When Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister for the second time in March 2009, it was not long after Israel had conducted three weeks of sustained air attacks on the enclave of Gaza. More than 1,100 Palestinians died in that campaign. About a dozen Israelis also perished, four from friendly fire, the rest from rockets coming from Gaza.
Operation Cast Lead, as it was called, was supposed to eliminate the offensive capabilities of Hamas, the Palestinian political faction that had taken over Gaza the year before. The Israeli operation also featured a ground offensive with thousands of troops and tanks. There was nothing surgical about the strikes or the intervention. At least half of the Palestinian casualties were estimated to be civilians. The U.N.-sponsored Goldstone report identified “actions amounting to war crimes” committed by both sides.
From the start, the conflict pitted David against Goliath, with their Biblical roles reversed. Israel deployed overwhelming force on top of the economic blockade it had imposed on Gaza after Hamas took over. It was the Israeli Goliath that declared a unilateral ceasefire in January 2009 from what it considered a position of strength. Although the Palestinian David didn’t come close to knocking out the Israeli giant, Hamas did manage to survive the onslaught. It has remained in control of Gaza ever since.
Operation Cast Lead took place during the lame-duck period before Barack Obama took over from George W. Bush. The Bush administration followed several decades of U.S. foreign policy by supporting Israel during the conflict, as did Congress. The Obama administration did not substantially deviate from this consensus, but it did attempt modestly to level the playing field by criticizing Israel’s aggressive settlement policy and providing a bit more assistance to the Palestinian Authority.
Netanyahu, when he took over in 2009, understood that Israel could act largely with impunity in Gaza. Because of its militant and fundamentalist orientation, Hamas didn’t generate a lot of warm fuzzy feelings in the West (or even in some quarters of the Palestinian community for that matter). So, Israel felt confident enough to ignore the U.N. inquiry and shrug off the Obama’s administration’s mild criticisms. Meanwhile, it continued to outsource its policing of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority (portrayed in graphic detail in the Israeli TV show Fauda).
In November 2012, Israel launched another attack against Hamas and Gaza—Operation Pillar of Defense—that ended with a ceasefire brokered largely by Egypt. This time, however, Netanyahu was attuned to the political advantages of attacking his nemesis. The prime minister had already called for early elections, which would take place in January 2013. The week-long bombardment of Hamas—on top of the exchange that freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011—made it relatively easy for Netanyahu to win the election and form a new government.
The 2012 ceasefire didn’t last. Both sides continued sporadic attacks, and Israel maintained its economic blockade of Gaza. A reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah led to a unity government for the Palestinians in June 2014, which Netanyahu saw as a threat to his divide-and-conquer tactics.
All of this served as a backdrop to a more sustained third round between Israel and Hamas that took place over the summer of 2014. It was another lopsided conflict that left more than 2,200 Gazans and 73 Israelis dead. Another U.N. report detailed potential war crimes on both sides. And Netanyahu’s Likud scored another political victory in national elections the following March, after the prime minister vowed that he would prevent a Palestinian state if he won.
Bibi is a political survivor. He is now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. He has weathered social protests, a raft of corruption charges, and the persistent condemnation of international authorities for policies that trample the rights of Palestinians and military actions that have killed scores of civilians.
One major reason for his political longevity is the collapse of the Israeli left. The Labor Party has seen a catastrophic drop in its vote totals, and it now has only one more seat in the Knesset than the other left-wing party, Meretz (together the two parties have 13 seats, less than half of what Likud alone controls). To stave off the centrist parties, Netanyahu has at one point or another counted on the political support of actors further to his right, like the Religious Zionist Party and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitanu.
But it’s really been Hamas that has saved Bibi’s skin time and again. In 2009, Hamas served as a justification for steering the country into an even more hard right direction. In 2012, the Israeli government killed Hamas commander Ahmed Jabari, which precipitated the rocket attacks from Gaza that in turn served as the pretext for Operation Pillar of Defense.
This year, Netanyahu could count on Hamas again to launch rocket attacks in response to Israel’s eviction of Palestinians from East Jerusalem, itself part of a much wider effort to displace Palestinians in favor of Jewish settlers, as well as a police raid on al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan prayers. The Palestinian Authority protested both actions. So did the Arab world, the international community, and demonstrators throughout the United States.
But it was Hamas, and its perennial quest to become the face of Palestinian resistance, that once again has served as the anvil for Bibi’s hammer. In the 1980s, Israeli hardliners helped create the organization to divide and weaken the Palestinian movement. Hamas has been a gift to hardliners ever since.
And once again, Palestinians have suffered the most from this confrontation. In the current conflict, the death toll in Gaza has risen above 200, half of them women and children. Around a dozen Israelis have died in the rocket fire from Gaza.
The only winner: Benjamin Netanyahu.
What’s Next for Netanyahu?
Netanyahu has managed to sell himself as indispensable to the Israeli right, which has been ascendant ever since he appeared on the political scene in the 1990s. His alliance with Trump produced nearly everything Israel’s right wing has wanted from the United States. The Trump administration gave the okay to Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and the transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. It supported without reservation the Jewish settlement of the Occupied Territories. It removed funding and recognition from Palestinian entities.
