Netanyahu toughens stance ahead of poll
ANALYSIS:The Israeli PM has threatened to abrogate the Oslo peace accords
Israel’s offensive against Gaza takes place in the run-up to the early parliamentary election in which prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu seeks to increase the number of seats his Likud-Beiteinu alliance holds in the Knesset.
While he has not, so far, waged war on Israel’s Palestinian and Arab antagonists, he has been talking tough in recent weeks about rockets fired into Israel from Gaza.
He has also threatened to abrogate the Oslo accords, under which the Palestinian Authority was established, due to its pursuit of UN non-member state status for Palestine. This effort stakes a Palestinian legal claim to East Jerusalem and the West Bank, where Israel has settled more than 500,000 of its citizens, in violation of international law, as well as to Gaza.
Netanyahu’s partner, defence minister Ehud Barak, has also adopted a tough stance. He is determined to revive the fading fortunes of the Labor Party, which he led until January 2011.
The latest round of violence was launched last weekend when fighters from Islamic Jihad fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli jeep patrolling the Gaza-Israel border, wounding four soldiers. Israel retaliated with shelling that killed at least four Gazans, two of them children, and wounded 20.
Palestinian fighters, including those of Hamas, which rules Gaza, responded by firing rockets and mortars into Israel but, following mediation by Egypt, the exchanges waned.
However, on Wednesday, Israel assassinated Hamas military chief Ahmad Jabari, regarded by Israel as both a “terrorist” and the Hamas figure capable of imposing control on loose cannons like Islamic Jihad. Writing in the liberal Israeli paper Haaretz, defence analyst Aluf Benn called Jabari Israel’s “subcontractor, in charge of maintaining Israel’s security in Gaza”.
Hamas called Jabari’s assassination a “declaration of war”. His death unleashed the fury of Hamas fighters and lifted his restraining hand on Islamic Jihad and other factions that seek to assert their relevance by firing occasional rockets, mortars or anti-tank rounds into Israel.
Jabari’s killing has also been condemned by Fatah, which, through the Palestinian Authority, administers the West Bank. The conflict could compel the authority to press all the harder for UN recognition in spite of pressure from Israel and the US to postpone this effort. The authority has to make up for appearing to side with Israel during its last war on Gaza.
In early November 2008, during the previous Israeli election campaign, Israeli troops – again operating under Barak’s command – crossed into Gaza and killed six Hamas paramilitaries, breaching a four-month ceasefire. This elicited retaliatory rocket strikes that escalated into Israel’s 23-day war on Gaza, which left 1,445 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead, devastated the narrow coastal strip, and prompted widespread international criticism of Israel’s “disproportionate” assault.
After the 2008-09 war, Israel found it could no longer count on uncritical global support for its military adventures. Furthermore, since the Arab Spring of 2010-11, “moderate” Arab regimes have been overthrown.
Israel has lost key ally Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who tacitly supported Israel’s 2008-09 campaign to crush Hamas.
These days, regional leaders must keep one ear cocked to demands from “the street” (public opinion), which has always been more anti-Israel and tuned in to Palestinian concerns than governments. Indeed, today there is competition over which Arab capital can condemn Israel loudest. Cairo has recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv. The country’s post-Arab Spring government had no option but to put relations with Israel on hold.
Hamas’s parent organisation, the Brotherhood, has sworn to defend Gaza and improve living conditions for its 1.5 million Palestinian citizens. While Egypt has largely failed to deliver on the second pledge, it cannot afford to renege on the first.
If Israel mounts another full-scale assault, Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi could face popular pressure to revisit and revise Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, seen by most Egyptians as a betrayal of both Palestinians and Arabs.