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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Electoral pressure may push Israel into new Gaza attack, analysts say 

Netanyahu could opt for escalation if he feels he is losing electoral ground to country's far-right

Palestinian protesters throw stones at Israeli troops during the clashes after Friday protests near the border between Israel and Gaza Strip in the east Gaza Strip. EPA
Palestinian protesters throw stones at Israeli troops during the clashes after Friday protests near the border between Israel and Gaza Strip in the east Gaza Strip. EPA

An already volatile situation on the Israel-Gaza border could become even tenser if Israel moves towards early elections, Palestinian analysts say, warning that a wave of violence could once-again flare-up between the two rival territories.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing pressure to head for early polls, which could come as soon as February, after Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman resigned and pulled his far-right Yisrael Beitenu party out of the prime minister's ruling coalition this week, leaving it with only 61 out of 120 seats in the Knesset.

Another far-right party, Jewish Home, is calling for early elections after its leader, Naftali Bennett, was rebuffed Friday in his demand to become the new defence minister so that he could, in his own words, lead Israel to victory over Hamas.

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Mr Netanyahu’s government was thrown into discord when the prime minister agreed to a ceasefire with Palestinian fighters on Tuesday after a new round of violence between Israeli forces and Hamas killed six Gazans and one Israeli.

Both Mr Liberman and Mr Bennett charge the prime minister with responding weakly by accepting a ceasefire.

Mr Liberman accused the prime minister of "capitulating to terror."

Hamas and other groups fired an estimated 450 rockets into southern Israel, while Israel carried out airstrikes against 160 targets during the latest round of fighting.

Hamas is now claiming victory and its leader, Yihya Sinwar, threatened on Friday to hit Tel Aviv next time. With residents of southern Israel burning tires and blocking roads to protest against the decision to halt attacks on Gaza, Mr Netanyahu is left in a vulnerable position.

"If Mr Netanyahu feels he is in problematic circumstances related to the most extreme parties in Israel, maybe he will go for an attack [in Gaza]," said Ashraf Ajrami, the former minister of prisoner affairs in the Palestinian Authority.

Mr Netanyahu would do this to convince right-wing voters that he is not less concerned about Israeli security than rival politicians on the far right who are currently casting him as weak for agreeing to a ceasefire, Mr Ajrami says.

Mr Ajrami does not believe the Israeli prime minister would deliberately launch an all-out war during the election campaign. But if he feels he is losing ground politically, he may opt for an assassination of a Hamas leader even if it means rocket barrages in response, he adds.

Given that there have been three devastating Israeli military campaigns in Gaza over the last decade, all of them justified by Israel as necessary responses to rocket attacks, the danger that such an escalation could take on a dynamic of its own is very real.

Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza city, says that the eventual outcome will depend on Hamas's behaviour during the election campaign.

"If Hamas in Gaza provokes Israel, then Mr Netanyahu, under internal Israeli pressure, might take advantage to wage a strong military campaign against Gaza which would help him in the election," he says.

Mr Abusada believes there will be no progress during the election campaign in moving towards a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, despite diplomatic efforts by Egypt and other third parties to broker a lasting solution.

This is mainly because Hamas feels buoyed by the outcome of last week's confrontation and will up its demands, while Netanyahu will be wary of making concessions because they will expose him to further criticism and may harm his election chances, he said.

Irrespective of whether or not Israel heads to early polls, the Palestinian public has dim hopes that any promising solution could be reached, Mr Abusada said, adding that it also didn’t matter to most Palestinians which group secures a majority in elections.

"People are convinced that it doesn't matter whether the right wing or centre-left wins. They think whoever comes won't be a Yitzhak Rabin again ready to make compromises for peace,” he said, referring to Israel’s fifth prime minister, who approved the Oslo Accords, which raised hopes Israel would withdraw gradually from occupied territories and grant the Palestinians self-determination.

Mr Abusada said he personally is hoping for a centre-left victory on the grounds it would reduce Israel's settlement drive in the occupied West Bank.

Mr Ajrami, the former minister, also has low expectations.

"Unfortunately the Israeli political map is now a right-wing one. If there are early elections, it doesn't change the political map. The right-wing parties will be a majority according to recent polls,” he said.

“So we really don't see any change for better circumstances coming. But if there is a surprise, it will be good for Palestinians and Israelis to have a peace process because under this coalition there is no hope for a peace process."