Netanyahu's options come at a price

02/04/2024 | 4 mins

This article by Amin Saikal, Adjunct Professor of Social Sciences at UWA, originally appeared in The Age and the The Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday, 2 February 2024.

Whether the Israeli PM complies with or defies the UN's ceasefire call, the consequences will be severe.

The United States has at last let a United Nations Security Council resolution pass, calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza until the end of Ramadan - less than two weeks - and the release of all hostages.

In response, an infuriated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called off an Israeli delegation's visit to Washington, where the two nations were planning to discuss Israel's security needs and the Gaza war.

This unprecedented rift in US-Israeli relations comes amid Washington's growing frustration with Netanyahu's conduct of the Gaza war.

Israel's operations in Gaza have steadily flown in the face of the Biden administration's emphasis on the need to stay on course with international law.

The final straw has been Netanyahu's determination to attack Rafah, which Washington has said would be a "huge mistake", given the toll it would inflict on the 1.4 million Gazans there.

No Israeli leader has leveraged American support more than Netanyahu to pursue a self-centred anti-Palestinian policy.

Yet he has managed to bypass any American presidents who have previously raised objections by relying on hedge politics and bipartisan support in the US Congress.

Since October 7, he has had the backing of a majority of Israelis and much of the political Right in the US, especially the Republican Party, in his pursuit of uprooting Hamas.

However, many among Biden's Democratic Party and US allies have increasingly found it morally, politically and humanly repugnant to be associated with Israel's actions in Gaza.

A longstanding staunch supporter of Israel, Biden has finally found it expedient to maximise pressure on Netanyahu and his extremist national security and finance ministers, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich - who deny the existence of the Palestinians - to fall in line with the US and allied interests.

Hence America's abstention vote and passage of the UNSC's ceasefire resolution.

The ball is now in Netanyahu's court, and he faces two options: to comply with the resolution or to refuse to implement it.

If he complies, it would be a huge loss of face and would almost certainly result in a revolt from within his government and lead to Israel's longest-serving prime minister being ousted from office.

Even if he called a general election to soften the blow, Israeli polling shows he is destined to lose, with the National Unity Party well positioned to win under Benny Gantz. Unlike Netanyahu, Gantz is open to dialogue with the Palestinians and amenable to Washington's demands, though still totally opposed to Hamas.

If this scenario materialises, it could help restore confidence in Israeli-US relations. But out of power, Netanyahu would face trial on charges of bribery and fraud.

What's more, it's hard to imagine a world where, this far down the line, Netanyahu would be willing to open himself up to any risks on his power.

The second option, if Netanyahu chooses to defy the resolution, may come with some short-term personal political reprieve, but comes at the risk of the Biden administration taking tougher action.

This includes potentially limiting the supply of weapons to Israel in the long term.

This will win no support from voters, as it would weaken Israel's standing vis-a-vis regional adversaries, especially the Islamic Republic of Iran, which Netanyahu has elevated as an existential threat to the Jewish state.

Though neither option is personally easy for Netanyahu, he could do a lot of good if he accepted the ceasefire and secured the release of the hostages.

This would require putting the people who elected him above himself, which is something we're yet to see him do.

Meanwhile, at 74 years old, he is hardly young. On Saturday, his office announced the prime minister will undergo a hernia operation, less than a year after being fitted with a pacemaker.

Seventeen years in power have taken a heavy toll, and Netanyahu is not in the best health to lead Israel any longer.

All this does not mean that the path to Israeli political stability and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be smooth. But it could avert a crisis in relations with the US and break the deadlock that has hampered any meaningful move towards a resolution of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The US has had an unwavering commitment to the wellbeing and security of Israel.

Its direct aid-in-grant and indirect military and financial assistance, including that embedded in the US-Israeli strategic partnership projects since the late 1950s, have been crucial for Israel's growth as an economically and industrially prosperous and militarily powerful state in the region.

It has also played a key role in enabling Israel to maintain its occupation of the Palestinian lands and the Syrian Golan Heights.

The US holds more sway with Israel than any other nation. Allowing the resolution to pass was a good start in flexing its power, but for meaningful change to occur, it needs to keep going.

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