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Bibi turns focus to Israel’s southern voters

Nowadays, Israeli politicians frequently travel to the south of Israel, demonstrating their support of residents who live close to the Gaza Strip and criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while scoring political points.
A girl holds a sign during a rally in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, to show solidarity with residents of Israel's southern communities, who have been targeted by Palestinian rockets and mortar salvoes, August 14, 2014. Anew, five-day truce between Israel and Hamas appeared to be holding on Thursday despite a shaky start, after both sides agreed to give Egyptian-brokered peace negotiations in Cairo more time to try to end the Gaza war. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (ISRAEL - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR42GPL

Urgent phone calls from the prime minister’s office late afternoon on Aug. 14 caught by surprise the heads of the regional councils that are in close proximity to the Gaza Strip, on their way to Tel Aviv.

It was just three hours before a mass demonstration at Rabin Square in support of those in the south was scheduled to take place, where these local leaders were scheduled to appear as keynote speakers. Yet, they were told that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was inviting them for a meeting at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, right before the demonstration.

Among the leaders invited to the meeting were the head of the Eshkol Regional Council, Chaim Yellin; the head of the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council, Yair Farjun; the head of the Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Council, Alon Shuster; and the head of the Sdot Negev Regional Council, Tamir Idan. Together, they constituted the core of the local leadership in the localities that had been at the receiving end of Hamas rocket fire during Operation Protective Edge.

With the start of the operation, they emerged as the protagonists of a major media story, spearheading a firm and critical approach toward Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Moshe Ya'alon. They insisted that the state had abandoned securing their communities. They were also unanimous in their unequivocal demand to put a stop to Hamas rocket fire.

The planning of the demonstration had begun several days earlier, but it was only a few hours before the event that Netanyahu’s office realized how much public and political damage it could cause the prime minister. The fear was that growing criticism of continued rocket fire on the south — including during the cease-fire — along with the diplomatic standstill, would get out of control in this national show of support with the residents of the south. And that this, in turn, would lead to a dramatic decline in support for Netanyahu. Though typically late in responding, the prime minister began damage control. He invited for a meeting the heads of the regional councils to try temper their anger and reduce, at least in some small way, the media reverberations expected to emerge from the demonstration.

Yellin was the only local leader who refused to take part in the last-minute meeting. The other leaders heard Netanyahu promise, yet again, that he would restore quiet to the south. He reminded them of the government’s decision to transfer 417 million Israeli shekels (about $120 million) “to strengthen the home front'' of the communities surrounding Gaza, and spoke at length about how strong and unified the residents of the south were. On the other hand, he did not have answers to questions concerning the end date of the operation or about achieving its objectives. In the time it took for the group to leave the Ministry of Defense and make their way to Rabin Square (about a 10-minute drive), Netanyahu’s office managed to release a detailed account of the meeting to the press, including photographs.

In terms of its results, the hasty spin that Netanyahu tried to give to the story failed to distract the public from the protest of the residents in localities close to Gaza, of whom about 10,000 participated in the gathering. The demonstration received extensive media coverage, including live coverage on all the prime-time TV news broadcasts. The message conveyed to the public cast a shadow on Netanyahu’s remarks at the meeting, which offered nothing new and did not make any headlines.

Until now, Netanyahu has benefited from relatively extensive support in the polls, and has even been praised for his handling of the conflict in the Gaza Strip. Over the last few days, however, it seems as if the Israeli public in general, and not just the people living in close proximity to Gaza, has started to lose patience with what it is perceiving as a government being dragged along by events dictated by Hamas. Netanyahu is well aware that if the communities near Gaza continue to suffer from mortar and rocket attacks even after Operation Protective Edge is over, as the person who served as prime minister for the past five years, he will be the one to pay the political price. The expansion of Hamas' rocket range, which now reaches as far as the center of Israel, has residents there identifying with the residents of the south. Naturally, it has also increased criticism toward the government.

In that context, Yellin made a mistake in appreciation of his power when telling the demonstrators, “A sovereign state must protect the security of its residents, even if they live in the periphery, even if we are few in number and don't constitute a political base for any party.” The experience of sirens and rocket fire shared by civilians in the south and the center turned the issue of ongoing rocket fire by Hamas into a very critical one for the political system. Netanyahu understands this. He saw Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv and a member of the Labor Party, sponsor the demonstration. He hears slogans such as “Communities surrounding Gaza are the same as Tel Aviv,” and he realizes that nothing good can come out of it for him. All that he could really do is damage control. In fact, that is exactly what he tried to do when he invited the council leaders for a meeting with him.

At the same time, Netanyahu sees his rivals from the opposition and the coalition touring the communities of the south and taking advantage of every opportunity to score political points, usually at his expense. Ever since the operation in Gaza began, almost all ministers and members of Knesset, including senior Cabinet members such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, made their way to the communities in the south. They took the criticism, explicit and implicit, of the prime minister. Liberman even used some of his visits there during the campaign to issue sharp statements condemning Netanyahu’s decisions.

On Aug. 14, Liberman met with the local and regional council heads and announced that it was incumbent on Israel to reach a final resolution of the conflict with Hamas, even if it meant an escalation of the conflict. He explained to them that as he sees it, the ultimate goal of the campaign was to prevent the next operation from being necessary. Finance Minister Yair Lapid also made a point of appearing frequently in Israel’s southern communities in the past few weeks. On Aug. 11, he visited the town of Sderot and announced, “We will keep hunting for the leaders of Hamas.”

Knesset member Isaac Herzog, the chairman of the opposition, made a point of supporting Netanyahu, at least until just a few days ago. Now, however, he has gone back to being Netanyahu's sharp political rival. On Aug. 12, at Netiv HaAsara, a village near the border with Gaza, Herzog spoke to the local residents, long exhausted by rocket attacks and unkept promises. “It’s time the country understands that the region near the Gaza Strip is the real front line,” he said. Apparently, he also realizes that the route to the prime minister’s office runs through the area close to the Gaza Strip.

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