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In Gaza, A Bid to Restore Deterrence
In Gaza, A Bid to Restore Deterrence
Another War: Views from Israel/Palestine
Another War: Views from Israel/Palestine

In Gaza, A Bid to Restore Deterrence

Originally published in Le Monde

In this translated interview, Ofer Zalzberg, Crisis Group’s senior Middle East and North Africa analyst, speaks to Le Monde about the factors that have contributed to the escalation of the Israeli military offensive.

The Israeli government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, decided early Tuesday 8 July to intensify its military offensive on the Gaza Strip in response to increased rocket fire from the Islamist group Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups. Operation Protective Edge has been presented as a gradual operation, without time limit, aimed at the militants’ infrastructure and leadership. Dozens of air raids have already hit the Palestinian enclave. Forty thousand Israeli reservists have been called up to prepare for a potential ground invasion.

How do you explain Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to launch a large-scale military operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, given that he has long opposed the hawks in his government pushing for such an offensive?

Ofer Zalzberg: Benjamin Netanyahu was not opposed to a limited operation in Gaza; he was opposed to an all-out military campaign with the aim of uprooting Hamas as called for by ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett. They advocated a major ground operation to topple Hamas, close down its associations, collect its weapons and arrest its leaders.

Benjamin Netanyahu continues to think such an operation is too costly. Strategically, he wants to restore calm at the lowest cost possible. He seeks to deter Hamas, showing them that Israel is prepared for direct confrontation, so that they would sense a real threat to the organization and stop firing their rockets. If this “quiet for quiet” formula fails, then he will order a ground invasion. Netanyahu is adapting to new realities.

What are these new realities?

In a position of weakness, Hamas accepted the intra-Palestinian reconciliation agreement on 24 April. Hamas considers that it no longer is the government in the Gaza Strip, and that therefore it is not its responsibility to impose a ceasefire. In line with the agreement, at least according to Hamas’s understanding of it, the Palestinian Authority (PA) had to pay its employees’ salaries, but did not do so. Hamas therefore considers there needs be a government in the Gaza Strip. During the Egyptian-led ceasefire negotiations between Israel and Hamas, the movement outlined a series of conditions: enabling this government to have the financial resources necessary to pay salaries, opening the Rafah border crossing, returning to the terms of the ceasefire brokered in 2012, and releasing the prisoners who were freed in the 2011 Shalit deal and re-arrested during the last few weeks.

These conditions present a new reality, in that they ask Israel not only to stop its air raids and attacks on Palestinian territories, but also to allow the PA to transfer money to Hamas’s employees. Both Israel and the PA are opposed to that. Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a dilemma: concede and allow a government with a Hamas component, or refuse and leave the field open to other radical groups.

Are there internal factors, within the political elites and Israeli public opinion, that could have influenced Netanyahu’s decision to expand the military operation in Gaza?

Netanyahu is subject to two contradictory pressures from Israeli public opinion. On one hand, Israeli society is shifting from the centre to the extremes: from Yaïr Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party towards the Labor Party and Meretz, and from Netanyahu and Lieberman’s Likud Beiteinu Alliance towards Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home. This government, which gave a low priority to the Palestinian issue, faces today a public opinion which wants it to be a high priority and would like to see the government taking a clear bold decision, be it diplomatic or military.

Netanyahu needs, as he is taking these decisions, to keep the support of both Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman. This will be difficult, particularly if he decides to strengthen a government with a Hamas component, which hawks like Lieberman would oppose. Such a decision would also irritate regional powers like Egypt, which has been fighting the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), to which Hamas is linked. Electorally, Netanyahu’s biggest asset has been to guarantee Israel’s security during his years in power.

Could Avigdor Lieberman’s decision on Monday 7 July to terminate the political alliance between his own Yisrael Beiteinu party and Netanyahu’s Likud have influenced Netanyahu’s bid for a large-scale military offensive?

Netanyahu’s decision has been influenced not so much by Lieberman’s announcement, but by the very reality that thousands of Israelis are today seeking shelter from rocket strikes. Avigdor Lieberman today is in position to topple the government and force new elections. He is looking ahead and thinking about becoming Prime Minister. Netanyahu’s popularity is limited because he was not able to solve the Iranian crisis, nor the housing crisis. Lieberman is an experienced politician. He knows that if the military operation is seen as a failure by the centre and centre-right, new elections will be called for and Netanyahu will be criticized for not employing sufficient force.

What can the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmud Abbas, do?

Not much. The question is: What is he willing to do about the inter-Palestinian reconciliation agreement? The agreement is part of the solution. Abbas could send money to Hamas’s employees to pay their salaries and send 3000 members of his presidential guard to the Rafah border crossing, as pledged in the agreement. He has so far refused to do so. Abbas is in a weaker position today than before. In the West Bank, protesters are criticizing him for being weak in facing Israel during its extensive military campaign in the West Bank. He now fears broader protests against him, as more and more people deem him illegitimate.