The recent military hostilities between Gaza-based Hamas and Israel were ignited by a confrontation between Muslim worshippers and extremist Jewish nationalist religious groups in Jerusalem and eviction of Palestinian families by an Israeli court from Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. Analysts have pointed out the intra-Israeli and intra-Palestinian divisions and tensions as the background against which the recent confrontation took place.
Political Stalemate on Both Sides
In the first week of May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party and allies emerged as the largest group with 50 seats in the country’s fourth election in two years, failed the deadline to put together a 61-seat majority in the 120-member Knesset. Subsequently, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin gave the leader of the centrist, secular opposition Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party of Yair Lapid a 28-day mandate to form a unity government.[i] What contributed to Netanyahu’s failure in forming a ‘right wing’ government was the refusal of the far-right Religious Zionism alliance to join a coalition supported by Arab Islamist the United Arab List (known by its Hebrew acronym Ra’am). Ra’am with its four seats has emerged as potential kingmaker, being courted by both Netanyahu’s Likud and the so-called ‘change bloc’ parties opposing Netanyahu.[ii] Given the influence of Arab parties in determining the fate of the government, extremist Jewish groups resorted to putting pressure on the vote base of these parties.
In the wake of the civil unrest between Israel’s Jews and the Arab population in mixed cities and conflict with Hamas, Netanyahu’s opponents’ plans to make a ‘government of change’ were derailed and pressure was mounted for forming a ‘rightwing’ government. Naftally Bennett, whose Yamina (Hebrew of “rightwards”) party has six seats and had refused to join hands with Netanyahu, was forced to suspend talks with Lapid.[iii] Labeled ultra-nationalist, Bennett’s party shares Likud’s agenda of supporting right of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and openly rejects the notion of two-state to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Still, Bennett, who served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff from 2006 to 2008 when the pair fell out, has been keen to form a unity government that will unseat Netanyahu and end political stalemate.
Coalition talks were resumed soon after the ceasefire took hold on May 21 culminating in Lapid signing a coalition agreement with Yisrael Beitenu party of Avigdor Leiberman, another former Netanyahu aide turned detractor like Bennett. On May 30 Bennett announced that he was willing to go into a power-sharing coalition with Lapid’s party that will involve Ra’am, social-democratic Meretz party and the New Hope party, a hardline faction made of mostly former Netanyahu allies.[iv] Bennett’s decision encountered a hostile response from Netanyahu, who denounced him for joining a ‘left-wing’ government argued Bennett’s approach would be a danger for Israel’s security. Similarly, the religious Zionist alliance criticized Bennett for joining a coalition involving left parties as threatening Judaism and settlement.[v] The Zionist Left parties such as the Labor which ruled the country for decades from its foundation to until the early 1990s and has a history of supporting land for peace has consistently lost ground to right and ultra-right parties who have nurtured the right-wing shift by successfully selling the idea of Israel as a small and isolated nation surrounded by powerful and hostile enemies, and by advocating a hardline military and hardline response to threats. Netanyahu, who has been running for retaining the office as ‘Mr. Security’, in the face of his imminent departure from the office doubled down on his anti-Iran rhetoric calling Iran Israel’s biggest enemy and that if pushed to choose between a lack of friction with the US or defending the country against a nuclear-armed Iran, he will choose to ‘eliminate the existential threat.’[vi]
A similar saga of political paralysis existed on the Palestinian side. President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to cancel elections scheduled for May 22 on account of Israel’s decision to block the elections in East Jerusalem was decried by all other parties including Hamas.[vii] Even as Abbas’s political opponents agreed that Israel should not be given a veto on Palestinian elections, Hamas’ inability to form a broader alliance opposing cancelling of elections and the lost opportunity of reintegrating Hamas into formal political process paved the ground for a more militant Hamas leadership taking the helm.[viii] The military confrontation with Israel, during which Hamas demonstrated its firepower with its rockets reaching Tel Aviv for the first time in the history of the confrontation, achieved two key objectives for the Islamist group: one pushing Abbas into political irrelevance and projecting Hamas as the only movement capable of defending Palestinian claim over East Jerusalem and access to Muslim holy places, while deepening the religious dimension of the conflict centered on Jerusalem.[ix]
The Shadow of Arab ‘Normalisation’ with Israel
In December 2017, within weeks of the US decision to formally recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman hosted President Abbas in Riyadh. Saudi efforts to put pressure on Abbas into accepting the Deal of the Century, at a time when Israel emboldened by support from the Trump administration was expanding further into new areas in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, had the effect of pushing both Fatah and Hamas closer to Turkey and Iran.
