Israel is up for its second election of the year this week as talk of war with Hamas brews amid Gaza border trouble. Plus, Israel denies planting spying devices around the White House. This and more in the Weekly Israel News Recap (Without the Rhetoric).
Israel Votes for Second Time in 2019
For the second time this year, Israel is holding a nationwide election that will serve as a referendum on the leadership of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
The September 17 vote was triggered after Netanyahu and his Likud party, victorious by a narrow margin in April’s early elections, were unable to assemble a ruling coalition of parties to form a government. The nail-biting results of the last election revealed a deep division in Israeli political society and a test of Netanyahu’s ability to hold onto power.
On everyone’s mind are security issues, including heightened threats from Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, and the ongoing crisis on the southern border with Gaza. For more than a year, weekly riots at the border fence, barrages of hundreds of missiles and scores of incendiary devices have scourged the southern border communities and left Israeli leadership trying to balance calls for total war with shaky ceasefire negotiations with Hamas.
Domestically, Netanyahu has been challenged personally by serious corruption investigations and the failure to pull the political weight he once carried into the government. The nation also faces stressed debate on the issue of compulsory military service for the Ultra-Orthodox and increasing tensions between law enforcement and Israel’s immigrant community.
Challenging Netanyahu’s Likud party is the recently formed Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) party led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, which holds a centrist-left platform and is formed by several smaller parties to compete in last April’s election. They lost to Likud in April by less than one percentage point, but capturing enough of the vote to rival Likud made them a formidable challenger. This year, Blue and White is poised to defeat Netanyahu or come just as close as they did last time.
Besides Likud and Blue and White, a slew of other smaller parties representing far right and far-left views along with other smaller parties focused on specific issues or populations are likely to take a portion of the vote. Once the results are in, the party with the largest percentage, nearly guaranteed to be either Likud or Blue and White, will be charged with forming a coalition of parties to hold the majority of seats in the Knesset.
As the poll speculation begins, Israel is facing the reality of a near-war situation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, again, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there could even be a major operation before the election.
Talk of Toppling Hamas in Gaza
The last several weekends of protests at the Gaza border, now at their seventy-fourth consecutive week, have increased in volatility and escalated to renewed rocket launches, retaliatory IDF strikes, and new talk of an operation to topple Hamas’ rule in the Gaza Strip.
“It looks like there will be no other choice but to embark on a wide-scale campaign in Gaza,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “There probably won’t be a choice but to topple the Hamas regime. Hamas doesn’t exert its sovereignty in the Strip and doesn’t prevent attacks.”
Last week a trio of rockets damaged homes in southern Israel and was met with a retaliatory barrage by Israeli tanks. A drone launched from Gaza dropped an explosive over IDF positions at the border fence, and as thousands protested and rioted two weeks ago, Israeli fire killed two Palestinians and wounded dozens. These incidents are nothing new from the past year and a half but do mark the failure of negotiations between Israel and Hamas to maintain calm.
"There may be a military operation, and there may be other actions in the coming days, it's dependent on many things," Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan said. He clarified that one of those things would be the possibility of continued negotiations with Hamas via an Egyptian delegation scheduled to arrive to deescalate the situation.
Despite the ability to calm the situation and lay the groundwork of a longterm plan, the negotiated ceasefires and feeble promises of calm have continually fallen apart. Not only does Hamas not exercise control of their violent factions, Netanyahu says, but they are also losing control of the Strip.
“We have a situation in which a terror group that launches rockets has taken over, and doesn’t rein in rogue factions even when it wants to,” Netanyahu said.
That claim is supported by aggravations from Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups when Hamas is supposed to be holding a ceasefire. Even more telling are the recent protests against Hamas by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and a series of deadly suicide bombings targeting Hamas checkpoints inside the Gaza Strip.
Hamas officials are investigating the bombings and are blaming rival Palestinian factions and others who want to sow chaos inside the Gaza Strip.
As Israel prepares for the possibility of a large-scale operation, Netanyahu noted that his words aren’t a guarantee of what action will be taken.
"Stop agitating for an operation in Gaza," Netanyahu said. "There will be an operation, but I will not embark on it a moment before we are ready. I don't base my policy on tweets.”
Israel Denies Spying on White House
Israel has denied allegations of spying on the U.S. after government officials reportedly concluded that Israel is most likely responsible for several “StingRays” found around the White House and other sensitive sites in Washington D.C. over the past two years.
The StingRays are used to spy on cell phones by spoofing a cell tower signal. The Politico story that reported the alleged spying cited “former officials, several of whom served in top intelligence and national security posts,” who said that it was pretty clear that Israel was responsible for placing the devices.
An Israeli Embassy spokesperson, Elad Strohmayer, denied the allegation calling “absolute nonsense.” Israel doesn’t conduct espionage operations in the U.S., he said, and President Trump seemed to agree.
"I don't think the Israelis were spying on us," Trump said. "My relationship with Israel has been great...Anything is possible, but I don't believe it."
Anything is possible—after all Israel has been caught running espionage operations in the U.S. before in several now-notorious cases including the Jonathan Pollard case.
When asked about the allegations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vehemently denied it and was quick to blame his political opposition for trying to sway votes just days before the election.