By the time last week’s fighting was over, sparked by Israel’s assassination of Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata in Gaza, over than 30 Palestinians were dead.
Among the dead were eight members of the A-Sawarka family in Deir al-Balaa who were killed, the army later acknowledged, by mistake. In the Israeli south, along the Gaza periphery, civilians huddled in bomb shelters as hundreds of rockets rained down on their towns. The center of the country, the densely populated area of greater Tel Aviv that is the country’s economic heart, was paralyzed; schools and basic services shut down under home front orders.
The question is, why did Netanyahu order the assassination — knowing the consequences? The answer might be found in the prime minister’s Twitter account.
One day before the Israeli army assassinated Abu al-Ata, Netanyahu tweeted a clip from the September 29th episode of a political talk show, in which Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi answered in the affirmative when asked if his party would bring down a government led by Netanyahu rival, Benny Gantz, should Israel enter another war against Gaza.
Many mainstream news analysts questioned the timing of last week’s attack on the Gaza Strip, the third paroxysm of violence in the past year. But as soon as the retaliatory rockets incapacitated nearly half the country, even Netanyahu’s political rivals and harshest critics fell in line. The Gaza consensus, after all, is wide enough to cozily fit the majority of elected officials from the Zionist left to the extreme right. Even in Meretz, the most left-wing party on the Zionist political spectrum, only few were willing to publicly question whether the extrajudicial killing of Abu al-Ata was worth the cost in human life, or whether assassinating Palestinian leaders can even be considered a short-term solution.
On Saturday night, just two days after the ceasefire went into effect, Netanyahu shifted his wrath from Islamic Jihad to Benny Gantz, the Blue and White party leader, and the Joint List. In an emergency meeting with Likud lawmakers, Netanyahu reportedly called the possibility of an Arab-backed minority government an “emergency that is unprecedented in the history of the State of Israel… It’s a historic danger to Israel’s security. It will gravely hurt the security of Israel.”
Benny Gantz is rumored to be seeking the Joint List’s support for a minority coalition that falls short of the 61 seats required for a majority. If the Joint List agrees, this would allow Gantz to preside over a coalition that has the support of the Arab parties from the outside, without breaching the taboo — in place since Israel’s founding — of bringing them into the government. Gantz has until Wednesday to secure a coalition.
Netanyahu amplified his vitriol on Twitter, writing: “A minority government that is dependent on the Arab parties who want to put our soldiers on trial as ‘war criminals’ = a danger to the State of Israel and a slap in the face of IDF soldiers.’” Likud will hold an emergency rally on Sunday in Tel Aviv to protest “a minority government supported by the Arab parties.” In the wake of Netanyahu’s remarks, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh asked the Knesset Guard for extra security after a photo of him in Islamic Jihad garb was circulated online.
Netanyahu is desperate to stay in power and out of jail. In order to do so, he is carrying out a scorched earth policy to make Israelis feel that they live in a state of emergency and cannot afford change — let alone change that brings Palestinian citizens — whom he consistently identifies as the enemy, into the government.
With corruption indictments closing in on him, Netanyahu is campaigning against Palestinians, whether they are Gaza residents or citizens of Israel. A unity government with Gantz is a better option than fighting a protracted legal battle while sitting in the opposition — with Blue and White receiving the support of his enemies. His campaign in Gaza and his raging against the Joint List are both expressions of a single fear: that he may soon find himself in prison.
His pressure on Blue and White strikes at the Achilles heel of Israel’s center-left. Without Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who are a full fifth of the country’s population, the center-left cannot form a government and topple Netanyahu. With the support of the Joint List, Gantz’s minority government might only last until the next time Israel feels the need to bomb Gaza into temporary submission.
None of this, however, is inevitable – it is merely a reflection of the larger quandary that Israel’s centrist and left-wing Zionist parties find themselves in. The decision to hold millions of people under siege is a deliberate policy that keeps Gazans starved and powerless. Meanwhile, the decision to turn Palestinian members of Knesset — and in turn Israel’s Palestinian citizens — into enemies of the state, is one made by people who have a vested interest in subjugating Israel’s non-Jewish population.
As long as Netanyahu’s opponents continue buying into the notion that the siege on Gaza is preordained, as long as they cannot decide whether to form a real alliance with the Palestinians or with those who seek to dispossess them, there will never be a true, long-term alternative to everything Israel’s longest-serving prime minister represents.