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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 4 APRIL 2024

Israeli war Cabinet member calls for early polls; Poland to address Israel ties after Gaza aid worker deaths

Israeli war Cabinet member calls for early polls; Poland to address Israel ties after Gaza aid worker deaths
People march to the Parliament of Victoria during a pro-Palestine demonstration in Melbourne, Australia, 3 April 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / JAMES ROSS AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT)

Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war Cabinet, called for early elections, ramping up pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s facing an international backlash as the conflict in Gaza rages and growing domestic protests against his government.

Poland’s Foreign Ministry said it would discuss the “new situation” in relations with Israel after an airstrike this week killed seven aid workers in Gaza, including a Polish national, triggering a public spat and a reprimand by Israel’s ambassador.

US President Joe Biden said Israel hadn’t done enough to protect civilians after the death of the aid workers, in some of his sternest criticism yet of the country’s conduct in the months since it launched a military campaign against Hamas in Gaza.

Israel’s Gantz ups ante with Netanyahu by calling for early elections

Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war Cabinet, called for early elections, ramping up pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s facing an international backlash as the conflict in Gaza rages and growing domestic protests against his government.

Gantz, who’s seen his popularity among Israeli voters surge as that of Netanyahu has dived, said polls should take place in September instead of as scheduled in 2026.

An early vote was needed to “overcome the challenges ahead”, Gantz, who heads the National Unity party, said at a press conference in Tel Aviv late on Wednesday. “The Israeli public needs to know that we will soon ask for their trust.”

Netanyahu’s Likud party criticised the comments and said elections in the near future would “lead to paralysis, division” and “fatal damage to the chances of a hostage deal”.

Gantz argued that an agreement on an election date wouldn’t dent Israel’s war effort against Hamas in Gaza and would “prevent the rift in the nation”.

The conflict is creating deep political fractures within Israel as well as straining the country’s relations with key allies, including the US. Last month, Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish official in the US Congress, tore into Netanyahu, saying the prime minister had “lost his way” and Israel needed to hold elections to decide its future.

Netanyahu, who was released from hospital on Tuesday following a hernia operation, has been the target of increasingly large protests over the past three days. Tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in Jerusalem, blaming him for failing to secure the release of the remaining hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. They also called for elections and several people were arrested.

Netanyahu (74) is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and heads the most right-wing coalition in its history. Gantz is a leading opposition figure but joined a five-man, emergency Cabinet soon after Hamas fighters attacked southern Israel from Gaza on 7 October, killing 1,200 people and abducting around 250.

Israel’s retaliatory air and ground offensive on Gaza has killed more than 32,000 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Gantz (64) is a former head of the Israeli military and an ex-defence minister. His politics are more centrist than those of Netanyahu, though both men agree on the need to continue the war until Hamas, designated a terrorist organisation by the US, is destroyed. They also both say Israeli forces must be sent into the city of Rafah as it’s the last bastion of Hamas and its leaders. Israel’s allies are trying to convince it to scrap those plans, saying an offensive would be devastating for the more than one million civilians located there.

Even if Gantz pulls out of the war Cabinet, Netanyahu’s government won’t necessarily fall because he and the several ultra-Orthodox and nationalist parties in his coalition will maintain a narrow majority in the Parliament.

Nonetheless, a Gantz exit would probably weaken Netanyahu’s position. 

Poland to address ‘new situation’ with Israel after public row

Poland’s Foreign Ministry said it would discuss the “new situation” in relations with Israel after an air strike this week killed seven aid workers in Gaza, including a Polish national, triggering a public spat and a reprimand by Israel’s ambassador.

Hours after Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Poland’s solidarity with Israel was being put to a “really serious test,” Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Szejna invited the Israeli envoy, Yacov Livne, to a meeting on Friday. The envoy had rebuked a deputy parliamentary speaker for calling the air strike a “war crime” and accused the Polish official and his party of anti-Semitism.

The deputy minister aimed to discuss “the new situation in Polish-Israeli relations as well as moral, political and financial responsibility for recent events in the Gaza Strip”, Szejna told PAP newswire on Wednesday.

The Polish government joined other allies, including the US, who condemned the strike that killed workers from World Central Kitchen, a prominent disaster relief group.   

Divided by politics, Israelis unite to defy global isolation

As 100,000 protesters shouted outside for early elections, Netanyahu held a press conference on Sunday to defend his conduct of the Gaza war. He was asked why the world is increasingly against Israel.

“The virus of anti-Semitism,” he replied. That’s why the state of Israel was created, to provide physical security to Jews, he added. Of all the things he said, that remark was probably the one that resonated most strongly with the furious citizens outside.

Israeli society may be deeply divided politically, but it is increasingly unified in the belief that the country stands alone. Six months after it was attacked by Hamas and then responded with the longest, most destructive war since its creation, that poses new risks both for how Israel conducts itself internationally and for how it views and reacts to external events.

“Even for left-liberals, there is a sense of isolation and frustration,” said Daniel Ben Simon, a former Labor Party legislator and author. “The right will tell you this is the nature of being Jewish. But even people who hate Netanyahu are feeling they can’t count on the world community. They accuse anyone who does of being naive.”

