x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Backlash over Gaza onslaught chastens Israel

Analysts say international pressure and allegations of war crimes stir political concessions that include conditional support for a Palestinian state.

The assault both carried the Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu to electoral victory and moderated him in office.
The assault both carried the Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu to electoral victory and moderated him in office.

There is little doubt that the wave of nationalism among Israelis following the country's devastating onslaught a year ago in the Gaza Strip helped Benjamin Netanyahu gain the premiership in last February's elections. The offensive, launched in a bid to curb rocket fire on Israel's southern communities from Hamas-ruled Gaza, highlighted the security threats faced by Israel and shifted more voters to right-wing parties such as Mr Netanyahu's Likud that had pledged aggressive action against Palestinian militants.

But while the assault had a hand in carrying Mr Netanyahu to electoral victory, it had also served to moderate him once in office. Analysts say that the international backlash against the Gaza attacks and the so-called Goldstone report accusing Israel of having committed war crimes in the enclave positioned the Israeli premier on the defensive and prompted him to make moves that would appease Israel's allies abroad.

Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said: "The criticism had raised the sense of Israel's isolation and the international awareness of the illegitimacy of the occupation." Mr Ezrahi added that the condemnation led Mr Netanyahu "to constrain his ideological attitude" on key issues tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most notably, he added, it helped persuade the Israeli premier to publicly declare support for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, albeit with conditions, during a much-awaited speech in June in a move seen as bowing to pressure especially from Barack Obama, the US president.

Fears that Israel may grow more isolated likely also led Mr Netanyahu last month to announce a 10-month partial moratorium on new construction in the occupied West Bank, a step that prompted a series of demonstrations from the country's powerful settlers' movement that had helped bring him to power. Additionally, in what also appears to be an attempt to fend off international disapproval of Israel's killing of more than 1,400 Palestinians during the attacks, Mr Netanyahu has - at least publicly - voiced his intent to resume stalled negotiations with the Palestinians on the two-state solution.

Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, reported on Wednesday that Mr Netanyahu told Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, at a meeting in Cairo this week that he had agreed with the US on a renewed peace process that would be limited to two years and would include discussion on all key issues such as the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. The Israeli premier also consented to discussing the Palestinians' demand for their future state to be established within the borders of land occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war, with the possible exchange of territories as well as security arrangements, Haaretz said. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the western-backed Palestinian Authority, has so far refused to renew the talks, insisting Israel first must freeze all settlement activity, including in mostly Arab East Jerusalem, an area they want as the capital of their future state.

Analysts say that Mr Netanyahu is preparing the ground for the possibility that his mostly pro-settler, right-wing coalition partners may bid to topple his government in protest of any possible concessions that he may choose to make during the talks with the Palestinians. Earlier this week, the prime minister held talks with Tzipi Livni, who had formerly served as foreign minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, on the prospects of her centrist opposition party, Kadima, joining his coalition. Kadima, however, has so far rejected the offer. Experts said the Gaza offensive's effects go beyond Mr Netanyahu's political considerations. The United Nations investigation that was led by Richard Goldstone, a South African judge, is also likely to influence Israel's war policies in the future and may force its top leaders to consider the international response to any future major assault before launching it.

Experts say the Goldstone report is also affecting the practices of the country's military, such as its open-fire regulations or its way of conducting internal investigations of alleged war violations, the latter of which in Gaza's case has been criticised for lacking transparency and credibility. The Goldstone report had accused Israel of having intentionally targeted some civilian sites in Gaza during the fighting, and has given Israel six months to mount a credible investigation or face possible prosecution in The Hague.

Israel, however, has rejected the Goldstone report, charging that its mandate had been one-sided and its conclusions predetermined. Nevertheless, Mr Goldstone may yet have his way. Israeli media reported this week that in coming days, the government is expected to establish a committee led by a prominent jurist that will be mandated with probing into possible violations of the law that may have taken place during the Gaza attacks.

vbekker@thenational.ae