Three weeks ago, 82 per cent of Israelis supported Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of Israel’s confrontation with Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group that had unleashed a steady rocket bombardment on Israeli cities, kidnapped and murdered three teenagers in the West Bank, and constructed a network of over a dozen cross-border attack tunnels, some of which extended over a mile into Israeli territory. Netanyahu seemed to have the domestic political cover needed to fight Hamas with operations in which scores of Israeli soldiers were killed that drew widespread international scorn — including rare rebukes from the United States.
That cover seems to have evaporated. On August 25, Israel’s Channel 2 reported support for Netanyahu was down to 38 per cent, and had dropped “by 17 per cent in the past four days alone,” according to The Times of Israel.
This dip was probably inevitable. On August 6, Times of Israel editor David Horovitz correctly predicted “[p]olitical infighting … is bound to surge in Israel if the ceasefire holds. The relative political unity of the past month is just so thoroughly un-Israeli.”
It’s tempting to view this poll as a predictable result of Israel’s notoriously fractious political culture, in which consensus is short-lived, and the electoral system amplifies the impact of upstart political factions and keeps the country permanently split between over a dozen ideological, religious, and ethnic blocs. Too much support for the Prime Minister is indeed “thoroughly un-Israeli,” and Horovitz was right in concluding that Netanyahu’s popularity wasn’t going to last.
However, it would be a mistake to attribute Netanyahu’s suffering poll numbers to political culture alone. Israelis really are frustrated at the direction of the Gaza operation — and their wariness is a reflection of deeper problems with the current government’s approach to Hamas.
As Oren Kessler, a Middle East research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society told Business Insider, “during the bloodiest days of the war, Netanyahu’s numbers benefited from ‘rally around the flag’ sentiment that has since dissipated.”
AP Photo/Nasser Ishtayeh
Mideast Israel Palestinians Supporters of Hamas hold a representation of a rocket as others shout slogans against the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip, during a protest in the West Bank city of Nablus on Friday, Aug. 1, 2014.
An Inconclusive Ending to the War
Israel pulled all of its ground troops out of Gaza in early August after destroying over a dozen cross-border tunnels but without securing anything more than a series of quickly-violated 72-hour ceasefire agreements. With around half of Hamas’s rockets expended or destroyed, hundreds of its fighters dead, and the anti-Hamas government of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi handling the ceasefire negotiations, it seemed like Israel could afford to end the war on their own terms — to effectively pack up and declare victory, secure in the knowledge that the Hamas threat had been contained.
This now looks like a miscalculation. On August 22, a mortar fired from the Gaza Strip killed a four-year old child in an Israeli town near the border with Gaza. Gaza-based militants fired 168 rockets on Israel on August 20, the highest single-day total in the latest round of violence, and a barrage unleashed well after Israeli forces had left the Strip.
In other words, Israel has vastly scaled back its combat operations while Hamas remains on a war footing. Israelis aren’t exactly happy about it.
As Neri Zilber of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy explained to Business Insider, the Israeli government hasn’t been able to stop two months worth of rocket attacks and the leadership’s narrative of its handling of the crisis is wearing thin.
“Netanyahu and [Defence Minister Bogie] Yaalon’s public statements regarding the objective of the campaign being ‘returning quiet to the citizens of Israel’ have been fairly consistent during this time — hinting at the lack of great strategic and military options for dealing with Gaza,” says Zilber. “But for the average Israeli it’s all sounding repetitive, cautious and above all tone deaf given that large swaths of the country’s south have been evacuated.”
Some Israelis bristle at the idea that a constant barrage of attacks on the country’s border territory apparently isn’t worth the kind of major escalation that could secure the region for good. Others are just fatigued over months of constant attack without an apparent long-term way out, Middle East scholar Michael Koplow told Business Insider.
“Israelis are looking at a conflict that is dragging on well beyond what they anticipated,” says Koplow. “The longer this goes on, the clearer it becomes that Netanyahu doesn’t have a sustainable strategy to end the rocket fire, let alone deal with Hamas in the long term, and so Israelis on both sides of the spectrum are upset with what they see as a middling response.”
Netanyahu doesn’t want to escalate the conflict, or re-occupy the Gaza Strip — but he’s loathe to make a sweeping deal with Hamas that could legitimise the group or give it the breathing room needed to rebuild its terror infrastructure.
The result is a war of attrition that accepts a de facto baseline of instability and makes Netanyahu appear unwilling to commit to a long-term strategic course.
This only underscores the difficult position Hamas’s policies put the Israeli prime minister in. During the opening weeks of the escalation, Netanyahu effectively cut his right flank out of the decision-making process, firing a hardline deputy defence minister and staving off critics like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who openly called for the re-occupation of the Gaza Strip.
It seemed as if Netanyahu had achieved Israel’s battlefield objectives without entering into a ceasefire that rewarded Hamas for its intransigence or turning the Israeli public against him.
That accomplishment was apparently short-lived. Under Israel’s electoral system, parties could pull out from the governing coalition and force a new round of elections before Netanyahu’s term is up. The frustration and uncertainty of the current stalemate could give them the window they need once the crisis with Gaza concludes.
“There is a danger of the government falling if no diplomatic breakthrough arrives and the rockets keep coming without an appropriate IDF response,” says Zilber.
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