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Netanyahu balancing on Gaza tightrope, for now

July 12, 2014 12:07 P.M. (Updated: July 12, 2014 12:07 P.M.)
By: Jean-Luc Renaudie
JERUSALEM (AFP) - Benjamin Netanyahu, initially accused by Israel's most ardent hawks of dithering over Hamas rocket fire, appears to have found at least a temporary political balance with his punishing air campaign against Gaza.

But rivals on the far-right are still snapping at him, some demanding that he strangle the densely populated and impoverished Palestinian enclave by cutting off electricity, fuel and food, and others insisting he send in troops and reoccupy it.

And there is still the unknown factor of how Hamas might turn up the heat. It already hiked tensions sharply this week by firing rockets at major cities and towns across the country, but has so far not killed a single Israeli.

The latest crisis began in June, after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the West Bank.

Netanyahu blamed Hamas and embarked on a punishing campaign against the Islamist group, arresting hundreds of its members in the West Bank and attacking its infrastructure there.

During the arrest campaign, six Palestinians were killed, further raising tensions as militants in Gaza stepped up their rocket fire.

Just days after the teenagers' bodies were found on June 30, the situation took a turn for the worse. A Palestinian of similar age was kidnapped from east Jerusalem and burned to death in a suspected revenge crime by Jewish extremists.

That brutal murder triggered a wave of angry protest in East Jerusalem and across Palestinian towns in Israel, and further fire from Gaza.

Netanyahu came under pressure from the hawks to hit back hard.

Pressure from the hawks

Rightwing nationalist foreign minister and Netanyahu coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman demanded that the premier invade Gaza and reoccupy it. Netanyahu baulked.

So Lieberman pulled out of his parliamentary alliance with the premier's Likud party.

Netanyahu has also been urged by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the rightwing religious party Jewish Home, to respond harshly.

But while pledging to do "whatever is necessary," Netanyahu has called on his cabinet and, by extension, the populace, to keep a cool head and not give way to "harsh words and impetuousness."

On Tuesday, Netanyahu unleashed Operation Protective Edge, a relentless air assault on Gaza in response to continuing rocket fire. So far, it has killed 103 Palestinians, including many women and children, and wounded hundreds.

In reaction, says public commentator Hanan Cristal, "everybody (in Israel) is now playing the national unity card."

"Netanyahu's position now is even stronger because he is showing a united front with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and chief of staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz."

"Right now he's reassuring because he gives the impression of not having an itchy trigger finger," Cristal concludes.

But Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon is taking a hard line.

"It is inconceivable that on the one hand we fight Hamas and on the other we provide fuel and electricity that are used to transport missiles that are fired at us," Danon was quoted this week as saying.

In the meantime, Netanyahu has kept his options open.

As early as Tuesday, he announced he was calling up 40,000 reservists to prepare for a possible ground assault on Gaza and has moved tanks into place along the border.

And a day later he said "we have decided to further intensify the attacks on Hamas and the terror organisations in Gaza."

Mistrustful of military adventures

Any such action would be costly in terms of lives and money, and an opinion poll published by daily newspaper Maariv this week shows no strong appetite for it.

Of those surveyed, 47 percent said they opposed an invasion, as against 38 percent for it.

So Netanyahu now finds himself torn, says Maariv political columnist Ben Caspit.

He has "always been mistrustful of military adventures, and is one of the most prudent and calculating prime ministers in Israeli's history," Caspit says.

"That has earned him a reputation as a wimp on the right, good only for talking but weak when it comes to taking action."

But Netanyahu knows that, beyond the current crisis over Gaza, he is engaged in a struggle for control of Israel's right wing.

"That's why he's decided to take it up another notch."

The problem is, Caspit concludes, "Hamas is doing it too, and that's how wars in the Middle East start, and Bibi (Netanyahu) could be driven there against his will."

But Friday evening, Netanyahu remained resolute, saying he would not bow to world entreaties for him to stop the ferocious air campaign.

"No international pressure will prevent us from striking the terrorists who are attacking us," he said.

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