Was this week’s Gaza conflict a political success for Netanyahu?

Even the greatest admirers of Netanyahu could not help but think that the timing of the operation was brilliantly convenient for the prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [M] and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett [R] speaking with IDF officers  (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [M] and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett [R] speaking with IDF officers
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Was this week’s conflict in the South a political success for Netanyahu?
Even politicians who detest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a passion admitted in private conversations this week that they do not believe he actually ordered the targeted assassination of Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu al-Ata for personal political reasons.
But even the greatest admirers of Netanyahu could not help but think that the timing of the operation was brilliantly convenient for the prime minister. They might have felt guilty for thinking it, but they still thought it.
In a stormy Knesset session Wednesday attended by Netanyahu, Arab and Meretz MKs accused the prime minister of purposely killing al-Ata to help himself politically.
What’s important to note, however, is that Blue and White MKs have made a point of not making that allegation.
But let’s temporarily forget about all the denials that any political considerations were taken into account when the strike that killed the arch-terrorist was authorized and approved. It doesn’t really matter anyway.
Whether the reasons were political or not, the political impact of the assassination cannot be denied.
SO WAS there gain from what happened in Gaza for Netanyahu? Was the hit a hit?
The answer depends on what would be considered a political achievement for the prime minister at this stage.
Netanyahu’s obvious main political goal right now is to survive politically and remain prime minister for as long as he can. To that end, if the assassination resulted in Blue and White leader Benny Gantz agreeing to let him remain prime minister for another year, the targeted killing was right on target.
It appeared that way at first. Initial reports said Blue and White was giving up the option of forming a minority government backed from outside the coalition by a parliamentary safety net. Taking that option away would give the Likud leverage.
Causing a rift inside Blue and White’s leadership “cockpit” would also be a significant accomplishment caused by the killing. There were initial reports that MKs Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon were shifting sides to Gantz’s view from Yair Lapid’s and agreeing to let Netanyahu go first in a rotation in the Prime Minister’s Office.
But by late Wednesday night, both of those accomplishments eroded. The rift in the cockpit was resolved, the minority government was back on the table, and Gantz went back to playing hard to get in a speech in Sderot.
“I call for unity at every opportunity, and I am making every effort toward forming a unity government, but there are a lot of important things in the State of Israel: there are principles and values, there is the law and there are democratic aspects,” he said. “Unity should serve all national interests and not just one challenging situation.”
The timing of the assassination may have also been too early to help Netanyahu with coalition talks. No real movement is expected on forming a government until Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit announces whether he will indict Netanyahu. By then, al-Ata will likely cease to be a household name.
So if gaining from Gaza politically means coalition talks going in the right direction for Netanyahu, the answer is apparently not. But if it means something else important to the prime minister, the answer could be yes.
First of all, Netanyahu got revenge against his new defense minister, Naftali Bennett. Netanyahu told Likud ministers that he saw the way Bennett got the post by flirting with Gantz as political blackmail. He said he had no choice but to give Bennett the job and made clear that he still does not like him.
The assassination taking place some six hours before Bennett began his post, while Netanyahu remained defense minister, showed Bennett who is boss, even if that was very far from Netanyahu’s actual intention.
Bennett started the job in the middle of the fire that Netanyahu started, and anything he manages to do in the few weeks he serves in the post will likely be dwarfed by the current IDF operation that Netanyahu will be credited for, especially if the result remains that no Israelis were killed in the assassination’s aftermath.
Netanyahu snubbed Bennett in the first press conference explaining the operation on Tuesday. He was there with IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, while Bennett was noticeably absent.
The pictures circulated of Netanyahu and Bennett together on Wednesday were another reminder that while Bennett now has a fancy title, Netanyahu is in charge of Israel’s security. Pictures released by the Prime Minister’s Office depicted Netanyahu flanked by Kochavi and national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, without Bennett.
Second of all, Netanyahu also got political revenge against al-Ata himself. The terrorist was not a politician, of course, but he was a player in Israeli politics.
Islamic Jihad under his leadership ordered the firing of a rocket that forced Netanyahu offstage in a campaign rally in Ashdod on September 10, one week before the election. That incident was embarrassing for Netanyahu, and may have lost him the Prime Minister’s Office.
Netanyahu reportedly demanded al-Ata’s immediate assassination, but was prevented by IDF and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chiefs and Mandelblit. It took a while longer, but Netanyahu got his revenge against al-Ata.
The final political impact of the assassination was unity. No, not a unity government. Real unity among the people.
There is nothing like a military operation to unite Israelis, even after nearly a year of divisive, petty politics.
That togetherness was obviously not Netanyahu’s goal. But it was a welcome breather from the heightened political discourse while it lasted.
That is an advantage Israelis have over Americans. With no real security threats to the United States, they are condemned to hyperpolarization, with no end in sight.
We, on the other hand, are always one security deterioration away from remembering that there is a lot more that matters in the game of life than the pursuit of political points.
Whether Netanyahu, Gantz and the rest of the political leaders who are on the brink of bringing the country to an unprecedented third election will remember that, now that the rockets have stopped, remains to be seen.