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Israel, Iran politics make war with Gaza more likely

Tom Allinson
November 13, 2019

Amid ongoing unrest in Lebanon and Iraq, conflict in Gaza could serve as a good distraction for Iran. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's political calculations could spell another all-out war.

A rocket fired from Gaza
Image: picture alliance/AA/A. Amra

The Israeli military targeted two leaders of the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) on Tuesday, drawing hundreds of rockets in retaliation from the group in Gaza.  Israel later responded with airstrikes, killing at least 31 Palestinians including civilians.

The timing of the attack falls on Netanyahu's last day as interim defense secretary. The Israeli leader has faced right-wing accusations of being too soft on Gaza as he struggles to remain part of negotiations to form a new government.

While Egypt and the United Nations are reportedly trying to de-escalate tensions, rhetoric from Israel and the PIJ has indicated neither are interested in backing down.

How does Netanyahu gain?

Netanyahu's strike comes as his political rival, Benny Gantz, has been tasked with trying to form a new government after two elections this year failed to find a clear winner. But the attack has scuttled Gantz's potential support from Israeli Palestinian parties, forcing him back into considering sharing power with Netanyahu.

In order to avoid forming a unity government with Netanyahu, Gantz had been courting the idea of forming a minority government with support from the Arab parties of the Joint List, who might back the hawkish former army chief only to block Netanyahu. Under that arrangement, the Joint List would not join the minority government but would vote to support its formation in the Knesset.

Netanyahu saw that as a clear enough threat, announcing that "a minority government supported by the Arab parties = a danger to the state," according to Haaretz, just before he launched Tuesday's attack. The strikes drove a wedge in that potential alliance, forcing Gantz to come out in support of the offensive and Palestinian Knesset members to condemn it.

Read more: Opinion: Fate of two-state solution depends on Israel vote

Mr. Security

But such a path to forming government was always unlikely, Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told DW.

Lovatt said Netanyahu gains far more significantly by positioning himself as the only one capable of ensuring Israeli security, as he has often done in previous election cycles.

Netanyahu's hard-line opponents and potential allies have attacked him for being weak for his recent accommodations to Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip. 

On top of saving his own political skin, Israel's potential return to a policy of using targeted assassinations also brings it closer to the brink of war with Gaza, Lovatt wrote on Twitter.

Islamic Jihad — Iran's ally in Gaza

Although Netanyahu's targeting of Islamic Jihad's leadership in Gaza and Damascus could be seen as following through on threats to strike back at what he saw as Iran's increased aggression in the region, Iran has its own interests in spurring its ally into a protracted retaliation.

The militant group is said to have good relations with Egyptian intelligence, but it has moved closer to Iran under new leader Ziyad al-Nakhalah and is funded by Tehran, according to the ECFR.

Islamic Jihad justifies its relationship with Iran as a partner in "Palestinian resistance in the face of Israeli occupation" and recently praised Iran's ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, as "heroic."

As Iran faces down calls to withdraw its influence in Lebanon and Iraq amid unprecedented protests in those two countries, it can both distract from its suppressive role there and present itself as the defender of repressed Palestinians in Gaza.

Read more: Al-Hashd al-Shaabi and Hezbollah: Iran's allies in Iraq and Lebanon

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Seyyed Abbas Mousavi said Tuesday that "unity and resistance are the only option for the Palestinian people to fight the usurpers" and called on regional and international organizations to protect the "defenseless and oppressed" people of Palestine. 

Iran's proxy war with Israel means it may also have an interest in spoiling any prospect of a Palestinian general election involving East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, thereby maintaining a state of conflict with Israel.

Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza have recently cleared some of the roadblocks to rapprochement but Islamic Jihad may draw Hamas into hostilities with Israel, making conditions for elections much less likely.

 A protracted conflict?

Hugh Lovatt said the prospect of all-out war was ever present due to short term decision making regarding Gaza in Israeli politics.

"The only viable way to resolve the unsustainable situation gripping Gaza is to move forward with Palestinian reunification and national reconciliation, including free and fair elections," Lovatt said.

Read more: Israeli settlement products must be labeled as such, EU's top court rules