The assassination, via targeted rocket strike, of a leader of the Islamic Jihad movement threatens to escalate the conflict in the Gaza – though it may also have the unintended effect of ending the deadlocked electoral situation in Israel.
Baha Abu al-Ata had been described as a ‘ticking time’ bomb by Israeli military. His assassination had been discussed for years prior to the successful attack on November 12.
The Islamic Jihad responded to the attack by firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, injuring 63 civilians, according to media reports from the region. Israel returned fire, killing 34, including 16 civilians, according to Gaza health officials.
As of Thursday morning, a ceasefire has been established between the state of Israel and the Islamic Jihad. However, reports from the region describe it as ‘fragile’.
While the recent flare-up has raised fears of a new all-out conflict between Israel and Palestinian factions in Gaza – which has seen three major Israeli military operations in the past decade – it may also motivate a sense of national cohesion.
Unity for Unity’s sake
Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was typically combative in his comments on the situation, saying on Wednesday that Islamic Jihad must stop its rocket attacks or “absorb more and more blows”. Netanyahu will be looking towards a possible third round of election this year and solidifying his base.
For the moment, however, the baton rests with Benny Gantz, the Blue and White party leader, although not for much longer. Gantz has just four days to secure a coalition, or else the government must either seek another candidate, or call new elections.
To the secure the long sought-after alliance, Gantz met with a potential ally on Thursday: chairman of the secular-nationalist Yisrael Beytenu party, Avigdor Liberman. The meeting itself had to be postponed because of the rocket attacks: it was originally due to take place on Tuesday.
Gantz, exiting the meeting, expressed his priority was to avoid another election, but did not give any sense that the they had moved forward with forming a coalition. This is not too surprising, given that Gantz and Liberman are at odds on what to do with the outgoing prime minister, Netanyahu.
Liberman has proposed, with the president’s backing, that Gantz and Netantayu would form a unity government together. However, Gantz and the party’s co-leader, Yair Lapid have said they refuse to serve under a prime minister undergoing investigation (Netanyahu is currently begin investigated for three counts of corruption).
Gantz, for his part – perhaps predictably – blamed Netanyahu for the deadlock. “Netanyahu continues to maintain the bloc and to strive for elections,” he said. “I have made my position clear regarding all options on the table. I am prepared to consider any option that aligns with my principles regarding indictment.
“We have scheduled to meet again at the beginning of next week. We do not want elections and we will make every effort until the last minute to avoid them,” he added.
As the deadline approaches, Gantz must make decision, while the potential options continue to shrink.
Initially, Gantz floated the option of seeking to form a minority government with the backing of the Arab parties. The chances of that happening now are now slim-to-none following the rocket attacks and resulting civilian casualties. In fact, the Arab-majority Joint List have spent the last few days holding protests following the attacks, and described Israeli attacks as constituting a war crime.
The flareup in Gaza has also motivated president Reuven Rivlin to put additional pressure on Gantz to quickly find a resolution, and has backed Liberman’s proposal for a unity government. This would mean a power-sharing deal, in which Netanyahu would serve as prime minister for half the term followed by Gantz.
It’s a proposal that Gantz has blackballed but, increasingly, appears to be his sole option, short of plunging the country into an unprecedented third election within a single year. If Gantz can’t avoid another election, the recent strife along the border may sway the results in the next election definitively to the right. In this case, we would be likely to see another Netanyahu-lead government.
If that happens, Gantz’s refusal to form a unity government with his rival cost him a place at the executive level of government.