The sad streets of Sderot are deserted but the politicians never stop

Politics is officially on hold but the blame for the failures of October 7 will remain long after residents return


Israeli bomb squad team inspect the scene of a rocket hit , fired by Hamas from Gaza, in the Southern city of Sderot on October 21, 2023. Photo by Gili Yaari/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** מלחמת חרבות ברזל מלחמה עזה חמס טילים שדרות דרום עוטף עזה פגיעה נפילה חבלן חבלני משטרה

November 02, 2023 14:09

Time has stopped for nearly four weeks in Sderot. A city of 34,000 residents remains emptied of its people since it was evacuated in the days after the Simchat Torah massacre.

I’ve been visiting Sderot under fire for two decades now. Local residents were killed back in 2004 from Hamas Kassam rockets, even while Israel was still in the Gaza Strip before disengagement. But it has never been totally evacuated. Not even for a day, let alone weeks on end.

The cats and birds have taken over the deserted marketplace. The birdsong is almost deafening, drowning out the jet aircraft and buzz of surveillance drones, only punctuated by distant booms.

They are not of rockets landing in and around Sderot, though those are still coming through at a much lower frequency, but now most of the explosions are those of Israeli forces operating just a mile and a half away, in Gaza’s northern Beit Hanoun township, one of the first places the IDF entered when the ground offensive began last Shabbat evening.

With no one to talk to, you start seeing other things you haven’t noticed before. Like there’s a David Elazar Street, named after the IDF Chief of Staff who commanded the army during the Yom Kippur War, was forced to resign after the war when the Agranat commission of inquiry reported, and died heartbroken in 1976.

In Israel’s national historic memory, General Elazar is remembered more kindly, as the man who led the IDF out of that historic debacle. Israelis tend to blame Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defence Minister Moshe Dayan for that catastrophe. And all get streets in their name.

Who will have streets named after them in Sderot in another 50 years, when the city is full again of people, and new neighbourhoods have been built?

The current IDF Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi, has already taken responsibility publicly, as has commander of military intelligence Aharon Haliva, twice.

But the public are still with them, at least according to a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) this week showing that about 50 per cent of Israelis trust the IDF commanders to lead this war more than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Twenty per cent trust them equally and only a few per cent trust Netanyahu more than the generals.

The IDI survey had not even been conducted at 1.10am on Saturday when Netanyahu posted on X (formerly Twitter) his angry message “in contradiction to lies” in which he accused the chiefs of military intelligence and the internal intelligence agency Shin Bet of supplying him and the cabinet with erroneous assessments of Hamas’s intentions. Whether it’s his immediate political survival or his historic record, he’s fighting that battle while Israel is at war.

Everywhere else in Israel, politics is officially on hold. The houses of Sderot are particularly colourful right now, covered in massive posters for the local election which was supposed to be held next Tuesday. The council and mayoral elections have now been postponed by three months but there’s no one left in Sderot to take down the posters on David Elazar Street.

Smotrich's dilemma

Exactly a year ago, Israel did hold elections, on November 1. Some of the slogans and messages from that campaign make for grim reading in empty Sderot, such as a tweet (it was still called that then) by Religious Zionism party leader and now Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on October 31: “This is what the election is about tomorrow!

To continue the security failure endorsed by Gantz-Lapid and the Muslim Brotherhood or to restore personal security, deterrence and national pride.”

No one knows when the next Israeli election will be held except that it will certainly be much earlier than originally scheduled in late 2026. Politics, of course, never stops: even in wartime, the politicians are thinking of their future campaigns.

In the next Israeli election both the right-wing parties in government and the centrists and leftists will have the same dilemma: how to campaign in a country which has suffered such a trauma at the hand of Palestinian terrorists and is likely to shift rightwards in its views as a result -— but at the same time, according to all the polls, holds the right-wing government responsible for the worst disaster in Israeli history?

As one coalition Knesset member put it, “the right-wing should do very well in the next election, but only if all the right-wing politicians are replaced by then.”

Deep beneath the surface, some on the right are already trying to work out how best to do that.

One possibility that is being discussed in the more far-right areas of the coalition is to abandon the government on a matter of principle such as the tax-revenue funds that Israel transfers monthly to the Palestinian Authority.

Smotrich has decided to freeze these, claiming that senior figures in the PA have expressed support for the Hamas attack.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant called on Wednesday evening to transfer the funds immediately as, so he says, they pay for the PA’s security forces which provide stability in the West Bank and help prevent terror attacks. Netanyahu agrees, although he won’t say so publicly.

Some around Smotrich believe that he has little to lose at this point. As finance minister, he will have to be responsible for deep budget cuts in order to fund the war effort.

He may as well break with the coalition now and put as much distance between him and what is an already deeply unpopular government which will have to agree at some point to the PA reestablishing control of Gaza, once Hamas is gone.

From opposition, he can call for a no-holds-barred approach against the PA and for a return of the Israeli settlements to Gaza.

At the same time, the finance minister’s job is one of the most powerful in Israeli politics, and few give it up voluntarily.

The last person to do so was Netanyahu, back in 2005, who after voting four times in favour of the Disengagement Plan from Gaza, resigned from the Sharon government eight day before the first settlement was dismantled there.

November 02, 2023 14:09

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