As he promised in 2015, Netanyahu has moved the goalposts in Israel’s struggle with Palestinians to such a degree that the “two-state solution” has practically disappeared from the political agenda. With Israel blockading Gaza and whittling away at Palestinian territory in the West Bank, Palestinians have less and less of a state to stand in. The Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas for as long as Netanyahu has been prime minister, has been incapable of stopping Bibi. Abbas and his Fatah party have lost so much support among Palestinians that they had to postpone elections this year to avoid outright repudiation at the polls. Only Hamas, with a fanaticism equal to Netanyahu’s, has put up any significant resistance.
Netanyahu is seven years younger than Joe Biden and three years younger than Donald Trump. He has no intention of retiring to an olive farm any time soon. He is staying in power not simply because he likes the perquisites of the office like Trump or because he has some vision of “building back better” like Biden.
Bibi dreams of annexing as much of the West Bank as he can, defeating Hamas militarily and politically, and reducing the Palestinian community to nothing more than a source of cheap labor for Israeli farms and factories. Nearly everything he has done geopolitically has been toward that end, like negotiating diplomatic recognition deals with Arab states (UAE, Morocco) and humoring Jared Kushner’s “deal of the century” of buying Palestinian sovereign aspirations with Gulf State largesse. Of course, Netanyahu would also like to see regime change in Iran and the neutering of Hezbollah in Lebanon, but those longer-term goals depend a great deal on factors beyond his immediate control.
Trump was an ideal partner for realizing these dreams. No doubt Bibi imagined that he could continue to change enough facts on the ground during Trump’s second term to reduce Palestine to the level of Abkhazia or, better yet, the former state of Biafra. But for the voters in a few key swing states, Netanyahu nearly got what he wanted.
Meanwhile, in the last two years alone, Israel has had four national elections, and the only constant has been Bibi. The corruption charges against him alone should have doomed his career. He faces three cases of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. In Trumpian fashion, Bibi has tried to turn the tables by asserting that the charges are an “attempted coup.”
In the most recent election, Netanyahu and his allies didn’t win enough votes to form a new coalition government. Opposition leader Yair Lapid was given a chance to form an anti-Netanyahu coalition spanning the political spectrum. He was in the middle of fashioning this unwieldly coalition when the current crisis conveniently (for Netanyahu) broke out.
Biden vs. Bibi
Joe Biden is cut from the same cloth as Obama when it comes to U.S. policy toward Israel. Once elected, Biden quickly restored aid to Palestinian organizations and resumed diplomatic relations with the PLO, though both efforts now run up against provisions enacted by the Trump administration.
But in other respects, Biden has made it clear that he does not want to put additional pressure on Israel. He’s not going to reverse Trump’s moves on the Golan Heights and Jerusalem. He lacks even the lukewarm determination of Obama to push back on Israeli settlements. In the current conflagration, the most he’s willing to do is support a ceasefire, but so far he’s leaving it up to the combatants to find their own way to a settlement.
Netanyahu might have worried that he would be dealing with Obama part two with Biden. Instead, he faces an American president who has no real interest in investing any political capital to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian deal. The Middle East is knocking on America’s door, and Biden is pretending to focus on home repairs.
The problem for Biden is that others want to change the foreign policy consensus on Israel. Criticism of Israeli policy is becoming more commonplace in Congress, with several U.S. politicians now willing to call the socio-ethnic division in the country by its true name: apartheid. Opposition to an over $700 million arms package to Israel was gaining ground within the Democratic Party before the Biden administration managed to persuade the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to reverse his plea to postpone the deal. Meanwhile, protests in solidarity with Palestinians are spreading around the United States, with an astonishing 4,000 people mobilizing in Patterson, New Jersey.
Even within the American Jewish community, the disgust with Netanyahu and the direction he has taken Israel has become palpable. Peter Beinart, who has been forced by Israel’s occupation and settlement policies to reevaluate his liberal Zionism, recently wrote in The New York Times in support of a Palestinian right of return as a first step in rewinding the historic injustices that Netanyahu has only aggravated.
But, of course, Beinart is not the Israeli prime minister. Nor is he the U.S. president or even the head of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. His views, however commendable, lack any traction among the powerful in Washington and Jerusalem. For now, at least.
Just before the current violence broke out, Netanyahu was facing the prospect of a broad coalition forming a new government and ousting him from his position. That coalition fell apart shortly after the conflict commenced. So, either Netanyahu will manage to woo a couple more politicians to join his camp or there will soon be yet another election. Either way, as in 2013, Netanyahu will likely solidify his hold on power thanks to his hardline approach to Hamas.
It’s hard not to conclude that the Israeli prime minister deliberately stoked tensions and escalated the conflict for his own political benefit. Bibi has been wagging the dog practically since he took office.
After each cycle of divisive politics within Israel and fratricidal violence between Israel and Palestine, Netanyahu has emerged victorious. To break the cycle of violence that has engulfed the region in 2009, 2012, 2014, and now today, the Israeli opposition has to break Netanyahu politically once and for all.
Given how right-wing the political climate has become in Israel, defeating Netanyahu won’t immediately end settlements, lift the blockade on Gaza, or usher in the right of return for Palestinians. Indeed, many Israelis are willing to support political forces even more right-wing and militant than Netanyahu.
But the dozen years of Netanyahu’s reign have been a terrible era for Palestine, a second nakba, a death by a thousand cuts. Sending Bibi into retirement would create at least a chance of something new and perhaps something better.