How Hamas has become Netanyahu’s savior
Just as 12 years of unbroken Benjamin Netanyahu premiership seemed only hours away from coming to an end, it was Hamas — inadvertently or perhaps even deliberately — that threw him one more lifeline. As recently as the beginning of this month, Israel’s prime minister seemed destined for a seat on the opposition benches, as President Reuven Rivlin tasked the leader of Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid, with the arduous but not impossible job of forming a coalition.
Admittedly, what united the forces that were edging toward forming a government until hostilities broke out with the Palestinians was the desire to bring the curtain down on the desperate, divisive and allegedly corrupt Netanyahu’s time in office. Such an administration would have been a collection of parties that ideologically have very little in common, but the importance of bringing in the post-Netanyahu era has its own immense value in addressing the domestic and international challenges the country is facing.
For now, this tiny window of opportunity to see the back of Netanyahu appears to have closed, as the renewed violence between Israel and the Palestinians played into the hands of Netanyahu at the moment he needed it most. Some argue that he orchestrated the recent round of bloodshed with the Palestinians to save his political career and manipulate his corruption trial, or even stop it. This is a very unlikely scenario, though his prolonged time in office has been a decisive factor in creating the conditions that led to the disturbing scenes we have witnessed in the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and throughout Israel in recent weeks.
Whenever Israel faces a crisis with the Palestinians, its default option is to retain Netanyahu at the helm — though the deadly encounters of the last fortnight have exposed the failure of all the governments led by Netanyahu, both in terms of serving Israel’s security interests and the loss of the country’s moral compass, and with it the support of many across the world. If any further evidence was required to show that Israel needs new leadership and a new direction, the events of recent weeks have provided plenty.
In Jerusalem, the Israeli myth of a united city where Jews and Palestinians live in harmony has exploded, with the divisions now more apparent than ever before, along with the arbitrary treatment of the Palestinians who live there. Inside Israel, Netanyahu’s bravado during the recent general election campaign, in claiming how much he was loved by Palestinian citizens and greeted by them as “Abu Yair,” a term of endearment, was exposed as a fantasy both by his poor showing at the ballot box among the Palestinian population in Israel and by the more recent violent clashes between Jews and Palestinians.
Violence from either side must be condemned in the strongest terms, but it also serves as a reminder of Netanyahu’s role in driving a wedge between Jews and the Palestinians living in Israel during his time in office through the incitement and vilification of the Palestinians. He has also stoked the rise of the far right and corroborated, via the racist Nation State Law, the discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian minority. And the resounding failure in Gaza, for someone who has on several occasions in the last 12 years proclaimed Israel’s final victory over Hamas, is glaring. He has brought excruciating suffering to the people of this small enclave, fueling hatred that will take a very long time to recede, while Hamas remains undefeated. In the process, Israel’s reputation in the eyes of the world has been tarnished by the face of the death and devastation it has dealt out to one of the world’s most impoverished communities. Such have been the consequences of Israel so eagerly falling into the trap that Hamas and Islamic Jihad laid.
If Netanyahu’s ongoing trial on serious corruption charges more than justified calls for him to be suspended from his prime ministerial duties, his handling of this recent crisis has only further underlined the country’s desperate need for new leadership. Yet, as on so many previous occasions, there has been a failure on the part of the parties that oppose him to mobilize enough support to present an alternative leader. And, when push comes to shove, they get cold feet. It is as if they are afraid to take on the responsibility of leading the country as they fall under the spell of Netanyahu’s promises, which they know full well will be broken, or as they buckle under pressure from within their own parties or supporters and fall back into Netanyahu’s open and deceitful arms.
The renewed violence between Israel and the Palestinians played into the prime minister’s hands at the moment he needed it most.
At this juncture in Israeli politics, the war with Hamas provided Netanyahu with the perfect backdrop: A crisis that has enabled him to claim that the country requires both an experienced leader and a hawkish one — in other words, himself. The so-called “change” bloc is admittedly too heterogeneous to sustain a government for a full term, but it could have at least rebooted Israeli politics and society in a post-Netanyahu era. Lapid was prepared, unlikely as it seemed, to form a rotating government with himself serving as prime minister after two years of Yamina’s Naftali Bennett in this role, even though Lapid commands a party of 17 MKs to Bennet’s seven.
Nevertheless, during the fog of war, Yamina lost its nerve and, although its leaders Bennett and Ayelet Shaked personally despise Netanyahu, their lack of courage and leadership led them to cave in, both to their supporters and their ideological rigidity, which dictates a refusal to cooperate with Arab parties and even the soft left. It remains to be seen whether New Hope, led by Gideon Sa’ar, another ex-Likud figure who promised to never again join a Netanyahu government, will make a similar U-turn.
In the protracted tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hamas and Netanyahu have become brothers in arms, serving as each other’s raison d’etre. If nothing else, the last few weeks have conclusively demonstrated that Israel needs a new government and a new direction.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.