Netanyahu Still Anxiously Looking for Exit Sign

The prime minister is facing increasing criticism at home and abroad about reaching a cease-fire with Hamas, but for completely opposite reasons.

AFP

It would be no exaggeration to say that Israelis were waiting with bated breath last night to hear what their prime minister, defense minister and army chief of staff had to say.

The television reporters stationed at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv and commentators who thronged the studios fanned the tension. The press conference was billed as “the most decisive” since the start of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.

But the short statements by Benjamin Netanyahu, Moshe Ya’alon and Benny Gantz didn’t tell us anything new or enlighten us in any way.

The nation that was panting for the operation to be expanded awaited a bang and got a whimper: The same shopworn old slogans; the same vague generalities about stamina, sacrifice, worried families and sticking to the mission; the same ambiguous operational goals that can be interpreted in various ways; the same exhaustion and bloodshot eyes; and, above all, the same miserable expressions of those who have once again failed to find a formula for ending the fighting, that longed-for “exit” they have been seeking since the very first days of the operation.

Only today will we learn whether this news conference devoid of news (and questions) was just one big ruse, or whether our leaders truly didn’t have anything to say, and opted not to say it in prime time.

Judging by appearances, it seems the three men leading the military conflict with Hamas are sticking to their original policy – a limited operation with no pretensions of reoccupying Gaza or eliminating Hamas terror – despite the political background noise that only intensified yesterday.

Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar once again demanded that Netanyahu bring any cease-fire proposal to the full cabinet for a vote, thereby signaling his displeasure with how the security cabinet is managing things.

His Likud colleague, Minister Silvan Shalom, backed this, while hinting that Israel had invited American pressure as a pretext for ending the war. Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) seized the opportunity to declare war on the United States (“The Americans and Obama have brought Hamas upon us”). And Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir (Yisrael Beiteinu) hastened to crown the operation a huge waste of a military opportunity.

This, it must be pointed out, is an unprecedented statement about a war that is still at its height.

It would be interesting to know what impact this statement had on the Israel Defense Forces soldiers risking their lives in Gaza. It would be even more interesting to know what the minister’s father, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, would have thought had any member of his cabinet chosen to express himself in such a manner at such a critical time.

Yesterday was the first day in which everyone – the media, politicians both senior and junior, and mayors of southern towns – joined together to criticize the prime minister, each in his own way, for having seriously considered accepting a cease-fire until the escalation later in the day upset the applecart.

Nobody should envy what Netanyahu is going through now. He’s managing a complex, lengthy military operation with a high casualty count (48 IDF soldiers and three civilians have been killed so far), while at the same time absorbing (ostensibly) friendly fire from his colleagues, the home front and the armored personnel carriers.

This is the dilemma Netanyahu faces: Continue to tread water and stick to dealing with the tunnels, or expand the operation, which will surely result in additional casualties among IDF soldiers. He doesn’t want to seem as if he’s been dragged into something. He doesn’t want to be portrayed as someone who acted only under fire. He doesn’t want to lose his political world.

But in the current situation, when the operation’s international legitimacy is drying up quickly and the pressure on Israel is growing accordingly, the bigger danger is that he will be forced to end the war with an inelegant cease-fire that Hamas can declare as a victory.