and consists of three simple steps. 1. Launch outrageous provocation guaranteed to elicit armed response. 2. Use overwhelming firepower to kill Arabs and remind them who is boss. 3. Mobilise foreign parties to quickly restore calm on improved conditions.
In the current case, the Israeli air force on the evening of 14 November liquidated Ahmad al-Ja’bari, the de facto commander of the Hamas military wing. A week earlier, Israel shot dead 13-year old Ahmad Abu Daqqa while he was playing soccer, the game he dreamed would one day make him a global star. Several Israeli soldiers were wounded when Palestinian militants retaliated with a bomb and then a missile fired at an APC, to which Israel responded by shelling first another soccer field and then a mourning tent, killing a further four civilian non-combatants and wounding dozens. When the inevitable Palestinian missile volleys headed towards Israel, injuring four, the efforts of Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate (GID), which typically brokers security agreements relating to the Gaza Strip, took on added urgency.
By 12 November, amidst demands by Israeli Home Front Minister Avi Dichter to “reformat” the Gaza Strip and calls by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz to interdict the supply of all goods and services to Gaza’s population of 1.5 million until they beg for air, the Egyptians had crafted a ceasefire proposal that was accepted by the Palestinians and – according to the Egyptians – Israel as well. With responsibility not only for fighting Israel but also enforcing agreements with it, al-Ja’bari began successfully implementing the ceasefire. Two days later he was blown up. Several hours and several dozen air raids later, Israel triumphantly announced that it had also successfully decommissioned long-range missile capabilities within the Gaza Strip.
Electoral considerations are likely to have played a role in Israeli decision-making, but hardly driven them. Both Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak had since March been smarting from a previous Egyptian-mediated ceasefire, pursuant to which they informally agreed to not only stop attacking the Gaza Strip but also to discontinue assassinations. An Islamic Jihad leader I interviewed at the time opined this was a climbdown too far for Israel’s leaders, and that Israel was therefore certain to renew hostilities sooner rather than later.
Speaking of deterrence, Netanyahu had made a laughingstock of Israel on account of his threats against Iran; Hizballah is if anything itching for another round; Egypt is gradually re-asserting independence from Israel; and the region is undergoing a transformation that all agree will not be to Israel’s advantage. To top it all off, Mahmoud Abbas has been threatening to seek an upgrade of Palestine’s status at the United Nations that could see the non-state filing cases at the International Criminal Court by year’s end.
If pummeling Gaza yet again was intended to remind all concerned – not least the new Egypt – who makes the rules, it would also re-assure the Israeli electorate they need not fear the prospect of Obama punishing Israel for Netanyahu’s embrace of the Romney/Adelson ticket. As expected, the Obama White House has ensured there is less daylight between America and Israel then ever passed between Romeo and Juliet, while Congress has been busy passing unanimous resolutions supporting Israel’s right to self-defense in its colonial possessions. The positions of most European states have been only marginally less obscene.
Not only did Bibi and Barak kill the leader primarily responsible for restraining other militants from firing projectiles into Israel; they also made it impossible for his successors to accept a ceasefire before demonstrating they had successfully altered the rules of the game and extracting guarantees any new agreement will be respected.
While Hamas would like to frustrate Netanyahu’s re-election as they ruined Shimon Peres’s prospects after the 1996 assassination of Yahya Ayyash, launching missiles at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is for the Islamist movement probably a sufficient achievement, particularly if going further may endanger its continued rule of the Gaza Strip. Yet by making a mockery of Bibi and Barak, the latter have now called up nearly eight times as many reservists as were deployed during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009.
Israeli hesitation about what may lie ahead, in combination with furious diplomacy directed at Washington by Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and others may lead to a new ceasefire agreement in the coming days. If not, the primary issue for those committed to peace in the Middle East will be to ensure Israel is deprived of the impunity it enjoyed during and after Operation Cast Lead.
[This is a longer version of an article that first appeared on the London Review of Books blog.]