Netanyahu throws a tantrum over US ceasefire vote abstention and plays into the hands of Hamas

The prime minister may have manufactured a crisis between Israel and the US


Former Likud minister and head of the New Hope party Gideon Sa'ar (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images)

March 26, 2024 18:33

As soon as the Biden administration informed Benjamin Netanyahu that it wouldn’t be vetoing Monday’s United Nations Security Council resolution, he had three options.

One would have been simply to ignore it. The Americans had ensured that it would be a non-binding resolution with no sanctions or other forms of enforcement. A diplomatic blow, but not a fatal one.

Another alternative would have been to embrace the resolution, which only specified a ceasefire during the month of Ramadan, which is over in two weeks anyway, and also called for the release of hostages. Netanyahu could have said that Israel is prepared for an immediate ceasefire — as it is, the war in Gaza is right now at its lowest level since it began — and will lay down its arms for two weeks in anticipation of the hostages’ release.

Instead, he chose the third option — to throw a tantrum and blame the Biden administration, which abstained on the resolution for changing its policy and harming Israel’s war effort and the hostages by not insisting that the ceasefire and the hostages’ release be implicitly connected in the resolution.

In doing so, Netanyahu played into the hands of Hamas, which has no intention of releasing the hostages without exacting a heavy price from Israel, and allowed the terrorist organisation to claim that it supported the UN resolution. He also created what many in both Jerusalem and Washington believe is a “manufactured” crisis between the two countries.

The main disagreement between Israel and the US right now, at least in public, is over the next stage of the campaign in Gaza, which is anyway weeks, probably months away from happening — attacking Rafah, the final remaining Hamas stronghold in Gaza.

Israel hasn’t even started mobilising the troops for this operation or warning the 1.5 million civilians in Rafah that they need to move to “humanitarian islands”, which have yet to be set up. Netanyahu’s repeated insistence that the operation will happen has already prematurely ramped up tensions between the two government.

That was as unnecessary as this week’s attack on the administration and has left many convinced that Netanyahu’s interests are closer to home than Rafah.

“If you had told me on October 7 that we would have had from the United States six months in which to wage war on Hamas in Gaza without them forcing us to a ceasefire, I’d have said you’re kidding yourself,” says one senior security official. “The fact that we’ve got that from Biden is incredible and we shouldn’t take it for granted.”

“One day, when we can tell all the details of how the Biden administration opened up the American arsenal and supplied us with everything we needed after October 7, no one will be able to criticise Biden with a straight face,” said another defence official. “There’s only one reason for attacking him, and that’s for domestic political reasons.”

Xx But that wasn’t the worst crisis Netanyahu had to deal with this week, at least not from his perspective.

As this column is being written, the prime minister is still cloistered with the leaders of the Charedi parties, trying to reach an agreed proposal for the yeshivah students’ exemption law.

He had until the next day to come up with a wording that their rabbis could agree with, which would enable the IDF to draft at least some young strictly-Orthodox men, and that would pass muster with the attorney-general, who made it clear to Netanyahu that the current draft would not satisfy the Supreme Court’s rulings on equality.

Even if they succeeded on coming up with a proposal that can be authorised on Wednesday by the cabinet, in time for the court’s deadline, it is clear that they are only buying time. Both Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and his war cabinet colleague Benny Gantz have warned that they are not going to accept any law which doesn’t put an end to what is in effect a blanket exemption of all the strictly-Orthodox community from service. And since the rabbis refuse, this will almost certainly be the issue that brings down the government, if not next week, then by the final deadline for legislation at the end of June.

Neither Gantz nor Gallant want to resign over the issue. But they are taking it to the brink. “We need to stay in the cabinet to make sure that the hostage agreement is achieved,” said a member of Gantz’s party. “But either it will, or it won’t, and then there will be no reason to stay.”

Xx For months Gideon Sa’ar, as of Monday night once again an opposition backbencher, seemed to be the member of the “pragmatic” wing of the government least inclined to jumping ship.

Since he joined the emergency coalition along with the rest of Benny Gantz’s National Unity list in the first week of the war, he has been saying, both in public and in private, that the Israeli public may have given up on Netanyahu, but it isn’t ready for an early election during wartime, and that Israelis are unlikely to go to the polls in 2024.

What has changed in the space of a few weeks? Two weeks ago Sa’ar announced that his right-wing faction — New Hope, consisting of just four MKs — is splitting with Gantz’s lot, and on Monday evening he resigned from the cabinet and the coalition. His official reason is criticism of what he sees as a lack of conviction in pursuing the campaign in Gaza and Netanyahu’s refusal, backed by Gantz, to give him a seat in the small war cabinet so he can voice his criticisms.

Sa’ar is a canny politician and there can only be two reasons for his decision to suddenly change course.

First, the crisis over the Exemption Law has led him to change his assessment that elections are still a way off. Second, he knows from the polls that there is a sizeable constituency who in the election will be looking for a party with steadfast right-wing positions but is not connected to Netanyahu, his coalition and Israel’s dismal situation that they created.

There at least three potential leaders for such a party: former prime minister Naftali Bennett, former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and former communications minister Yoaz Hendel, who has already founded a “reservists’ movement”. All three have polling that suggests they will win a chunk of seats and Sa’ar can’t let them steal a march on him.

He has one advantage over them. He already has a party in the Knesset. But he needs to start distancing himself from Netanyahu and attacking the war decisions from the right flank as if he is already in an election campaign. For now it’s still a virtual campaign, but it may very soon become a real one.

March 26, 2024 18:33

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