Analysis / |

Netanyahu, the Tragic Hero of This Gaza War

By going against his rightist political partners and accepting the Egyptian cease-fire proposal, the prime minister bade farewell to his image as a leader who handles terror with an iron fist.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves as he leaves after a news conference in Tel Aviv, July 11, 2014.Credit: Reuters

Politically speaking, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the tragic hero of Operation Protective Edge. He is going completely against the desires of his right-wing supporters, the positions of most of the members of his party and everything he has written and preached for years. During the period of restraint before the operation and more so on Tuesday morning, when he accepted the Egyptian cease-fire proposal, he bade farewell for a while, if not forever, to his image as a strong, determined leader, the kind who knows how to deal with terror with an iron fist. Many Israelis appreciated his cool judgment, his restraint and comprehensive view of the situation. But — and this is his tragedy — they are not among his supporters and will never vote for him.

He is paying the full price, no discounts. If in Operation Pillar of Defense Ehud Barak could still be blamed for dragging Netanyahu into unfamiliar territory, this time both the leaders are Likudniks: Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Even the third Likudnik in the inner cabinet, Gilad Erdan, voted for the cease-fire (regretting it a few hours later).

And although the praise heaped upon him by the center and the left make him gnash his teeth, Netanyahu has not given in, for now, to the heavy barrage of criticism directed at him from the right, from the core of his constituency. He is sticking to his decision, backed by Ya’alon and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, to act responsibly, without losing eye contact with the international arena.

“These are the moments when decisions must be made coolly and with patience, not hastily or noisily,” Netanyahu said on Tuesday in a statement to the media. His remarks were clearly directed at ministers Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Bennett, Yisrael Katz and Uri Ariel, and MKs Miri Regev and Danny Danon, as well as at mayors and political operators who simply want to see the IDF getting stuck in the deadly mud of the Gaza Strip — perhaps in the hope of seeing the settlers who were evacuated from there nine years ago returning in the future, which would complete their own work.

Netanyahu fired Danon on Tuesday from his position as deputy defense minister. Danon had attacked him viciously through the media throughout the day, calling Netanyahu “the Labor Party’s contractor” and threatening a party uprising before the inner cabinet’s meeting last night.

Danon, with all due respect, is not the problem. He is the symptom of Netanyahu’s trouble with Likud; his dismissal will only help him in the next primary. What Lieberman did on Tuesday was much worse. The foreign minister broke all the rules, convening a press conference in order to attack the inner cabinet’s approval of the cease-fire and calling the prime minister “indecisive and hesitant.” Just nine days ago, when Lieberman announced the end of his party’s partnership with Likud, he said Yisrael Beiteinu would be a “stabilizing factor” in the coalition. With stabilizers like that, who needs tunnels with explosives under one’s chair.

Lieberman’s position is legitimate; islands of logic can be seen in it, certainly from his perspective. But his conduct is horrifyingly cynical. The chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu has two goals. The first is to differentiate himself from Netanyahu, first and foremost on security issues, so Likudniks who are mad at Netanyahu will applaud Lieberman’s macho style. The second is to compete with Bennett, the chairman of Habayit Hayehudi, for the votes of the hard-core right. It should be noted that Bennett on Tuesday conducted himself appropriately. After the morning meeting of the inner cabinet, he released a short statement expressing his opposition to the cease-fire while instructing his party’s cabinet ministers and Knesset members to avoid personal attacks on Netanyahu.

That, in a nutshell, is Israeli politics. Just a month ago — or two or three; who can remember? — Lieberman publicly scolded Bennett over a remark, telling him to be mature. Now, at this politically troubled juncture, the scolder is committing the sin he scolded another for, and who can say when the wheel will turn again?

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