Operation Unity Government: 7 things to know for November 12
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Operation Unity Government: 7 things to know for November 12

As right and left debate whether IDF elimination of PIJ leader was politically motivated, most agree the strike all but put to bed chance of a Gantz-led minority government

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Palestinians inspect the damaged house of Islamic Jihad leader Baha Abu Al-Ata afther an Israeli attack in Gaza city, on November 12, 2019. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
Palestinians inspect the damaged house of Islamic Jihad leader Baha Abu Al-Ata afther an Israeli attack in Gaza city, on November 12, 2019. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

1. Operation Protective Bloc: While major military operations typically enjoy broad support from politicians and Jewish Israelis across the political spectrum, this does not appear to be the case after the IDF’s assassination of senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata, with many on the left having a hard time ignoring the fact that the move places Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a better political position than rival Benny Gantz as the Blue and White chairman works to form a coalition.

  • Playing on the Hebrew name for the 2014 Gaza operation launched by Israel, Haaretz political correspondent Chaim Levinson calls the IDF strike this morning “Operation Gush Eitan,” or Strong bloc. This as opposed to Operation Tzuk Eitan (Protective Edge). The joke apparently is that Netanyahu’s bloc of right wing parties that Gantz is trying to break apart in order to form a coalition has now gotten stronger as Gantz is forced to compromise in light of the security situation… It works better in Hebrew…. It works better in Hebrew.
  • Left-wing pundit and former Peace Now CEO Yariv Oppenheimer calls the operation, “Peace of the Bibi,” playing off of the name for Israel’s “Peace of the Galilee” operation during the 1982 Lebanon war. The insinuation being made is that a broad military operation during a time of political deadlock will force Gantz to compromise on his demand to, at the very least, be first to serve as prime minister in a rotational agreement with Netanyahu; and instead agree to form a broad unity government controlled by the Likud leader in order to bring the political stability needed to properly address the escalating security situation.
  • Ayman Odeh, who leads the Joint List alliance of predominantly Arab parties, slammed Netanyahu, accusing him of killing Abu al-Ata for political gain. “A cynical man who lost two consecutive elections will leave only scorched earth in a desperate attempt to remain in office,” Odeh tweets. “For ten years he has gotten up every morning with the aim of deepening the occupation [of the West Bank] and distancing the chances for peace.”
  • Labor-Gesher MK Omer Bar-Lev tells the Kan public broadcaster he is concerned that the killing was ordered to prevent Gantz from forming a minority coalition government. “There were many opportunities in recent months to carry out targeted killings,” Bar Lev says, but he claims, Netanyahu chose not to go ahead. “Therefore, just now, seven days before the mandate ends for Gantz to form a government, [when] they do a targeted killing it really, really bothers me.”

2. Quit being a cynical Cindy: Those who are not buying the analysis include Gantz himself, whose party says he was made privy of the army’s plans ahead of time. The Blue and White chairman, placed in a tough political situation, issues a statement in support of the decision made by the Netanyahu government.

  • “The political leadership and the IDF made the correct decision tonight for the sake of the security of Israeli civilians and residents of the south,” Gantz says, backing the move. “Blue and White will back every correct action for the sake of Israel’s security and will put the security of residents above politics.”
  • Gantz is joined by fellow Blue and White lawmaker Yoaz Hendel, who says he refuses to accept those claiming the decision to assassinate Abu al-Ata this morning had been politically motivated. “They’ve been firing at our residents for over two years without a proper response,” he says. He praises the IDF operation and calls for similar ones in order to “restore Israel’s deterrence.”
  • Even former left-wing MK Ksenia Svetlova argues that the decision to take out Abu al-Ata had not been politically motivated, with one caveat. “The threat of PIJ is completely real. All levels of the military have been involved in the operation to eliminate the senior PIJ commander. The decision made is not political, but the result of such will be entirely political.”

3. What minority government? While each side of the aisle may be interpreting the timing of this morning’s attack differently, most seem to be in agreement that it does not bode well for Gantz’s chances to form a minority government, let alone a unity coalition with Likud.

  • “Time is working against Blue and White. Tomorrow’s [coalition negotiation] meeting with [Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor] Liberman has been canceled because of the security situation, but the law does not allow the president to grant an extension [to Gantz] even in a situation in which the coalition forming efforts are disrupted by the security situation,” writes Channel 12’s Daphna Liel.
  • She expands on that point, asserting that the possibility of a minority government had not been taken out along with Abu al-Ata because such a possibility had never really existed in the first place. According to her network, Blue and White has only used the idea of a government supported from the outside by the Joint List in an effort to drag Likud to the negotiating table in order to form a unity government on its terms.
  • But Netanyahu has used the apparent negotiating tactic to accuse Blue and White of actually seeking such a government. Hours before the Abu al-Ata killing, the prime minister releases a series of tweets citing remarks made by Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi in which he vows to bring down the hypothetical Gantz-led minority government if it were to launch a wide-scale operation in Gaza. Netanyahu says such a minority coalition would be a “danger to Israel.”
  • Chiming in hours later, Kan public broadcaster political correspondent Michael Shemesh clarifies that the “Joint List would not be able to bring down a government during a military operation, as both Tibi and Likud claimed. But it also would not be able to support the government [from the opposition] during a military operation. Thus, the implication of launching a military campaign would place the chances of a minority government at zero.”

