Rocket fire on Tel Aviv pushes Gaza to center stage in Israel’s elections

Until now, candidates traded accusations of corruption, racism and incompetence, but mostly ignored the volatile situation in the Hamas-run Strip. That changed on Thursday night

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with IDF chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz (standing directly behind him) and then-defense minister Moshe Ya'alon (seated right), monitoring IDF ground operations in Gaza during a meeting at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on July 18, 2014. (Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with IDF chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz (standing directly behind him) and then-defense minister Moshe Ya'alon (seated right), monitoring IDF ground operations in Gaza during a meeting at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on July 18, 2014. (Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)

Two rockets were launched from Gaza towards Tel Aviv on Thursday evening. And while it was not immediately clear which Palestinian terror group was responsible — both Hamas and Islamic Jihad possess the Iranian-made longer-range Fajr missiles, but both denied any involvement — one thing seemed immediately clear: these two rockets, whoever fired them, have brought Gaza to front and center of the current election campaign.

Until Thursday, the center-left parties focused on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal woes and his efforts to ensure the extremist Otzma Yehudit party enters the Knesset, calling him corrupt, divisive and racist. The right-wing parties, on the other hand, sought to portray their rivals as inexperienced, weak, incompetent bleeding-heart leftists.

But at around 9:10 P.M., as the sirens blared in Israel’s coastal metropolis, the hitherto marginalized question of what to do about the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip became a major factor ahead of the April 9 vote, and it will likely remain in the spotlight for the remaining three-plus weeks until Israelis head to the polls.

Netanyahu’s motorcade had not yet arrived at the Defense Ministry headquarters for hastily arranged consultations with his security chiefs, when a handful of his right-wing rivals issued statements calling for a tougher policy vis-a-vis the Palestinian enclave.

“The Israeli government’s policy of containment tonight was hit by a missile on central Tel Aviv,” the Union of Right-Wing Parties said. “The security consultations and the nice words must be replaced by deeds. Only a disproportionate response will restore security and national honor to the State of Israel.”

From right, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, Military Secretary to the Prime Minister Brig. Gen. Eliezer Toledano and head of the Shin Bet Nadav Argaman speak during a visit to the IDF’s Gaza Division on July 17, 2018, amid an increase in violence from the Gaza Strip. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Yisrael Beytenu chief MK Avigdor Liberman took to Twitter to point out that the government okayed the transfer of $20 million to Hamas earlier this week. “Even the payment of additional protection money does not bring quiet. On the contrary, it provokes further provocations,” the former defense minister said, calling on the government to assassinate those responsible for the rockets.

“Regardless who is behind the firing tonight, Hamas bears responsibility,” declared New Right party co-chair Naftali Bennett, echoing that call. “The time has come to defeat Hamas once and for all. Not more shooting at sand dunes without causing harm to the enemy, but time for an uncompromising pursuit and systematic neutralization of Hamas’ leaders.”

New Right Knesset candidate Caroline Glick said that only Bennett in the Defense Ministry could fulfill the mission of destroying Hamas. “[Benny] Gantz and [Moshe] Ya’alon who didn’t even want to destroy the Hamas tunnels just won’t do,” she tweeted.

Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, and Ya’alon, a former Likud defense minister, both served under Netanyahu the last time rockets from Gaza reached Tel Aviv — in the 2014 Operation Protective Edge.

Gantz and Ya’alon have since become bitter rivals of the prime minister and merged their recently founded parties ahead of the April 9 election. Together with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and another former army chief, Gabi Ashkenazi, they formed the so-called Blue and White party, which has become the main challenger to Netanyahu’s Likud.

Gantz and his colleagues have in recent days issued harsh criticism of the government’s handling of the situation in Gaza, including the payment of “protection money” to Hamas.

In their first reaction to the rocket fire on Tel Aviv, Blue and White leaders demanded a “forceful response” but refrained from explicit attacks on the government.

Lapid issued two tweets on Thursday evening. The first one, written in English, appeared to address the international community, striking a statesmanlike stance that Israel has the “absolute right to respond with force” to any act of aggression.

The second tweet, in Hebrew, had a strong political undertone: “Whoever fails to act with strength against Hamas in the Gaza envelope will get missiles on Tel Aviv. In our government there will be zero tolerance for fire on Israel, and we will respond forcefully to any violation of the security of the state and its residents.”

Netanyahu will doubtless carefully weigh his next steps. On the one hand, he will want to demonstrate strength and determination.

“To state the obvious, Netanyahu cannot allow himself to look weak just 26 days before Israelis decide his political fate,” opined Shalom Lipner, a former Israeli official and currently a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. A harsh military response is “almost foregone conclusion,” he added.

Earlier this week — before Israel’s second-largest city came under attack — Netanyahu vowed to respond harshly to any violence emanating from Gaza, regardless of who was responsible for it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (top right) meets with security brass at the IDF’s Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 14, 2019. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

“We have recently seen provocations and heads being raised from the direction of the Gaza Strip. This has been done by dissidents, but this does not absolve Hamas. Hamas is responsible for everything that comes out of the Gaza Strip, and we respond accordingly, with assaults by Air Force planes against Hamas targets,” he said during Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting.

“I heard people from Gaza saying that since we are in an election campaign a wide-ranging operation is out of the question. I suggest to Hamas – don’t count on it,” he added. “We will do everything necessary to restore security and quiet to the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip and to the south in general.”

People standing outside a bomb shelter after it was opened by the Tel Aviv municipality on March 14, 2019, after earlier two rockets from the Gaza Strip were fired toward central Israel. (Adam Shuldman/Flash90)

A harsh military reaction to Thursday’s rocket fire would likely prompt a Palestinian response, and this tit-for-tat could easily escalate and snowball into another major conflict. In that scenario, most Israeli politicians would be expected to cease their attacks on the government in order to show a united front against the terrorists.

Common wisdom has it that Israelis tend to lean rightward politically when under attack, but it is far from guaranteed that another full-scale military altercation with Hamas would automatically spell victory for Netanyahu and Likud.

But were Netanyahu to choose to retaliate to the rockets on Tel Aviv in a relatively moderate way, working to prevent the situation from getting out of control — for instance by bombing Hamas military targets, but refraining from major destruction and causing no casualties — he would expect some harsh criticism in the remaining weeks before April 9. Both the parties to his right, and Blue and White, would ceaselessly accuse him of being weak, indecisive and gutless.

Regardless of who launched the rockets at Tel Aviv and why, they have already achieved one thing: diverting the focus of Israel’s election campaign from corruption allegations and ad hominem attacks to the ever-volatile situation in Gaza.

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