What comes first, a Rafah invasion or a Netanyahu ousting?

Khalil Harb, The Cradle, April 29, 2024 — 

Facing domestic and international pressure for Israel’s US-backed Gaza assault, the Biden administration appears poised to throw Netanyahu under the proverbial bus

In Gaza, a metaphorical “hostage” scenario has emerged, centered on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose political future is being bartered at a steep political price. 

Although not physically detained, Netanyahu has been shackled by a complex situation since the 7 October Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, when Palestinian resistance groups took hundreds of soldiers and civilians captive as a bargaining chip. 

That operation and Israel’s subsequent brutal assault on Gaza has ensnared Netanyahu in a political and strategic quagmire, complicating his position daily and undermining his war objectives.

Internationally, Israel’s carefully constructed image has entered pariah status, as accusations of “genocide,” “war crimes,” and “apartheid” fly liberally around global capital buildings and in mass street protests. This is a language that signals a strategic defeat for Tel Aviv – not at all the ‘military victory‘ Netanyahu had promised his constituents and allies. 

Resignations and repercussions 

After seven months of grossly disproportionate aggression against the mainly civilian, densely-populated Gaza, the Israeli premier’s prospects of deriving strategic benefits from further military action are dwindling. 

Even his attempts to pivot to political achievements – like ceasefire deals and grand bargains – are fraught with considerable risks for his shaky government coalition. 

Today, Netanyahu’s threat to invade Rafah, the southernmost area of Gaza where over a million displaced Palestinians seek relief, could either further entrench him in crisis or precipitate his political downfall.

The bad news keeps rolling in. Last week’s resignation of Israel’s head of Military Intelligence, Aharon Haleva, over failures related to 7 October, signals a broader national crisis about to unfold. Reports from Yedioth Ahronoth suggest that additional senior military and security officials are also expected to resign.

“The domino effect of the resignation of the head of military intelligence may soon occur, including the Chief of Staff as well,” the Hebrew daily reported. 

Despite its enthusiasm for Palestinian bloodshed, Israeli public opinion, as reflected in various polls over recent months, overwhelmingly holds Netanyahu and his administration accountable for the now obvious failures of the war. This sentiment is compounded by the inability of the once-touted “invincible army” to secure the release of any of the Israeli captives held in Gaza by the Palestinian resistance. 

Israeli writer and historian Yuval Harari argues in a recent Haaretz article that “the ruinous policy of the Netanyahu government following October 7 has placed Israel in existential danger.”

With US elections around the corner, President Joe Biden is seeking to strike the posture of a “peacemaker” who averted a greater catastrophe in Gaza – redeeming himself for Washington’s unabashed military and political support for genocide by forcing through a fragile truce in Rafah. 

Tel Aviv’s Gaza war has left bruises all over the Biden administration and its western allies. They now calculate that a Rafah invasion will not produce results different from Israel’s northern and central Gaza invasions. 

Collision course with the US 

As the electoral countdown begins in the United States, Biden’s already low poll ratings are further eroded by images of mass student protests at prestigious American universities across the country – almost 80 campuses at the time of writing. 

As with the large-scale US student opposition movements during the Vietnam War and South African apartheid eras, these universities have a long-standing tradition of challenging the policies of the deep state.

Essentially, Biden’s choices are down to two: The US president can use international diplomacy to impact Israeli politics while alleviating domestic pressures, or he can focus on maintaining his electoral viability amid escalating dissent at home.

The first approach necessitates taking a firm stance against the imminent Israeli invasion of Rafah, only possible by exerting significant pressure on Netanyahu, which is likely to strain the latter’s alliances within Israel’s far-right coalition. 

Prominent far-right leaders Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir have already indicated their readiness to destabilize the coalition government over disagreements. This could ignite factional disputes within the Likud party, particularly with the extremist factions like Jewish Power and Religious Zionism parties.

The tensions are rooted in the coalition agreements Netanyahu secured to form his government in December 2022, which included controversial judicial reforms and aggressive settlement policies in the occupied West Bank. 

Today, Netanyahu’s hesitation to proceed with a full-scale offensive in Rafah and his openness to truce and political negotiations – pushed by Washington and supported by many western and some Arab states – could alienate the hardliner elements within his government. But it may also be his only option to avoid a US-backed “coup” that would see him replaced with a prime minister more amenable to Washington’s outlook.

The ‘Shamir model’

The Biden administration is signaling a potential shift in its approach to military support for Israel, particularly over any incursions into Rafah. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman notes that Washington may consider limiting arms sales to Tel Aviv if it proceeds in Rafah without US coordination.

Friedman suggests that Israel could only double down on its other Gaza failures if it invades Rafah, citing an unnamed US official as pointing out that Tel Aviv had previously bombarded Khan Yunis in search of Hamas leaders yet failed to locate them. 

The Biden administration has warned Israel from the outset of its Gaza assault to avoid the same mistakes the US made in Iraq after the attacks of September 11 2001. Just like Washington’s quagmire in Iraq, it has been clear to US officials that Tel Aviv does not have a post-war plan in Gaza. But the appeals of US officials, experts, and military personnel to their Israeli counterparts have largely been ignored. 

If history is any indication, Tel Aviv has seldom pursued political solutions to the Palestinian issue without significant pressure from Washington. According to Foreign Policy magazine, US president George HW Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, had to threaten to withhold guarantees for $10 billion in US loans for Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to halt new settlements in the West Bank. 

That stance faced fierce opposition from pro-Israel lobbying groups like AIPAC in 1992, with accusations of antisemitism directed at Bush Sr, who stuck to his guns and insisted he would “not give one inch.”

At the time, Baker had an interesting confrontation with Netanyahu – then Israel’s deputy foreign minister – who had taken to mocking the White House’s stance. The US secretary of state ordered his State Department to block the Israeli upstart from entering the building.

The sum result of this extraordinary US pressure was that Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud party was ousted in Israeli elections – as a direct result of Baker’s refusal to provide the $10 billion loan guarantee – and Labour Party leader Yitzhak Rabin, who was more open to negotiating a “land for peace” formula, was ushered into office. 

Netanyahu’s leadership is in a similarly precarious position today. Embattled from all sides – domestic and external – the prime minister is believed to be seeking the continuation of conflict in Gaza to avoid the many political and legal consequences awaiting him at the end of his tenure. 

The outcome of such a scenario will likely depend not only on military strategies and political maneuvers within Israel but also on the international diplomatic pressures exerted by allies like the US.

The question today is whether an invasion of Rafah will occur before the removal of Netanyahu from office.

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