Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Palestinian women and children fled their homes in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City Wednesday, after Israel airdropped leaflets warning people to leave the area.

Two political casualties of Gaza conflict: Netanyahu and Abbas

The Israeli prime minister and Palestinian Authority president have both argued for restraint – and are paying the price.

The Palestinian death toll has topped 200 and Israel lost its first civilian in the Gaza conflict after Hamas rejected a cease-fire yesterday and Israel responded by stepping up airstrikes.

Two major casualties not included in that tally, however, are Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Both leaders face rising political threats, in part due to the restraint they have exercised in recent weeks. Their opponents are arguing for tougher action, stances that are gaining traction on both sides and could further undermine any diplomatic initiatives in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even after the skies are quiet again.

Mr. Netanyahu, who has resisted significant public and political pressure for more aggressive action in Gaza, risked significant political capital to support a cease-fire yesterday.

“He is paying the full price, no discounts,” wrote veteran political journalist Yossi Verter in the liberal Haaretz newspaper, calling him the “tragic hero” of the conflict. 

Meanwhile, Mr. Abbas, who has pegged his career on nonviolence and negotiations with Israel, has been at best forgotten as Hamas’s popularity skyrockets with every barrage of rockets. But many see Abbas as worse than ineffective, a puppet in Israel’s pocket who is working against Palestinian interests. Yesterday, Abbas’s minister of health was shooed out of Gaza by angry protesters, some of whom were chanting, “[Abbas] is a collaborator!”

Netanyahu under attack 

Since Israel accused Hamas of being behind the June 12 kidnapping and subsequent murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, Netanyahu faced calls for a serious retaliation against the Islamist movement, especially as rocket fire increased.

After an attempt to deescalate the situation on the Gaza border, promising that “quiet will be returned with quiet,” Netanyahu launched Operation Protective Edge July 8. Eight days into the fighting, Palestinian casualties were about 20 percent higher than the eight-day Gaza conflict in November 2012, and at least 20 percent of Hamas’s rocket capabilities were destroyed, according to the Israeli military. That leaves Hamas with as many as 8,000 rockets, however – enough to keep up current rates of fire for about two months.

Netanyahu’s push to accept Egypt’s cease-fire proposal yesterday, which was upheld by his security cabinet, drew intense criticism not only from other political parties but his own as well.  

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman who just last week ended a coalition between his Israel Beitenu party and Netanyahu’s Likud, called his own press conference to lambast the decision.

"A full takeover of the Gaza Strip is Israel's only course forward," said Lieberman.

Another of the most pointed attacks came from Likud's Danny Danon, who as deputy defense minister was one of the most prominent members of a young guard within the party that has increasingly challenged Netanyahu. The prime minister fired him for his criticism.

Mr. Danon continued his attack immediately upon his dismissal, accusing Netanyahu of feebleness and defeatism and charging that he failed to react strongly enough when the three Israeli teenagers were killed.

Abbas pushed off the map

Abbas was on the defensive going into the Gaza conflict for condemning the kidnappings of the Israeli teenagers and insisting on continued Palestinian Authority security coordination with Israel. And while, like Netanyahu, he supported the cease-fire, he has struggled to show his people the tangible benefits on nonviolence and negotiations.

Meanwhile, Hamas is enjoying a significant boost in popularity, even as some Palestinians in Gaza criticize the group for provoking Israel.

“I never loved Hamas, and never will, but I really admire them,” businessman Hammam Ahmed told the Monitor’s Gaza correspondent last week. “They die to let people live."

While Abbas and Netanyahu expressed distrust toward each other at the negotiating table, they now find themselves in very similar positions, arguing for restraint in the face of the increasingly popular hard-line forces around them.

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