Netanyahu: Israel's man of the hour

WILLIAM BOOTH AND RUTH EGLASH
Last updated 16:08 30/07/2014

At least 30 Palestinians have been killed in some of the heaviest bombardments from air, sea and land since the Israeli offensive began. The attacks came in response to Hamas rocket fire. Jillian Kitchener reports.

Benjamin Netanyahu
NIR ELIAS / Reuters
MR. POPULARITY: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a news conference in Tel Aviv on Monday.

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The airwaves are filled with images of death and destruction in the Gaza Strip. President Barack Obama is pressing for an immediate cease-fire. More than 50 Israeli soldiers have been killed.

But at home, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is riding a massive wave of popularity.

Domestic support for the Israeli leader's prosecution of the war in Gaza has only grown over the past three weeks, as the Israeli public and political class rally behind an aggressive, definitive campaign against Hamas and its rockets and tunnels. The deep support among Israelis, from left to right, for the military's Gaza offensive and Netanyahu's leadership is almost unprecedented, political analysts say.

A poll this week for Israel's Channel 10 news, conducted by the Sarid Institute, found that 87 per cent of Jewish Israelis support continuing the Gaza operation. A survey by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 95 perc ent of Israeli Jews think the operation in Gaza is just, and four of five oppose a unilateral withdrawal. Just 4 per cent said the Israeli military has used excessive force.

And in another survey this week, by the University of Haifa, 85 per cent of Jewish Israelis polled said they are "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with Netanyahu's leadership.

That strong domestic support, and a lack of pressure to end the hostilities, suggest that the war could drag on even as international mediators scramble to negotiate a truce amenable to both Israel and Hamas, the militant movement that rules Gaza.

"Israel has never been this hard-line, maybe not since the 1967 war" against Egypt and other Arab states, said Amotz Asa-El, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jewish think tank in Jerusalem. "A sweeping majority of Israelis want a protracted, systemic, thorough uprooting of Hamas and its military capabilities."

Politics in the Jewish state can be boisterous and fractured, but these days Netanyahu's rivals on both ends of the political spectrum are supporting him, despite the international condemnation being heaped on Israel for civilian deaths in Gaza. Gaza Health Ministry officials said the death toll in the seaside strip neared 1200 on Tuesday, when Israel carried out some of the most intense bombardments since the operation began July 8.

"Netanyahu has always been the leader of the right wing," Asa-El said. "But now he is leading the consensus."

Netanyahu has brushed off pressure from the international community and from Obama, who told the Israeli prime minister on Sunday that he wanted to see a quick cease-fire to stem civilian deaths.

Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have been careful to temper their impatience with the surging civilian deaths in Gaza by stressing that Israel has a right to defend itself from Hamas rocket fire and tunnel incursions. Israelis, though, slammed Kerry's cease-fire proposal, delivered Friday night, which they saw as too soft on Hamas — a group considered a terrorist organisation by the United States, Israel and the European Union.

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"There is a national consensus on this effort and this operation, especially eradicating the tunnels" that Hamas has built to try to infiltrate Israel, said Isaac Herzog, leader of the left-leaning Labor Party, the main opposition party in the Israeli parliament.

"I speak often with Netanyahu; he has taken a restrained and reasonable position, bearing in mind the pressure on him," said Herzog, who faulted the premier only for not reaching out to the moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. "Had I been prime minister, I would have also hit Hamas as hard as possible."

Analysts say the current Gaza offensive is more popular than past major military campaigns — in 2008-2009 and in 2012 — because more Israelis are now under the threat of more powerful rocket fire from Gaza. During this round of hostilities, rockets have reached father into Israel than ever before, putting more than 5 million Israelis at risk, according to the military.

But the Israeli military's discovery of more than 30 tunnels, built and used by Palestinian militants to enter Israel and attack soldiers, has particularly shocked the Israeli public and galvanised support for the war. In 2006, Hamas used a tunnel to kidnap an Israeli soldier, whom they held captive until they traded him for more than 1000 Palestinian prisoners in 2011.

This time, Israelis have been deeply disturbed by images of handcuffs and tranquilizers confiscated in the tunnels, and by grainy military videos showing Gaza militants popping out of holes in Israeli soil and running toward nearby kibbutz farms. Israel cited the tunnels as the reason for launching a ground operation in Gaza.

"I am usually a peaceful person. I am not into fighting or killing on any side. But the threat of the tunnels is very worrying," said Sigal Ariely, a mother of three and a resident of the southern city of Ashkelon, where sirens warning of incoming rockets sound regularly. Of the tunnels, she said, "I think we have to continue to demolish them in Gaza, and only then we will be safe again."

Demonstrations by Jewish Israelis against the Gaza war have been muted and sparsely attended; one on Saturday night in Tel Aviv drew about 3000 people, according to local media reports. Even some of the veteran activists in what is known as Israel's "peace camp" have declined to speak out against the prime minister or the war.

In an interview, Tzipi Livni, the Israeli justice minister, a former peace negotiator and one of the most dovish members of the Netanyahu coalition government, said: "Hamas is a terrorist organisation and is not willing to stop. They are fighting not for the establishment of a Palestinian state but because they are a terror organisation."

Most of the little criticism being aimed at Netanyahu has come from right-wing members of his party and coalition government. They want him to order the Israeli army to push deeper into Gaza and obliterate Hamas — not just restore peace and quiet to the Israeli south, the government's stated objective.

Monday night, Netanyahu, Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon and the chief of staff of the Israel military warned the country that the Gaza fight would continue.

"We will not finish the mission, we will not finish the operation, without neutralising the tunnels," Netanyahu said.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, a former special forces commander and advocate for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, said Netanyahu needs to unleash the army to "destroy Hamas". He said the military must be given clear orders to achieve the complete demiliarisation of the Gaza Strip.

"No rockets, no tunnels," Bennett said in a statement. "Hit Hamas without mercy. Day and night. On weekdays and holidays. Without respite and without rest. Until they are defeated."

-The Washington Post

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