The devastating and timely ‘political blitzkrieg’ launched by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week in Hamas–controlled Gaza Strip to sustain his legacy has been largely off the radar of the general pubic.
As the Israeli Air Force, the artillery and the armoured corps continue their genocide in Gaza under a scorched-earth policy, obliterating buildings and houses and killing innocent Palestinians in dozens, the former Sayeret Matkal commando has set his scope beyond the destruction of the terrorist group’s military wing Izz ad-Din al–Qassam Brigades: avoid a fifth general election in two years and derail the efforts of his opponent Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid to form a government.
Having missed the deadline to form a government after a fourth inconclusive general election on March 23, King Bibi saw his kingdom perilously close to being conquered when President Reuven Rivlin invited Lapid to form a government in 28 days by reaching the majority mark of 61 in the 120-seat Knesset.
Netanyahu—who broke Israel’s founding father and first leader David Ben-Gurion’s record as the longest-serving Premier—and his right-wing and religious allies had bagged 52 seats as against 57 won by the ‘Change Bloc’—comprising Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Yamina, Yisrael Beytenu, Labor, New Hope and Meretz. With both the camps short of the majority mark, the undecided ultranationalist Naftali Bennett-led Yamina (7 seats) and Mansour Abbas’ Islamist Ra’am (4 seats) could be the kingmakers, especially for Netanyahu.
The longer Hamas continues to rain rockets on Israel and the Israel Defence Forces bomb Gaza in retaliation, Netanyahu’s lifeline to stay in power gets extension and Lapid’s deadline becomes shorter. Israel’s provocative actions in the Palestinian-dominated Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood and the Old City, both in East Jerusalem, during the holy month of Ramzan fit Netanyahu’s scheme of things.
East Jerusalem had been smouldering since April, when Israel tried to evict Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah and the police placed metal barriers at the Damascus Gate of the Old City during Ramzan, infuriating Palestinians. Incidentally, the ministry of public security, headed by Netanyahu loyalist Amir Ohana, oversees the police. The provocative and bizarre decision to place the metal barriers triggered clashes between the police and Palestinians that gradually spread to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on Jerusalem Day.
Hamas took advantage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflagration and the cancellation of elections by Palestinian Authority’s (PA) ageing President Mahmoud Abbas. It was a golden opportunity for the militant group to further bolster its image as the true protector of Palestinians. “From preliminary indicators, many people in the West Bank are admiring what Hamas is doing,” a Ramallah-based pollster and former PA official told a daily newspaper. Being the de facto rulers of Gaza after defeating Abbas’ rival Fatah movement in 2006, Hamas seeks to entrench itself more politically with its chief Yahya Al-Sinwar.
The incessant barrage of Hamas rockets targeting Israelis resulted in a bloody onslaught by Netanyahu that maimed and killed more innocent civilians, including toddlers and adolescent, than Hamas commanders, and has transformed into ethnic cleansing.
The imbroglio works out to Netanyahu’s advantage and Lapid’s loss. Days before the bloodshed consumed East Jerusalem first and Gaza later, Bennett, Mansour Abbas and Lapid were ironing out differences to form a government. “They were just about to call the President and say we have reached a deal; we have a coalition,” Gayil Talshir, professor of political science at Hebrew University, told a daily newspaper. “The riot came just in time to prevent the change of government in Israel.”
According to Israeli author and former Israeli newspaper columnist, Lapid had already sensed Netanyahu’s tactics even before the elections, in case, he failed to cobble up a majority. “If Netanyahu feels that the government is slipping through his fingers, he will try to create a security incident—in Gaza or the northern border. If he will think that this is the only way to save him, he will not hesitate for a moment,” Lapid told defence minister and White and Blue Alliance chairman Benny Gantz, according to writer Yossi Verter, Eldar wrote in an international media website.
The PM’s former allies and political commentators know his sinister strategy. “The security escalation serves Netanyahu and Hamas, both for internal political reasons,” tweeted Netanyahu’s former defence minister and chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon. Commentator Ben Caspit wrote in a newspaper: “From the moment (the fire) was lit, the government of change was dead and Netanyahu came back to life.”
On May 13, the fourth day into the conflict, Bennett dropped a bomb that sounded sweet to Netanyahu’s ears: “I am removing the ‘change government’ from the agenda. A change government, with the make-up planned, cannot deal with the problems in mixed cities. These are things that cannot be done when relying on Mansour Abbas.” he told reporters.
Right-wing Bennett, who was so desperate to be PM that he had agreed to align with an Islamist party [Ra’am] and centrist Yesh Atid, suddenly swung to Bibi’s lap sensing the hostilities will most likely hinder formation of a government with Lapid’s Yesh Atid and other opposition parties. In fact, he was initially supporting Netanyahu in his bid to form a government, but had also offered to join a ‘national unity government’ probably led Lapid if the PM failed to do so. Instead, the Yamina leader is now in talks with Gantz, New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar and Lapid.