More recently, Saudi Arabia, while supporting Bahrain and the UAE’s ‘normalisation’ of relations with Israel, has acknowledged that Israel’s economic and security relations overlap with those of Arab states, especially on the ‘Iranian threat.’ Saudi leaders have publicly chastised Palestinian leadership for its criticism of Abraham accords.[x] Further, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have watched with suspicion as Fatah, under increasing pressure from the United States (US) and its regional allies, has been more inclined to deal with Turkey, which sees Hamas as the decisive Palestinian group and hosts sections of its leadership. Last September, Turkey had hosted rival factions Fatah and Hamas for reconciliation talks and discussed the possibility of holding the long overdue Palestinian legislative elections.[xi] Around the same time, Khaled Al-Qaddoumi, Hamas representative in Iran, argued for an alternative alliance urging Iran, Turkey and Qatar to unite around the Palestinian cause.[xii]
Iran and Hamas against the ‘Common Enemy’?
Over the last twenty years, as Israel came to regard Iran’s nuclear power as the most serious threat to its existence, Iran has strengthened its ties with ‘resistance’ groups of Hezbollah and Hamas. Framed within the Islamist revolutionary narrative of ‘anti-Zionist resistance’ Iran has leveraged these ties to seek deterrence against Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Iranian role was demonstrated during Israel-Hezbollah ‘34-days war’ in 2006, when Katyusha rockets originally acquired from Russia by Syria and anti-tank weapons supplied by Iran and Syria helped Hezbollah wage a war of attrition, thus, exposing the limitations of Israeli military deterrent power in dealing with the Palestinian resistance, setting an example for other ‘resistance’ group including Hamas.
Hamas had broken relations with the ‘resistance axis’ in the wake of the popular uprisings against Bashar al-Assad. But within years, unable to cope with pressures emerging from the regional dynamics in the aftermath of the Saudi-Emirati backed coup against Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government and Al-Sisi’s systematic crackdown on Islamists, including the listing of Hamas’ armed wing as a ‘terrorist’ group, it gradually reinstated ties with both Iran and Hezbollah.
Over the last two years, in increasing confrontation with Iran, Israel has targeted positions of Iranian-backed militias and Hezbollah in Syria. In June, 2020 Israeli Defense Force (IDF) established a ‘Strategy and Third-Circle Directorate’, with a former fighter pilot Tal Kalman promoted to the rank of Major General put in charge. Kalaman noted that the mandate of the Directorate was to adapt and strengthen the General Staff’s efforts against the Iranian threat and expand IDF’s international cooperation in the fight against Iran.[xiii] The ‘third circle’ is a reference to threats facing Israel from countries that do not share a border with it, such as Iran and Iraq. Israeli officers have made no secret of Israel’s pursuit of ‘credible military option’ to set-back and even destroy Iran’s nuclear program.[xiv] Over the last year, as Iran in retaliation to the US’ ‘maximum pressure’ campaign scaled up its enrichment activities, Israel has made several covert and cyber-attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities to set back the latter’s nuclear program. The most recent attack on Natanz facility in early April demonstrated that Israel will go alone in sabotaging Iran’s nuclear activities even as the Biden administration pursued diplomacy to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement.
