Many Palestinians believe that last month’s military confrontation between Israel and the Gaza resistance, along with the simultaneous popular revolt across Palestine, was a game changer. Israel is doing everything in its power to prove them wrong.
Palestinians are justified in holding this viewpoint. After all, their minuscule military capabilities in a tiny, besieged and impoverished stretch of land, the Gaza Strip, managed to push back — or at least neutralize — the massive and superior Israeli military machine.
For Palestinians, this is not only about firepower but also their coveted national unity. Indeed, the Palestinian revolt, which attracted support from people of all political backgrounds and in all geographic locations, is fostering a whole new discourse on Palestine: Non-factional, assertive and forward-thinking.
The challenge for the Palestinian people is whether they will be able to translate their achievements into an actual political strategy and finally move on from the stifling, and often tragic, post-Oslo Accords period. Of course, it will not be so easy. After all, there are powerful forces that are keenly invested in the status quo. For them, any positive change on the path to Palestinian freedom will lead to political, strategic and economic losses.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), which operates with no democratic mandate, is more aware of its vulnerable position than at any other time in the past. Not only do ordinary Palestinians have no faith in this “authority,” but they even see it as an obstacle in their path toward liberation. It was unsurprising to see President Mahmoud Abbas and many of his corrupt inner circle riding the wave of Palestinian popular revolt, shifting their language entirely, though fleetingly, from a discourse that was carefully designed to win the approval of donor countries to one singing the praises of “resistance” and “revolution.” This clique is desperate to sustain its privileges and survive at any cost.
However, if Palestinians carry on with their popular mobilization and upward trajectory, Israel is the entity that stands to lose most. A long-term popular uprising, with specific demands and under a unified national leadership, would represent the greatest threat to Israel’s military occupation and apartheid regime in many years.
The Israeli government, now under the inexperienced leadership of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his coalition partner Yair Lapid, is clearly unable to articulate a post-Gaza war strategy. If the politically raucous and bizarre transition from former leader Benjamin Netanyahu to Bennett’s coalition is momentarily ignored, it feels as if Netanyahu is still holding sway.
Bennett has, thus far, followed Netanyahu’s playbook on every matter concerning the Palestinians. He and Defense Minister Benny Gantz — Netanyahu’s former coalition partner — continue to speak of their military triumph in Gaza and the need to build on this supposed victory. On June 15 and 18, the Israeli military attacked several locations in Gaza. However, a few more missiles won’t change the outcome of the May war.
It is time to convert our “military achievements (to) political gains,” Gantz said on June 20. That is easier said than done. As per this logic, Israel has been scoring “military achievements” in Gaza for many years; namely since its first major war on the Strip in 2008-09. Since then, thousands of Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed and many more wounded. However, Palestinian resistance continues unabated and zero Israeli “political gains” have been achieved.
Gantz, like Bennett and Lapid, recognizes that Israel’s strategy in Gaza has been a complete failure. Since their main objective is remaining in power, they are bound by the rules of the old game, which were formulated by right-wing politicians and sustained by right-wing extremists. Any deviation from that failed stratagem means a possible collapse of their shaky coalition.
Instead of mapping out a new, realistic strategy, Israel’s new government is busy sending symbolic messages. The first message is to its main target audience: Israel’s right-wing constituency, particularly Netanyahu’s disgruntled supporters. This message is that the new government is equally as committed to Israel’s “security,” that it aims to ensure a demographic majority in occupied Jerusalem as in the rest of Palestine, and that no Palestinian state will ever be realized.
Another message is to the Palestinians and, by extension, to the whole region, whose peoples and governments rallied behind the Palestinian revolt during the May war. It is that Israel remains a formidable military force and that the fundamental military equation on the ground remains unaltered.
If they carry on with their popular mobilization and upward trajectory, Israel is the entity that stands to lose most.
By continuing its escalation in and around Gaza, its violent provocations in Sheikh Jarrah and the entirety of East Jerusalem, and its continued restrictions amid Gaza’s urgent need for reconstruction, Bennett’s coalition is engaging in political theater. As long as attention remains fixated on Gaza and Jerusalem, Bennett and Lapid will continue to buy time and distract the Israeli public from an imminent political implosion.
The Palestinians are, once more, proving to be critical players in Israeli politics. After all, it was Palestinian unity and resolve that last month humiliated Netanyahu and emboldened his enemies to finally oust him.
Now the Palestinians could potentially hold the keys to the survival of Bennett’s coalition, especially if they agree to a prisoner exchange — freeing several Israeli soldiers captured by Palestinian groups in Gaza in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held under horrific conditions in Israel.
On the day of the last prisoner exchange, in October 2011, Netanyahu delivered a televised speech that was carefully tailored to present himself as Israel’s savior. Bennett and Lapid would relish a similar opportunity.
It is the new Israeli leaders’ duty to exercise caution in how they proceed. Palestinians are proving that they are no longer pawns on Israel’s political chessboard and that they too can play politics, as seen in the past few weeks.
So far, Bennett has proven to be another Netanyahu. However, if Israel’s longest-serving prime minister ultimately failed to convince Israelis of the merits of his political doctrine, Bennett’s charade is likely to be exposed much sooner and the price is sure to be even greater.
- Ramzy Baroud