‘Kingmaker’ Abbas—who had already splintered the alliance of Arab parties, Joint List, before the elections—suspended the Change Bloc coalition talks as well in face of the raging violence, indirectly supporting Netanyahu, after Bennett called him to say that the dialogue was off the table. According to a daily newspaper, Abbas told Army Radio such a dialogue would be “inappropriate in such a sensitive time”. “It could be that these incidents emphasise the need for true partnership with understanding, initiating together.”
In fact, in a huge boost to Netanyahu, Abbas told Channel 12 that he could support direct elections for PM—which is exactly what Bibi wants. If Lapid fails to form a government, any member of the Knesset can form a government in 21 days with 61 seats. These 21 days will be crucial as Netanyahu will likely try to pass a law allowing Premiers to be directly elected.
Netanyahu and Abbas have been in trying to court each other despite opposition by the PM’s right-wing allies, especially the Bezalel Stomrich-led Religious Zionism party, and Ra’am’s allies. Almost two months before the elections, Abbas had hinted at joining a Netanyahu-led coalition. “I extend a hand to create an opportunity for life together in this land that is holy and blessed for the children of the three faiths and two peoples,” Mansour had said in early February. “I have not ruled anything out,” he said dangling the bait to both Netanyahu and Lapid.
In the last week of April, Netanyahu dialled Abbas while trying to form a government—much to Stomrich’s consternation—to garner support for a bill mandating direct elections for PM.
Netanyahu’s game plan also includes avoid getting convicted on bribery and fraud and breach of trust charges, which together carry a 13-year jail term. As long he’s PM, he not under obligation to resign unless convicted and a trial could take years.
In CASE 4000, Netanyahu allegedly granted favours worth around $500 million to Bezeq Telecom to get positive coverage on Tel Aviv-headquartered internet company Walla! Communications Ltd, controlled by Bezeq’s former chairman Shaul Elovitch.
Under CASE 1000, prosecutors charged the Premier with fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu and his wife Sara had allegedly received gifts—champagne, cigar and jewellery—worth $210,000 from Israeli businessman, Hollywood film producer and former spy Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire businessman and casino mogul James Packer over several years.
In return, Netanyahu tied to convince unsuccessfully the then-finance minister to extend the period of an investment tax to help Milchan, who has produced blockbusters like L.A. Confidential, JFK, Heat, Fight Club and The Revenant. Packer, highly impressed by Bibi and Mossad director Yossi Cohen, showered the Premier and his wife with gifts after the Israeli leader prodded him to take over the country’s largest selling daily to reduce its critical coverage, an Israeli newspaper had reported.
Finally, CASE 2000 charges Netanyahu with negotiating a deal with the newspaper owner after three meetings between 2008 and 2014 to provide him positive coverage. In return, the PM promised to introduce a legislation to limit the circulation of the newspaper’s rival daily.
Netanyahu is a hardened political survivor who can pull a rabbit out of the hat anytime—for example, fomenting the current bloody crisis. Using the fear psychosis of a belligerent Iran and a dangerous leftist-Arab-liberal alliance out to destroy the Jewish state, he has convinced a vast majority of Israelis that he is their sole protector. According to him, the Arab countries bordering Israel are not democracies and “peace with them can only be based on a balance of terror and on Israel’s ability to defend itself”.
In a research paper published in July 2017 titled ‘Behavior Analysis of Benjamin Netanyahu in 1999 and 2017: What has Changed?’, professor Shaul Kimhi (department of psychology, Tel Hai College, Israel, and former special adviser to the Research Division of Israel’s Military Intelligence on compiling psychological profiles of leaders), Dr Sagit Yehoshua (Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, Israel, and King’s College London) and Sagit Yehoshua (Department of Psychology, Tel Hai College, Israel) write that Bibi views Israel as only belonging to Jews.
The researchers point out to the environment of fear created by Netanyahu regarding Arabs. “Arabs cannot be trusted. Their sole intent is to eliminate Israel. There is no substantial difference between Fatah and Hamas. By being strong and persistent, Israel will be able to compel the Arabs to make peace with us in the future,” they write.
According to the researchers, Netanyahu feels that “Arab countries around us are not democracies and therefore peace with them can only be based on a balance of terror and on Israel’s ability to defend itself. The Arab hostility will not disappear in this generation”.
On Monday (May 17), Netanyahu vowed to continue striking Hamas despite US President Joe Biden calling him for the third time in six days saying he supports a ceasefire. As Netanyahu continues with the pounding of Gaza, the toll in Gaza reached 212, including 61 children, on Tuesday (May 18), according to Al Jazeera and the Ministry of Health in Gaza. Besides, 500-plus homes have been destroyed and 58,000 people displaced.
Another threat in the form of a two-front war looms with Israeli artillery targeting Lebanon after rockets were launched from the neighbouring country for the second time. Though Israel’s arch-enemy Hezbollah has denied any link to the two incidents, the terrorist group could get easily sucked into the vortex of violence, which will tip the scales further to Netanyahu’s favour.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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