Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu al-Ata has been in the IDF’s crosshairs for a long time. His assassination was considered over a year ago, and the IDF’s final determination to carry it out was decided – together with Prime Minister and then-defense minister Benjamin Netanyahu – 10 days ago. And while the IDF’s considerations were apparently free of politics, there will likely be political reverberations to the actions taken in the middle of the government-forming period.
“This might take time,” Netanyahu said. “We have to let the IDF do their work.”
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Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has eight days left until his deadline to form a government, and President Reuven Rivlin cannot legally give him an extension.
In a video addressed to the citizens of Israel, Gantz reassured the public that the strike on Gaza was not political, and had to be carried out even if the timing was difficult politically.
“For the sake of Israel’s security, the political and security echelons are often tasked with making difficult decisions, while taking into account the potential ramifications,” he said. “Such was the decision to execute last night’s operation, on which I was briefed ahead of time. This was an appropriate decision, both politically and operationally.
“I would like to emphasize that Blue and White, led by me, will always put the safety of our citizens first,” Gantz added. “This action will have no impact on the political advances taking place.”
Those accusing Netanyahu of allowing the operation to move forward now for political reasons – like the Joint List and some MKs in Labor-Gesher and Democratic Union – might point to Avigdor Liberman’s remarks in an interview with Walla News, in which he said that he wanted the assassination to happen last year, when he was defense minister, but Netanyahu blocked his decision.
Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin then all but confirmed it was true, in response to a question from Channel 12, saying he was surprised Liberman would reveal classified contents of a Security Cabinet meeting.
It must be said, though, that if Netanyahu was doing this for political reasons, he could have picked better timing. Gantz currently has the mandate to form a government. If this suddenly inspires Likud and Blue and White to put their differences aside and form a unity government, then Gantz would legally be prime minister first, which is not what Netanyahu wants.
If the IDF had its eye on al-Ata for so long, the ideal political timing for Netanyahu could have been three weeks ago, when he still had the mandate, or even in May, when he was struggling to convince Liberman to join a right-wing coalition.
The only advantage for Netanyahu that happened specifically on Tuesday, November 12, is that it embarrassed new defense minister Naftali Bennett, who Netanyahu can’t stand. Bennett officially took the job eight hours after the strike took place; Netanyahu held a news conference with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and left Bennett out.
There is one political option that has come up in recent weeks that could be taken off the table due to the latest events, and that is the possibility of Gantz forming a minority government supported from the outside by the Joint List.
From the get-go, it was not the most likely scenario. This was something that had happened only once before, when prime minister Yitzhak Rabin needed Arab parties’ votes for the Oslo Accords.
The Arab parties, now merged as the Joint List, have historically not wanted to be part of any coalition or government because they do not view Israel’s status as a Jewish state as legitimate, and do not want to be a party to policies toward the Palestinians. But they were willing to consider it now, in order to get Netanyahu out of office after a consecutive decade.
The feelings within Blue and White were very mixed when it came to a minority government. The Telem Party within the bloc fiercely opposed it; leader and former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon was able to swallow using the option as leverage in coalition negotiations, but some of its MKs wouldn’t even countenance that. And there were voices within Gantz’s own Israel Resilience Party as well that strongly opposed relying on the Joint List for a government. The reasoning was similar to that of the Joint List in the past: the Arab parties don’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and they identify with the Palestinians to the point of defending the actions of terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Just like any time there is an escalation in Gaza, those differences on Tuesday between the Joint List and much of the rest of the Knesset were laid bare. The Joint List weren’t the only ones to accuse Netanyahu of political cynicism, but they were the only ones who didn’t temper it with support for the IDF and wishing safety to Israelis in the line of Gazan rocket fire.
MK Ofer Cassif called targeted assassinations – a policy Gantz has called for Israel to implement – “morally wrong”; MK Sami Abou Shahadeh called the latest actions in Gaza “collective punishment”; and MK Mtanes Shehadeh said “Palestinian blood is taken advantage of for Israeli politics.” And those are just a few examples, to add to many more over the years.
If some Blue and White MKs were previously willing to ignore the deep differences between them and the Joint List for a shared goal – getting rid of Netanyahu – now that will be much harder to do.
Gantz may have said “this action will have no impact on the political advances taking place,” but it is almost guaranteed to narrow his options and rid him of what little leverage he had in negotiations with Netanyahu.