Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A New Gaza War? Not So Fast.

Two significant statements today are indications of the Israeli Prime Minister's defense posture in the opening months of the new coalition. Specifically, they indicate that a Gaza operation in the short term is unlikely.

In the first statement, Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, said he would be open to negotiations with Hamas. Coming in the wake of a rocket attack last night, the statement is - on the surface - an appeal for calm. However, coming from the conservative Rivlin, the statement is significant for its willingness to admit to what has been informal Israeli protocol for years. The statement is also significant for its timing. Rivlin may be making the statement to deter Prime Minister Netanyahu from escalating militarily with Hamas beyond last night's airstrike. A broader response would be unpopular and likely ineffective given Israel's mixed success in Operation Protective Edge last year. Were Netanyahu to escalate this time, it would spend political capital with Rivlin, who lately has been aligned with the Prime Minister on issues of domestic and international policy.

Luckily the second statement makes escalation with Hamas look unlikely. As this blog predicted, Netanyahu's cabinet has begun focusing rhetorically on Iran. Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said that Iran has "not allowed stability in Iraq" and wants it to remain a failed state. The statement puts Iran on the foreign policy agenda, although it was addressed to a foreign rather than domestic audience. Nonetheless, the return of Iran as the major foreign policy challenge facing Israel is a move that is not only consistent with analysts' best assessment of Prime Minister Netanyahu's genuine beliefs, but also allows him to unify a fractured coalition. Today's statement by the Defense Minister might be setting the stage for a new round of rhetorical posturing that could mitigate the Prime Minister's governance difficulties. However, it will take more evidence to judge decisively whether or not this is the case.

Both statements indicate that Israel is not seeking an armed conflict in Gaza in the near future, and would rather focus on the Iran threat as negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 move forward.

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