The commander of the Islamic Jihad in Gaza Bahaa Abu al-Ata deserved death. Of that there can be no doubt. But targeted assassinations of people of his level of seniority require both the necessary and the sufficient conditions to go forward. On the necessary side, the military provides to the government on a daily basis windows of opportunity when such actions can happen with a reasonable chance of success and an acceptable level of military risk. The sufficient condition is met when the government, at the highest level, approves the action.
With that in mind, we can legitimately ask the question that Israeli media is not yet asking because politics in Israel is set aside for a short while when the rockets start to fly: why now? The military answer is clear; this was a carefully planned operation, prepared over many months, that had to happen now because of where Abu al-Ata was and with whom. The political answer is more complex and more interesting. It involves the pincer movement in which the military strategist Gantz had been attacking the political strategist Netanyahu. On the left, Gantz had the labor unions, the rich secular Ashkenazi elites who yearn for foreign approval, all the usual suspects. This alone would have been quite insufficient to unseat Netanyahu, so Gantz came up with a strategy to outflank Bibi on the right as well as on the left. Surrounding himself with a full cadre of retired generals and with full support from the well-known “hawk” Lieberman, Gantz pushed the narrative that Netanyahu was “weak on Gaza”. If he were prime minister, Gantz was saying, he would be much tougher on the Hamas and the various terror factions in the territory. He and his merry generals would “show them”.
The Israeli left is substantially finished playing a decisive role in Israeli politics, but the attack from the right has been rather successful and cost the Likud seats in the new Knesset. Furthermore, now, during the final stages of the coalition negotiations, the military bona fides of Gantz and co. provided him with a shield of sorts against attacks from the right and allowed him to at least bluff in the direction of forming a narrow left minority government that would rely on the votes of the Arab faction in the Knesset to pas legislation. This alternative to forming a national unity government with the Likud gave Gantz much leverage in the negotiations.
Until now. The elimination of Abu al-Ata and, to date, 22 other terrorists while (again, to date) successfully defending the home front puts things in a totally different light. While the Arab members of the Knesset have been so far uncharacteristically quiet, every one knows where their loyalties lie and it is neither with the IDF personnel carrying out offensive and defensive operations in and around Gaza, nor with the Jewish Israelis who are on the receiving end of rockets fired from the territory. Their loyalties, as a matter of fact, are firmly with the terrorists who fire these rockets and they will not be able to remain silent much longer before they make these loyalties even more abundantly clear.
By executing the attack on the top Gaza terrorist at this time, Netanyahu rendered impotent any claims that he is soft on Gaza and received the appropriate and inevitable experssion of support for the operation from Benny Gantz. Additionally, he has made any possibility of Gantz relying on the votes of Arab MK’s all but impossible; such a government might as well rely on the votes of the Hamas or the Islamic Jihad for survival. A day or so before the operation in Gaza, Netanyahu prepared the political battlefield by opining that any reliance on Arab MK’s in the parliament is spitting in the faces of IDF soldiers. Yair Lapid from the left wing of Gantz’s Blue and White party who served in the IDF in the “combat” role of a “journalist” for the military publication “BaMahane”, a cushy job arranged for him by his well-known journalist father, reflexively condemned Bibi’s comments. Recent events prove Bibi to have been absolutely correct and Lapid to have been nothing but a useful idiot for Israel’s enemies.
Gantz has just over a week left to form a government and his leverage, his “BATNA” (best alternative to negotiated solution) of forming a narrow Arab supported government has just been taken away from him. Now, he has two options: form a government with the Likud and Netanyahu taking the first turn as PM for two years (an eternity in politics), or going to another election in March, with Netanyahu staying in the PM office until then and very likely thereafter as well. The option of unseating Netanyahu, the one task for which Gantz had been recruited by the Israeli Left, is now firmly out of his reach.
Oh, but there is a third option: Lieberman, the “make Gaza a parking lot” chickenhawk, may soon figure out that he is quickly headed for political irrelevance, a piece of real estate he has managed to avoid for decades. With that in mind, should Gantz play hardball in his negotiations with Bibi, Lieberman may yet join a 63 MK right-religious coalition headed by Netanyahu. After all, losing a political gambit is preferable to losing a political career.
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