Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas May Both Emerge as Winners of Latest Violence

As the cycle of Israeli-Palestinian death and destruction continues, and civilians suffer the worst consequences, the violence may ultimately boost the political fortunes of both Hamas and embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Both Hamas and Netanyahu are accused of sharpening an intractable cycle of violence and reprisal. The latest round of violence in the Palestinian Gaza Strip has left hundreds dead and more than a thousand people injured. Ten have died in rocket attacks.

The infrastructure in the blockaded coastal enclave was ruined in previous strikes and has been degraded further by the latest Israeli bombs. Many people were left homeless by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) airstrikes.

Rockets are still streaming out across the sky above Israel. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad attacks continue, despite Israeli assassinations of commanders and its impressive Iron Dome interception system swatting most munitions from the air.

The grimly familiar violence has captured global attention, but international outrage—whether at the brutality and civilian casualties of disproportionate IDF airstrikes, or the stubborn and indiscriminate rocket barrages by Hamas and PIJ—have again not translated to meaningful outside action.

Netanyahu—the great survivor of Israeli politics—was on the ropes before simmering tensions boiled over into fighting in Gaza. The veteran leader had again failed to form a new government at the fourth time of trying, opening the door to an alternative coalition that was within days of being agreed.

A humiliating fall from power would have also undermined Netanyahu's efforts to escape corruption charges, currently being heard by an Israeli court. Predicting Netanyahu's imminent demise has become a cliché, but this time really did look like the end.

The proposed alternative government's key figures—led by Yesh Atid party chief Yair Lapid and Yamina party head Naftali Bennett—were still negotiating as tensions boiled over in the East Jerusalem Arab-majority neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where locals were engaged in a land ownership dispute with the Israeli state.

Israeli security forces then stormed the hallowed Al-Aqsa Mosque, injuring hundreds of worshipping Palestinians who had gathered to protest—and, according to police, to throw stones at nearby Jews.

Then came the Hamas and PIJ rockets over Jerusalem, forcing an evacuation of the Knesset. Hamas said the barrage was a response to Israeli "crimes and aggression" in Sheikh Jarrah and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

But they handed Netanyahu a lifeline, too. His top challengers faltered, and the alternative government began to fall apart just days before they were expected to announce their success.

Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Newsweek that Netanyahu seemed "very absent" in the days leading up to the outbreak of fighting with Hamas.

"I think there's a question mark as to whether that absence was negligence or willful," Lovatt added, i.e. whether the prime minister was so busy working towards his own political survival or if he saw in the simmering tensions a chance of further escalation.

"I think what is much clearer is that this escalation has served his interests," Lovatt said. "It's undoubtedly clear that he has benefited."

Aviv Bushinsky, a former aide to Netanyahu, told the Financial Times: "Netanyahu had no cards left to play, and suddenly, he was saved by the bell...He's so lucky, every time."

Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow at the British Chatham House think tank, said that Netanyahu is placed to entrench himself amid the turmoil. "Netanyahu feeds on the chaos, on the conflict, and he's done it for 25 years," Mekelberg told Newsweek. "He knows to exploit this situation better than anyone else, in the worst possible way."

There have been some suggestions from Israel that the prime minister might even draw the confrontation out until Lapid's mandate to form a new government expires in early June.

Fierce Netanyahu rival Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the Yisrael Beitenu party and a former defense minister, said last week: "The strategic purpose of the operation is to improve the public opinion of Netanyahu. As long as the mandate to form a government is with Lapid, Netanyahu will try to extend the operation."

Netanyahu said Wednesday he would not be rushed by international calls for a ceasefire.

"We don't stand with a timer," he told a group of foreign ambassadors. "We want to achieve the goals of the operation. Previous operations lasted a long time so it is not possible to set a time frame on the operation."

An extended operation appears likely to help the prime minister fortify his precarious position. "Continued instability and violence makes it harder to replace Netanyahu," Lovatt said. "I wouldn't quite want to say that Netanyahu is now actively looking to prolong this. But clearly, so long as it is prolonged, it is benefiting him politically."

A fifth election in two years now beckons for Israelis. After that, Netanyahu might be able to cobble together an unstable government. But any political and subsequent legal reprieve will be welcome by the prime minister.

Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and top IDF officials are celebrating what they say is a severe degradation of Hamas military capabilities following weeks of airstrikes. Tunnels have been collapsed, commanders killed, weapons stores destroyed, and a host of other infrastructure smashed.

But the Islamist militant group will glean benefits from the fighting, even while absorbing casualties and costs. "Hamas will emerge from this politically strengthened," Lovatt said.

The Israeli actions in Sheikh Jarrah and the Al-Aqsa Mosque gave Hamas the opportunity to fortify their claim to be the only true Palestinian party of resistance, amid broad dissatisfaction with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas who last month postponed long-awaited elections.

The fighting with Israel has allowed Hamas to "reassert its military, national, and religious credentials," Lovatt said, particularly its claimed defense of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

"The cancellation of elections added further weight to those that saw or see armed confrontation as the only means forward," he added.

Hamas would have been hoping to draw on discontent around Fatah in the elections, though polls showed that Hamas too may have won a disappointing share of the vote. Really, an election was a risk for both parties.

"Neither would like to test themselves at the ballot box," Mekelberg said. "There is malaise among the Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza."

Still, the elections were a chance for Hamas to gain ground in the West Bank. "It saw elections as a stepping stone towards national unification," Lovatt said.

The party hoped it would be too strong an offering for a PA seen by many as "illegitimate and pretty irrelevant," Lovatt added, a "service provider and creator of jobs" rather than a real government.

Options are limited for disenchanted voters in the West Bank, and even more so in Gaza where Hamas brooks little dissent.

"It's a miserable situation," Mekelberg said. "You're stuck between a government that is oppressive and an inhumane blockade. You naturally hate Israel for blockading you, but it doesn't make you a supporter of Hamas, because Hamas contributes to this."

The recent violence has given rise to a burgeoning grassroots movement, drawing momentum from civil society and young Palestinians outside the control of Hamas or Fatah. Whether in Israel, Gaza, or the West Bank, Palestinians have been mobilizing to demand an end to repression and full civil rights.

Activists organized a general strike across Israeli and the occupied territories this week to condemn what its organizer called Israeli "aggression" in Gaza and Jerusalem and "brutal repression" by police.

"The younger generation have long been alienated from the current political leadership, from the Oslo peace process," Lovatt said, referring to the landmark settlement that established the PA and recommitted leaders to a two-state solution.

Younger Palestinians "have been looking for the kind of opportunity that's opened up the last few days to push forward this mobilization," he added. "That's independent of Hamas and I think that itself may continue to build."

So far, this latest round of fighting has made little strategic change to the Israel-Hamas contest. A ceasefire will eventually be reached and both sides will claim victory.

But continued political instability among Israelis and Palestinians "is not conducive to do something far-reaching" to address the underlying issues, Mekelberg said.

"And when you have an international community that is disinterested, or doesn't believe it can make a difference, then the situation is really stuck."

"One side has too many elections. The other side doesn't have enough," he added.

Both sides blame the other's political calculations for extending the suffering. Ultimately, those in power retain it while those civilians caught in the middle shoulder the death and destruction.

"Those who benefit are the extremists on both sides," Mekelberg said.

Iron Dome and Hamas rockets over Israel
Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system (L) intercepts rockets (R) fired by Hamas from Gaza City towards Israel early on May 16, 2021. MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images