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Why cease-fire with Hamas has formed cracks in Israeli coalition

Why We Wrote This

How responsive should leaders be to their citizens’ passions? It’s a delicate balance, and the prudent course can be politically perilous: Israel’s cease-fire with Hamas almost brought down the government.

Ammar Awad/Reuters
Israelis, mostly residents of southern towns near the Gaza Strip, take part in a protest against the cease-fire with Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Nov. 15, 2018.

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The Israel-Gaza border, scene of costly wars and deadly skirmishes in recent years, has been heating up for months. Even as both sides worked to reduce tensions, they teetered on the edge of a new war last week, with hundreds of rockets fired from Gaza and Israeli airstrikes pulverizing Hamas targets. But when a truce was in the end reached, many Israeli residents of the border region did not welcome the news, feeling their security needs were being neglected. “I thought it was a joke,” says Moran-Hila Madmoni, a resident of Sderot who spent a night in a shelter as the rockets flew overhead. “We feel like we are alone.” Such sentiments, widely shared in the area, translated almost immediately into a government crisis, and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s seemingly invincible “Mr. Security,” came close to falling. Says Abraham Diskin, a political science professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem: “I think Netanyahu understands there is no total solution” to the conflict with Hamas, “so he is looking instead for some kind of equilibrium ... where things are better both for us and for them because the longer the quiet can last, the better.”

In a room of her home that doubles as a bomb shelter, Moran-Hila Madmoni spent a night last week on a crowded fold-out sofa bed with her husband, two young sons, and a family of stuffed animals.

Above them, a barrage of rockets reeled through the air toward Sderot, their town on Israel’s southern border with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

They awoke the next morning to news that almost 500 rockets had been fired from Gaza and others were continuing to fall – but that plans for a truce were being squeezed out between the Israeli government and Hamas to stop this most recent burst of cross-border fighting.

The news did not bring relief.

“I thought it was a joke,” says Ms. Madmoni of her immediate reaction. “It’s the hardest thing in the world, we feel like we are alone.”

That sense of despair, widely shared in the region of southern Israel adjacent to Gaza, led to a sudden and powerful challenge to the security-minded leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who for several days has teetered on the edge of being forced into early elections but who claimed Monday that he still had the backing to govern.

“We in the southern border area have always supported Bibi,” Madmoni says, using Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname. “And we feel like he betrayed us, he has betrayed our security and the security of our children.”

The residents’ anger had been brewing for months before the rocket barrage, as violence intensified along the Gaza border. More than 150 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, some in mass demonstrations organized by Hamas to protest Israel’s economic blockade of the overcrowded coastal strip. Thousands of acres of Israeli land have burned, set afire by Palestinian incendiary balloons.

A political opening

Following news of the truce, which they saw as the government’s capitulation to terrorism, several hundred residents of the south who for years have suffered the brunt of Hamas rocket attacks gathered in central Tel Aviv Thursday near the Defense Ministry to demand a harsher and “definitive” military response to Hamas

Their cause translated almost immediately into a government crisis as right-wing and even centrist coalition members, sensing a political opening, seized on the perceived sense of weakness that Netanyahu, Israel’s seemingly invincible “Mr. Security,” had given off by agreeing to the truce.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, furious his objection to the cease-fire and call for another massive military operation against Hamas had been overruled, resigned. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who has repeatedly sought to outflank Netanyahu from the right, demanded the defense portfolio in order to keep his party in the coalition.

Yet a head-spinning week that began with Israel teetering on the edge of war with Gaza and flirting with the likelihood of early elections ended with Netanyahu still in power. The elephant in the room, however, remains: Israel’s on and off war with Hamas – unwinnable, analysts say, without Israel paying a high price in soldiers’ lives.

“It's similar to Vietnam in some ways as it feels like a quagmire, a place Israelis don’t want to be involved with, but don’t know how to get out of,” says Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion analyst and pollster. “But I don’t subscribe to the Israeli government position that Gaza can be treated in isolation from the West Bank. They are both part of the Palestinian national consciousness and the only way to address the issue is to reach a long-term political arrangement, remote as that possibility seems right now.”

In a moment of unusual candor, Tzachi Hanegbi, a government minister and member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio last week that an all-out confrontation with Hamas in Gaza would lead to the deaths of at least 500 Israeli soldiers.

And if there is one thing the Israeli public is most sensitive to, it is the specter of those young soldiers coming home in coffins.

Even Israeli military officials have made clear the futility of a purely military response. The Israeli security services themselves were reportedly unanimous in recommending the truce with Hamas, a reminder that the prudent course is often politically perilous.

‘No magic solution’

And Netanyahu, for all of his own reputation for being a hard-liner and his army service in a special forces unit, which he recounted in detail in a statement broadcast nationally Sunday night as he tried to stave off the brewing political rebellion, has tried to avoid large-scale military confrontations.

“The general feeling we have to deal with is there is a terror group that is hurting people in the south, a phenomenon of almost 20 years, and there is no solution. And that is extremely difficult to deal with,” says Abraham Diskin, a political science professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“I think Netanyahu understands there is no total solution,” he says, “so he is looking instead for some kind of equilibrium ... where things are better both for us and for them because the longer the quiet can last, the better.”

Ben Caspit, a longtime columnist, was more critical of Netanyahu in an article in the daily Maariv: “The problem with our prime minister is that he cannot look directly at reality and admit it: to tell the truth to the public.… There is no magic solution to Gaza, and we have no one to give it to. So let’s swallow our pride and move on.”

Netanyahu, who has served 12 years as prime minister, is on the verge of overtaking Israel’s founder David Ben-Gurion as the nation’s longest-serving prime minister. Even amid this most recent political storm, polls show his ruling Likud party easily winning enough seats to keep his office secure.

Netanyahu’s approach has been to manage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than trying to solve it. In turn, some argue, there is a declining belief among Israelis that there is a political solution.

Ms. Scheindlin, the pollster and analyst, explains it this way: “All they (Israelis) see is the problem of Gaza and Hamas. They don’t see a political policy problem. They see Hamas as terrorists who must be met with force.… They don’t connect the dots that Gaza is a mess because of Israeli and Palestinian political mess-ups.”

Optics of asymmetry

Israel has what is considered the strongest army in the Middle East, while Hamas, despite its own growing firepower, remains a militarily and economically inferior opponent. But it is precisely that asymmetry in fighting power that has continually damaged Israel’s international image. And it has added to a sense of humiliation and frustration for Israelis looking for a definitive end to the rocket attacks that upend their lives, even if the injury and death toll is vastly lower than that inflicted on Palestinians, most of them civilians, every time Israeli warplanes thunder across the border.

Mix those considerations in with the ongoing border fence protests and violence, and observers say it’s easy to understand why Netanyahu accepted a recent Egypt-brokered deal in which Israel agreed to ease its blockade and also permitted Qatar to transfer millions of dollars in aid to Hamas.

But despite Netanyahu’s characteristic caution, this most recent political crisis appeared to take him by surprise and may make him more likely to shoot first the next time tensions turn violent with Hamas.

For Madmoni, the situation has become untenable, and she says she and other southern residents will only crank up the pressure.

“We feel like we are soldiers in civilian uniform,” she says. “I want our politicians to finally wake up.”

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