Whether or not this morning’s assassination of an Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza and the retaliatory barrage of rockets fired at the south of the country will escalate into another mini-war in Gaza has yet to be seen. At this stage, the Palestinians are threatening retaliation and Israel is talking tough. Given that cool heads are a rare commodity in this part of the world, things could still get uglier.
What’s already clear is that Benjamin Netanyahu is playing by the book. Creating a security crisis to deflect public attention from political failure is a time-honored tradition in Israel; virtually every prime minister has resorted to it at one point or another. Media pundits have been forecasting a military adventure ever since Netanyahu lost the second 2019 election and failed to cobble together a workable coalition. He is not one to slip away without a fight (though preferably with someone else doing the fighting).
What dictated that Baha Abu al-Ata had to be assassinated today, with Israel’s Attorney General about to announce whether Netanyahu will be indicted for corruption and the country facing the prospect of holding its third election in the space of a year? It’s likely that the precise timing of the assassination was dictated by operational factors, but only the historically illiterate won’t see Netanyahu’s political need behind it. If Israeli intelligence was able to establish al-Ata’s whereabouts with pinpoint accuracy once, they could do it when when indictments and elections are not in the offing.
In fact, the emergence of al-Ata as an existential threat to Israel that had to be eliminated immediately seems entirely contrived; few people outside the intelligence organizations had heard of him until a short while ago. The first mention of him in the archives of Haaretz newspaper is from May this year and the only article dealing with him specifically before today’s assassination is from last week. Previous assassinations have invariably targeted established Palestinian political and military leaders with multiple misdeeds to their names.
What probably happened is that a small-time Palestinian military commander in the northern Gaza Strip began flexing his rocket muscles and annoying Israel at precisely the time that Netanyahu’s mind turned to a military adventure as a means of saving his political career and his reputation. Voila! Al-Ata would be sacrificed in the national interest. Without a defense minister to restrain or second-guess him – Naftali Bennett only took office after the decision to assassinate – Netanyahu had his adventure.
The advantages of provoking a security crisis are two-fold – it distracts the attention of the public from political malfunctions and inadequacies and it tends to unify a fractured electorate around its leaders. Both are desperately needed by Netanyahu, who has been reduced to sitting on the sidelines and contemplating a prison sentence while his rival Benny Gantz attempts to cobble together a coalition.
The September election ended in a virtual dead heat, with a coalition government between Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Gantz’s Blue & White bloc one of the few viable options. Neither of the two is particularly opposed to such a government and they have already agreed to a system of rotation in which each serves a term as prime minister. Where they differ is over who goes first.
Following today’s events in Gaza, Gantz is likely to come under increasing pressure to settle the issue by allowing Netanyahu to serve first. Israel has been ruled by an interim government for almost a year now and the country is getting fed-up with politics. There is little appetite for a third round of elections. Gantz, who received the mandate to form a government after Netanyahu failed to do so, is likely to be seen as the chief offender in the event that new elections are called.
If a coalition government under Netanyahu’s initial leadership emerges from the Gaza violence, his resort to a security crisis will have been a triumphant success. Not only will he retain his natural (if not God-given) post of prime minister, but he will be able to argue – as he has already done – that the prime minister is not obliged to resign if indicted. He could still be with us for a long, long time to come.
For a political leader whose future appeared to be hanging by a thread only a week ago, that’s not a bad achievement.