There is no more fraught topic in Israel these days than international isolation, symbolised by a recent cover of The Economist magazine showing a solitary windswept Israeli flag against a backdrop of war with the headline “Israel Alone”. 

First, there’s the question of how alone it actually is. A recent United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza left the country feeling abandoned. The majority continue to believe Israel’s military must defeat Hamas.

Other signs of isolation are everywhere. Dozens of international airlines have stopped flying to Tel Aviv. Canada will halt future arms sales to Israel. In academia, Israelis are also being shunned — their papers rejected from conferences, their graduate students passed over, even their very presence unwelcome, according to Michal Frenkel, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

“To single Israelis out for things other countries do, to focus on the only nation-state of the Jewish people, this is anti-Semitism,” said Frenkel, who’s been a left-leaning scholar of international renown for three decades.

At the same time, few countries have cut diplomatic ties and none of the hundreds of multinational corporations that set up shop in Israel in recent years have pulled out. The US remains a stalwart ally, even after shifting its language to encourage a ceasefire. It has shipped arms and munitions to Israel some 200 times since October. 

Israel’s position hasn’t grown easier in recent days after its forces killed seven aid workers travelling in a vehicle in Gaza. They included US, Australian, Polish and British nationals. Israeli officials apologised, saying it was a mistake and would be investigated. But abroad, it was seen as part of a pattern of careless killing by its forces since the war started.  

Michael Oren, a US-born Israeli historian and former ambassador to Washington, said isolation was a default position for Jews.

“Zionism was a response to loneliness,” he said. “The Jews would have a state like everyone else. For a while it worked. But Israel is now perceived as oppressive and reactionary and once again it is lonely.” 

Biden escalates criticism of Israel after aid worker deaths

President Joe Biden said Israel hadn’t done enough to protect civilians after the death of seven aid workers, in some of his sternest criticism yet of the country’s conduct in the months since it launched a military campaign against Hamas in Gaza.

“This conflict has been one of the worst in recent memory in terms of how many aid workers have been killed,” Biden said in a statement released on Tuesday night. “This is a major reason why distributing humanitarian aid in Gaza has been so difficult – because Israel has not done enough to protect aid workers trying to deliver desperately needed help to civilians.”

Biden has called out Israel before, but the sharply worded statement was among the most critical since Israel launched its campaign in response to Hamas’s assault on 7 October. It also highlighted growing US frustration with Israel’s prosecution of its war and the mounting civilian death toll.

“Incidents like yesterday’s simply should not happen. Israel has also not done enough to protect civilians,” the president added.  

Biden said he was “outraged and heartbroken by the deaths” and called for swift investigations. “Israel has pledged to conduct a thorough investigation into why the aid workers’ vehicles were hit by airstrikes. That investigation must be swift, it must bring accountability, and its findings must be made public.” 

Biden said he would continue to press Israel to facilitate humanitarian aid, and that he was pushing “hard for an immediate ceasefire as part of a hostage deal”.

Netanyahu and other Israeli officials expressed regret over the deaths. “Unfortunately, in the past day there was a tragic event in which our forces unintentionally harmed non-combatants in the Gaza Strip,” the prime minister said on the social media platform X. “This happens in war. We are conducting a thorough inquiry and are in contact with the governments. We will do everything to prevent a recurrence.”

Australian PM expresses anger to Netanyahu in call

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he expressed “anger and concern” over the death of an Australian aid worker during a telephone call with Netanyahu.

The two leaders spoke on Wednesday morning, Albanese told reporters in Canberra, following the announcement that Australian citizen Zomi Frankcom was among seven aid workers with World Central Kitchen who were killed in an Israeli air strike in the Gaza Strip. 

“This is someone who was volunteering overseas to provide aid through this charity. This is completely unacceptable,” Albanese said. “When I spoke with the prime minister, I emphasised the importance of full accountability and transparency.”

Albanese said there must be a thorough investigation into the killing of the aid workers, and added that Netanyahu had committed to doing so. The Israeli PM had previously said the killings were unintentional and that Israel would “do everything so that this does not happen again”.

Australia has been a longtime friend of Israel; however, the huge civilian death toll from the war in Gaza has tested the limits of Canberra’s support for Netanyahu’s administration. Albanese’s centre-left Labor government has previously voted in favour of a ceasefire at the United Nations. 

The UK government said on Tuesday it had summoned Israel’s ambassador in the wake of the killings, with Foreign Secretary David Cameron calling the deaths “completely unacceptable”. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East crisis news hub

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Coen Gous says:

    The quicker Isael can get rid of wannabee Nazi leader Netanyahu, the better

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      Gantz issued genocidal statements confirming the genocidal war plan, same Whatsapp group.
      Bennett tried a coalition government that gave hope, but it was just that hope.

  • Luke S says:

    The worn-out accusations of being antisemitic when criticising the Israeli government is getting quite old. Since antisemitism is essentially racism, which everyone knows is wrong, making a direct connection between criticism of a state’s government’s actions and the national religion, means that state’s government’s action can never be criticised at all. Which is quite ridiculous.
    May we therefore not denounce anything the government in Afghanistan does, because that would mean we’re automatically Islamophobic? Are we anti-Buddhist if we don’t agree with something a leader of Cambodia does? Are we being racist towards all Christians if we don’t like something that the UK government or royal family does that affects England?

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