4. Paralyzing assassination: While the early dawn operation managed to take out one of the most senior terror leaders in Gaza, it also led to half the country shutting down, with the IDF ordering the cancellation of school and work for those living as far north as Tel Aviv.

  • One man who’s not so happy about the scenario is Channel 12’s political correspondent Amit Segal. While he admits it may be too early to judge, he adds that “if Israel is transmitting to our enemies that the price it is willing to pay in order to eliminate a terrorist is the paralysis of the state and this passes quietly and with mutual understanding, it would have been better to give up on carrying out the operation and simply declare that Israel is deterred not only from the north but from the south as well.”
  • Arab affairs analyst Shimrit Meir added that she too had a hard time understanding why Netanyahu and the security establishment have been insisting since the assassination that they are not interested in any further escalation. “Was Abu al-Alta that big of a figure, that he has no replacement and is worth parlaying the half the country as a price? In my humble opinion, he was more of a troublemaker, and there are no shortage of troublemakers in Gaza.”
  • To be clear, Netanyahu, flanked by IDF chief Aviv Kohavi and Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, insists that Abu al-Ata was the real deal and had been responsible for the majority of attacks from Gaza over the past year.

5. This has nothing to do with you: Since the attack, the IDF has gone out of its way to assert that the PIJ is the one has a beef with and that Hamas need not be involved at all.

  • Ynet Palestinian affairs correspondent Elior Levy says that the IDF’s goal is clear: “To keep the confrontation only with PIJ and to keep Hamas out as much as possible.”
  • Meir points out that the question will be whether Hamas is interested in utilizing the narrative, which would allow it to avoid being targeted by the IDF, but also could put its public image at risk. She predicts that Hamas will “symbolically” join PIJ and crawl to its assistance in a day or two, because the extremist group doesn’t have an issue watching the even more extremist group endure a few blows from Israel.
  • As part of that “symbolic” solidarity, Hamas official Ismail Radwan says at Abu al-Ata’s funeral, “We say to the occupation: If you want to single out the Al-Quds Brigades, we say today that the Qassam Brigades and the Al-Quds Brigades are twin brothers standing together. Your blood is our blood. Your blood is our blood. O you commander, your blood is our blood.”
  • Not wanting to feel left out in the West Bank, senior Palestinian Authority and PLO official Saeb Erekat says in a statement that Israel’s government “bears full responsibility for the consequences of this crime.”

6. Who are you, Baha Abu al-Ata? ToI’s Adam Rasgon tries to answer that question in an effort to put in context a killing that may very well drag Israel into another war with Gaza.

  • The PIJ commander had become somewhat of a household name since the Kan public broadcaster reported on him in January 2019. Abu al-Ata was the commander of the Al-Quds Brigades in the northern Gaza Strip and played “a prominent role in supervising the execution of many operations that the Al-Quds Brigades carried out against the enemy,” Islamic Jihad’s military wing says. He joined the Al-Quds Brigades in 1990.
  • The IDF asserts that he was planning to carry out rocket attacks and other terrorist activities against Israel and was also directly responsible for several cases of rocket fire over the past six months.
  • Abu al-Ata was wounded during Operation Pillar of Defense, a week-long war between Israel and terror groups in Gaza in 2012, and had survived several assassination attempts, according to the Al-Quds Brigades. He was born on November 25, 1977, in Shejaiya, a report posted on Islamic Jihad’s website on states, noting that his father was also a “fighter.” He was taken out by Israel along with wife Asma, and the couple left behind five children ages 10 through 19.
  • Israeli military officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, hinted at having Abu al-Ata on their kill list in recent weeks.
  • IDF spokesman Jonathan Conricus tells reporters during a briefing that the army  had sent a number of warnings to Abu al-Ata — through unidentified mediators — to call off his operations, but they went unheeded.

7. In other news: In the midst of all the rocket firing, the European Court of Justice rules that products made in Israeli settlements must be labeled as such, and may not be marketed as products of Israel.

  • The dramatic decision will likely cause already-tense relations between Jerusalem and Brussels to further deteriorate, as Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum have long rejected the European Union’s policy of distinguishing between goods made in Israel proper and those manufactured in areas that the EU does not recognize as sovereign Israeli territory, ToI’s Raphael Ahren writes.
  • “The EU has a longstanding and well-known position that it will not recognize any changes to pre-1967 Israeli borders other than those agreed by the parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” an EU spokeswoman said, explaining the decision. “The EU considers settlements in occupied territories illegal under international law.”
  • Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich is among the first to denounce the ruling. “On the same day that Israel’s enemies remind of us their aspiration to destroy us, and of the results of escaping from terrorism and relinquishing control over territory, the European court is positioning itself by their side,” he says in a statement.
  • While the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office did not have an immediate response to the court’s ruling. the Israeli government expected the court’s verdict and tried to convince the winery to withdraw its appeal, Ahren cites several unnamed Israeli officials as believing. Jerusalem feared that the court would declare legally binding a policy that heretofore, while considered mandatory, was not enforced by many EU member states. Today’s ruling would likely boost the BDS movement, those officials argued before it was handed down.
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