Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has announced his party’s split from the joint Likud-Beitenu list that Prime Minister Netanyahu headed at the last election. The move isn’t entirely unexpected and Lieberman’s party will remain in the coalition. Nevertheless, the timing is hardly helpful. Allegedly it was an argument over how to respond to the ongoing Hamas rocket fire from Gaza that forced the split. By all accounts Lieberman has been pushing for a large scale operation and possible reoccupation in Gaza, whereas the prime minister has been cautioning restraint. Under different circumstances Lieberman’s call for a large scale response might seem highly warranted, and it may be that Hamas leaves Israel with no other option. Yet given the critically fragile situation that Israelis now face within the rest of Israel it seems hard to imagine that now is the time to initiate a major ground offensive in Gaza.
In recent years Israel has had two minor wars with Hamas in Gaza; the first, in 2009, involved ground troops in addition to airstrikes but today it is difficult to see what strategic benefit has been achieved by either of these smaller operations. It must be clear now that the only way to bring a definitive end to the rocket fire from Gaza would be a full scale invasion that would topple Hamas. But such an operation would be no small or easy undertaking and managing the aftermath—even if with the cooperation of Fatah–would likely be equally as challenging.
While the above action may eventually prove inevitable for Israel, there are a number of ongoing security concerns that Israel cannot afford to neglect right now, and most immediately there is the matter of the widespread unrest currently playing out among its Arab population. There has of course been talk of a third intifada. The numbering here seems to fall a little short, however. Indeed, long before the establishment of the State of Israel, the local Arab population was engaging in violent uprisings against both non-Muslim British rule and the growing Jewish presence in the area as was the case in 1920, 1929, 1936-9, and 1947. The pattern continues to this day. But what is particularly alarming about the violence of recent days is that it has for the most part concerned not the Palestinians of the West Bank, but rather Israel’s Arab citizens. These are people with full accesses to the ballot box should they wish to express dissatisfaction, and while many still suffer real economic difficulties (as do the ultra-Orthodox and Ethiopian Jews) there have in recent years been some serious efforts on the part of the Israeli government to integrate this group into the wider Israeli economy.
Right now Israel’s priority has to be about restoring calm with this group. That means treading a fine line that involves using enough force to restore law and order and to resist the violence of the mob, but without being so heavyhanded as to further inflame an already volatile mood. It is safe to say that a reoccupation of Gaza and the civilian casualties that this would unavoidably involve would do nothing to help this incredibly fragile situation. And of course the casualties that would result from engaging Hamas–with its war crime tactic of hiding behind civilians–could also greatly weaken Israel’s standing with its jittery Western allies. As we saw during Israel’s efforts to try and find the three Israeli teens who had been kidnapped—and as we now know, murdered—in the West Bank, the international community was allowing Israel’s security forces precious little room for maneuver. After the Obama administration put out the word that Israel sabotaged the peace negotiations with settlement building and as such was inviting another intifada, the mood among diplomats could all too quickly become a cold: “told you so.”
And Israel finds herself all the more reliant on international goodwill given that the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program now appear to be reaching a crucial stage. Having been forbidden by the Obama administration from carrying out a strike on Iran while that was still a realistic possibility, it now appears that there is nothing other than the rickety diplomatic track standing between the Jewish state and the nightmare of life with a nuclear Iran. Nor is Iran Israel’s only pressing security concern in the region. The ongoing civil war in Syria has seen increased instability along the Golan Heights as well as the threat of Hezbollah becoming armed with some of the Assad regime’s most devastating weaponry. And now added to that is the threat of ISIS infiltrating Jordan, thus creating a renewed threat along the entirety of Israel’s eastern border.
With all of these factors in play it is difficult to fathom how Avigdor Lieberman can seriously think that now is the time for redeploying in Gaza. This split from the Likud has been in the cards for some time and is no doubt a move informed as much by party politics as anything else. Yet Gaza hardly seems like the issue to split over, and now is certainly not a particularly wise moment to be adding to Israel’s instability.