Israel boils, but Bibi must keep the lid on

By Anshel Pfeffer, July 3, 2014
Police clash with protesters during a demonstration against Palestinian terrorism in Jerusalem on Tuesday

Police clash with protesters during a demonstration against Palestinian terrorism in Jerusalem on Tuesday

Yet another round of violence in Gaza and the West Bank is the last thing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs right now.

Although the desire for retribution over the deaths of Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach remains powerful, Mr Netanyahu needs to focus his attention on the nuclear talks in Vienna.

It is also a fact that Hamas, whose members are suspected of having carried out the murders, is a key player in restoring any calm.

Many in Israel, including members of the coalition, are demanding an offensive in Gaza. But the fact that no direct link has been established between the alleged perpetrators and Hamas's headquarters will make it difficult to justify such a campaign - unless a massive salvo of missiles is launched at Israel.

An uneasy truce, however, could serve both sides. Hamas has been damaged over the last three weeks by the IDF operation in the West Bank that saw hundreds of members arrested and its organisational capacity degraded. Hamas also lost a major opportunity to capitalise on the unity agreement with Fatah and gain a degree of international legitimacy. It will have to work much harder to form partnerships in the Palestinian government and take part in elections by the end of the year. A ceasefire in Gaza would be a prerequisite for this.

A round of violence in Gaza would also be very bad for Israel. It would make it much harder for Mr Netanyahu and his diplomats to maintain pressure on the P5+1 group, whose members have been talking to the Iranians since Wednesday and will continue doing so until the July 20 deadline for reaching a deal on the Islamic Republic's nuclear programme.

Meanwhile, with the US focused on Iran and Iraq, an escalation in violence would be hard to stop. As it is, the Americans are taking a break from the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk announced over the weekend that he was resigning from his position as peace mediator, tweeting that he was "battered but unbowed".

Although a new Palestinian unity government was sworn in a month ago, Fatah-Hamas reconciliation has stalled over Hamas's demands that the PA pay the salaries of its civil servants in Gaza. Meanwhile, Fatah leaders close to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have accused Hamas of sabotaging the deal through the kidnapping.

On Sunday, at a conference at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Mr Netanyahu presented his perspective on the prospects for peace.

While not retreating from his previous acceptance of a two-state solution, Mr Netanyahu stressed that with the new threats to Israel from Iraq and Jordan, and the lingering threat of Hamas closer to home, Israel would have to maintain a military presence in the West Bank.

While Mr Netanyahu will have to somehow assuage the calls for revenge over the murders, he will be cautious of provoking a backlash. Whether or not he succeeds is another matter.

What the murders have proved is that even if Israel, Fatah and Hamas seem to share an interest in maintaining the calm, rogue elements on either side can disrupt affairs. A series of revenge attacks by Israelis, more missiles fired from Gaza by Salafist groups or Hamas cells not under central control could push this spiral downwards.

Last updated: 2:45pm, July 3 2014