In deeply unpopular move, Israeli prime minister chooses country over political expediency
For his entire tenure, the knock on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been that he reflexively chooses the path of least resistance based exclusively on electoral calculations. This week, the premier did the exact opposite by agreeing to a highly-unpopular and potentially politically-damaging cease-fire agreement with Hamas.
For seven months, the Gaza Strip’s terrorist rulers have staged violent riots along the border; launched incendiary devices into southern Israel that have ravaged the surrounding ecosystem; and intermittently fired projectiles at innocent civilians living in adjacent communities, culminating in Monday’s largest-ever barrage in a 24-hour period of nearly 500 mortars and rockets.
Nevertheless, and despite heavy pressure from within his coalition and the public at large, Prime Minister Netanyahu made the “tough” choice that many had concluded he was incapable of making.
While the premier might be faulted for squandering four years of relative calm since the last major conflict with Hamas to devise a comprehensive strategy to cope with the terrorist group, there are only two long-term options for dealing with Gaza: namely, taking unilateral measures to ease the blockade with a view to empowering the people who might eventually choose life over Hamas’ radical Islamic ideology of which a core element is the destruction of the Jewish state and the inevitable death associated with perpetually trying to actualize this unrealizable goal; or to re-occupy Gaza and its two million hostile Palestinian inhabitants through military action that likely would result in hundreds of Israeli fatalities and perhaps thousands of casualties.
To which one might add: And then what?
The middle ground of “mowing the lawn,” so-to-speak, which entails hammering Hamas into submission but not completely vanquishing it, as was the case during the 50-day Operation Protective Edge in 2014, should no longer be considered an option as it has been proven nothing more than a recipe for cyclical violence.
Indeed, unless Israel is prepared to go to war to win—and has a coherent plan that advances its interests following the conquest—the fight is not worth waging. Israeli soldiers and civilians should not be put in harm’s way for half-measures that lead to deja vu all over again. There are many reasons to go to battle, but achieving temporary “quiet” is not one of them.
Hamas eventually will have to be dealt with—as residents of Israel’s south deserve to be freed from relentless terrorism—but a present military campaign “of choice” in Gaza would have resulted in prohibitive diplomatic fall-out just as the Jewish state is emerging as a global power. Such a conflict would, invariably, have provoked predictable, biased and widespread condemnations from so-called “honest brokers” and thus once again placed Israel in the international docket. It would have further strained ties with Russia at a time when Israel needs to leverage these to their fullest in order to prevent Iranian expansionism in Syria, a much greater threat than posed by Hamas.
It would have severely curtailed burgeoning relations with Sunni Arab countries that are instrumental to forging a united front to counter Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions and potential nuclearization. And it might have torpedoed United States President Donald Trump’s peace plan, which, in turn, could have induced the American leader to pressure Israel into a truce with Hamas under less-than-ideal terms and before the military accomplished anything meaningful.
Most importantly, a war would have meant the loss of additional life on both sides, and while Israel undoubtedly will be forced into conflicts in the future, they should be viewed as a last resort and geared towards achieving clearly defined objectives—not for the purpose of upholding a fragile status quo stalemate in Gaza.
While unsurprising, the current politicking—with the dust not yet settled in the south—nevertheless is disheartening, providing a boost to Israel’s enemies as evidenced by the parading around of terrorists after Jerusalem effectively spared the lives of thousands of their subjects.
One can criticize Prime Minister Netanyahu for many things, but not the rationale underpinning his latest decision. Nor can he be cynically described by his opponents as “weak” for not going to war. To the contrary, the premier demonstrated true leadership—from a position of power—by choosing country over his own standing.
This is exemplified by a Channel 2 poll in the immediate aftermath of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s politically-motivated resignation, which found that 74 percent of Israelis disapproved of Netanyahu’s handling of the situation in Gaza. The survey also showed the premier’s Likud party winning 29 mandates if elections were held now, down one from its current 30 seats; whereas the Jewish Home party of right-wing rival Naftali Bennett would rise three mandates to 11, and Liberman’s Yisrael Beyteinu party would gain two seats for a total of 7.
Perhaps more significantly, the survey found that the Likud would garner only 24 mandates if a still-unformed party hypothetically helmed by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz contests the next race, as is widely expected.
While Netanyahu would under all of these circumstances remain the front-runner to form the next government, his authority may be marginalized. This could perhaps have been offset by striking harder at Hamas, although, to paraphrase an old adage, one always knows how to begin a war but never how it will end.
Even so, the most probable outcome is that the Gaza issue will slowly fade into the background, or there will be another flare-up that renders the debate altogether moot. In both cases, the current political noise will be forgotten in a few months’ time when Israelis head to the ballot box.
Thereafter, chances are Netanyahu will once again be giving a victory speech as his challengers baffle over their inability to dethrone “King Bibi.”