(November 21, 2018 / JNS) The ongoing violence perpetrated by the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the recent barrage of rocket fire—more than 450 rockets and mortars in less than 48 hours—pointed at Israel’s south had an unintended consequence. In effect, it caused an internal political crisis in Israel, shaking up the government, and both angering and worrying the general public.
For that instability, Hamas is claiming victory, even taking credit for it.
The terrorist organization achieved three main things by its ongoing attacks: demonstrating that Israel’s deterrence in the form of military retribution by the Israel Defense Forces has been weakened, destabilizing Israel’s government and gaining a $60 million contribution from Qatar.
Hamas also gained a repose in which it can now continue arming itself with more advanced weaponry, preparing itself for the next round.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached a ceasefire with Hamas, but not without a domestic cost. Israelis were infuriated at the continued onslaught—southern cities, towns and farmland have been plagued by arson fires and nearby Palestinian rioters attempting to breach the Israeli-Gaza border since March—so much so that it prompted Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to resign. That action set off a weeklong frenzy that many believed would culminate in the calling of early elections early next year.
As usual, Netanyahu used his diplomatic skills to maintain his coalition, even winding up garnering the post of defense minister for himself.
A substantial number of Israelis are disappointed with the government’s handling of the rocket attacks, saying the response (or lack of one) only encouraged the enemy. Social media was replete with sarcasm on the weakness of Israel’s reaction to what could have been much more disastrous if the Iron Dome missile-defense system hadn’t been in place, even though that, too, became a target of criticism for not stopping enough of the incoming weaponry.
The prime minister would have entered early elections with a weak hand and been attacked from the right, but now that the crisis appears to be over, Netanyahu has a full year to work on his image. In Israel, a year is a long time—much can happen, including the fading of the voters’ memories.
‘Israel has stopped winning’
One person who tried to jump on the demoralizing bandwagon was Jewish Home Party head and Education Minister Naftali Bennet, who attempted to ride the populist wave of frustration by attacking Netanyahu from the right and demanding the defense portfolio to fix the army’s deficiencies.
“For quite a few years now, including over the last decade of the governments headed by Netanyahu, Israel has stopped winning,” said Bennet. “We restrain and restrain our troops, and our soldiers are now more afraid of the military advocate general than of [Hamas military leader] Yahya Sinwar.”
Bennet’s use of the word “win” echoes U.S. President Donald Trump’s effective use of the word in his 2016 presidential campaign, seeking to rile up Israeli nationalism that could boost his political prospects.
Daniel Pipes, a historian and president of the Middle East Forum think tank, told JNS: “I understand that the prime minister is looking at the larger threats in Israel’s north and beyond that to Iran, and I respect that.”
“But timid Israeli actions prolong Palestinian rejectionism, and Hamas having plausibly declared victory makes it stronger,” argued Pipes.
“A Palestinian defeat—an end of conflict—is now more remote,” he added.
Israeli defense establishment largely backs Netanyahu’s gambit
Still, many of Israel’s defense establishment and experts backed Netanyahu’s play to calm the storm and don’t see a loss in deterrence since Israel remains much more powerful.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, former deputy director of the National Security Council and currently the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, said “the declarations that Hamas won may lead Hamas to the very wrong conclusion that we are weak and irresolute.”
Looking at how Israeli social networks reacted to Lieberman’s resignation, “you could easily come to the same conclusion,” said Lerman.
“This can indeed have dangerous consequences unless we take preemptive actions to make the public realize that the next round may look quite different,” continued Lerman. “The IDF’s ability to hit targets without a massive loss of life should be read as a sign of highly developed capability, not of timidity.”
The issue could resurface at any time of Hamas’s choosing. If its leaders revert to violence at the border, such as setting fire to fields in Israel or launching sporadic rockets, they might take the chance that Israel would be reluctant to respond strongly against them, holding back like this most recent instance.
In the future, Hamas could use what it learned in this round of fighting to its advantage, thinking that Israel seems reluctant to go to war right now. It may test those limits, seeing how far it could go to create internal Israeli tensions without provoking an all-out military clash.