In response to the changing regional landscape and threats posed by Israel, Iran doubled-down its support for the ‘resistance.’[xv] In the wake of the peace deal between UAE and Israel, Hamas leadership, including political bureau chief Isamail Haniyeh, who was a notable attendee at General Qasem Soleimani’s funeral, and his deputy Saleh Al-Arouri met with the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to discuss Israel-Arab ties and threats to the Palestinian cause. In the wake of the recent military confrontation, Qaddoumi, while denying that Hamas needed instigations or was a proxy of Iran, argued: “Israel’s barbaric crimes make it a source of instability not only in Palestine, but across the region. They attack Syria, Iraq and — as we saw recently — Iranian nuclear facilities. They assassinate nuclear scientists. So yes, we’re confronting a common enemy, but that doesn’t mean we should be blamed”.[xvi]
Over the last decade, joint efforts of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies with Israel in rolling back the influence of the Iranian-led ‘resistance axis’ have seen only ephemeral success. Much as Hamas has managed to preserve its fighting capacity against pressures on multiple fronts, Bin Salman’s attempts to pressurise Lebanese President Saad Hariri to negotiate maritime boundaries with Israel and assert control in Hezbollah stronghold in southern Lebanon have not yielded the desired results. On the other hand, Iran and also Turkey seemed to have successfully coordinated their tough stance against Israel to put pressure on Arab allies of the US who have pursued ‘normalisation’ with Israel, even if a significant section of their population support the Palestinian cause as a key Arab issue.[xvii]
*Dr. Deepika Saraswat, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] Israel: Netanyahu rival Lapid asked to form the government, BBC, 5 May, 2021 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-56989751, , Accessed on 21 May, 2021
[ii] Top Religious Zionist Rabbi evasive on prospects of Coalition backed by Islamists, Times of Israel, 31 March, 2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/top-religious-zionist-rabbi-evasive-on-prospect-of-coalition-backed-by-islamists/, Accessed on 22 May, 2021
[iii] Ari Rabinovitch and Jeffery Heller, Netanyahu Poised to gain a political life-line as violence flares, Reuters¸14 May, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/netanyahu-poised-gain-political-lifeline-violence-flares-2021-05-13/, Accessed on 1 June , 2021
[v] Hanan Greenwood, Leading Religious Zionist Figure threaten to sever ties with Bennett, Shaked for siding with left, Jewish News Syndicate, 1 June, 2021, https://www.jns.org/leading-religious-zionist-figure-threatens-to-sever-ties-with-bennett-shaked-for-siding-with-left/, Accessed on 1 June , 2021
[vi] Netanyahu: We will defend against Iranian threat even at the cost of friction with the US, Times of Israel, I June, 2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-well-defend-against-iranian-threat-even-at-cost-of-friction-with-us/, Accessed on 1 June , 2021
[vii] Khalil Shikaki, Fighting in Gaza Marks the Start of a More Violent Era, Foreign Affairs, 19 May, 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2021-05-19/fighting-gaza-marks-start-more-violent-era?utm_source=twitter_posts&utm_campaign=tw_daily_soc&utm_medium=social, Accessed on 22 May, 2021
[x] Con Coughlin, Saudi Arabia sending an important signal on Arab-Israeli Peace, The Atlantic, 26 October, 2021, https://www.thenationalnews.com/opinion/comment/saudi-arabia-is-sending-an-important-signal-on-arab-israeli-peace-1.1094289, Accessed on 23 May, 2021
[xi] Hamas, Fatah meet in Turkey for Inter-Palestinian Reconciliation, Daily Sabah, 22 September, 2020, https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/diplomacy/hamas-fatah-meet-in-turkey-for-inter-palestinian-reconciliation, Accessed on 21 May, 2021
[xii] Iran, Turkey and Qatar can form an alliance says Hamas rep in Tehran, Middle East Monitor, September 9, 2020, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200909-iran-turkey-and-qatar-can-form-alliance-says-hamas-rep-in-tehran/ , Accessed on 22 May, 2021
[xiii] Ex-fighter Pilot tasked with leading Iran fight promoted to major general, Times of Israel, 18 June, 2020, https://www.timesofisrael.com/ex-fighter-pilot-tasked-with-leading-iran-fight-promoted-to-major-general/, Accessed on 22 May, 2021
[xiv] Anchal Vohra, Israel’s attack on Iran are not working, Foreign Policy, 27 April, 2021,https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/04/27/israels-attacks-on-iran-are-not-working/ , Accessed on 22 May, 2021
[xv] Rasha Abu Jalal, Iran offers unconditional support to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Al-Monitor, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2020/07/palestinian-hamas-iran-financial-support-israel-annexation.html, Accessed on 25 May, 2021
[xvi] Ali Hashem, Hamas Representative in Iran: Latest Round of Fighting is a strategic shift for Hamas, Al-Monitor, 17 May, 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/05/hamas-representative-iran-latest-round-fighting-strategic-shift-group#ixzz6vTtZvR6B, Accessed on 23 May, 2021
[xvii] Erdogan, Iran’s Rouhani discuss Israeli Attacks against Palestine, Daily Sabah, 16 May, 2021, https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/diplomacy/erdogan-irans-rouhani-discuss-israeli-attacks-against-palestine, Accessed on 23 May, 2021