Netanyahu's Missed Diplomatic Opportunities in Gaza

The prime minister could have pursued creative and sophisticated diplomatic initiatives to end the war. Instead, he returned to the political passivity that he excels at.

Ofer Vaknin

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday evening performed a grand turnabout. Two days after the security cabinet meeting at which it was decided not to conduct any more negotiations with Hamas or send a delegation to talks in Cairo, the prime minister suddenly reversed himself. Tersely informing the ministers without taking a vote, Netanyahu decided to go back to that old, worn-out formula of negotiating understandings with Hamas on a Gaza cease-fire.

The prime minister had set modest military targets for the war in Gaza. His only real goals were, first of all, to restore quiet to the south, and also to weaken Hamas’ operational capabilities. Netanyahu wanted primarily to turn the clock back to the reality that had prevailed before the escalation that resulted from the kidnapping of the three teens in Gush Etzion.

At no point during the past month did Netanyahu set any diplomatic goals for the war, not even the most minimal ones, even though numerous options and opportunities for creative and sophisticated diplomatic initiatives to end the war presented themselves. Such moves could have isolated Hamas, mobilized the international community on Israel’s behalf, rebuilt Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority and strengthened the moderate forces in the region. Netanyahu preferred not to pursue them.

As in the past, Netanyahu returned the political passivity that he excels at, which accompanied the war from day one. Netanyahu went with the flow or was dragged along, waiting for someone else -- Egypt, the United States or the UN secretary-general – to come up political solutions and pull the chestnuts out of the fire.

For an entire month a war was conducted in Gaza without the prime minister and members of the security cabinet holding a single discussion on how Israel would want its relationship with Gaza to look once it was over. The result is that after thousands of rockets fell on half of the country, an unprecedented shutdown of Ben-Gurion Airport, serious economic, diplomatic, and public-relations damage, and a heavy toll of more than 60 soldiers and civilians killed, Israel is exactly where it was before.

It won’t matter how anyone tries to whitewash the talks in Cairo, the reality is that Benjamin Netanyahu is on the verge of his third diplomatic agreement with Hamas in five-and-a-half years as prime minister. After the deal that freed captured soldier Gilad Shalit and the cease-fire that ended Operation Pillar of Defense, there will be an arrangement that will end the current crisis. It will be the same tactical arrangement that was tried endless numbers of times before – the same understandings with Hamas that might or might not hold up.

If Operation Protective Edge results in eight years of quiet in the south, similar to what the Second Lebanon War did for the north, it will be chalked up to Netanyahu as an enormous achievement. But that’s still a huge question mark. The results of previous arrangements in Gaza are not encouraging. They led to nothing but a few months of quiet until the next confrontation while eroding the position of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas even further, and gave legitimacy to a murderous terrorist organization.

Netanyahu’s agreeing to a process of coming to an arrangement with Hamas basically takes Israel back to square one, perhaps even further back. True, the terror tunnels have been destroyed, which is a significant military achievement, but beyond that, how has the reality in Gaza changed? Israel has paid a heavy price but will almost certainly get no more than a temporary cease-fire in return. It’s hard to see how the current process can advance such issues as demilitarizing the Strip, establishing an international oversight mechanism, or restoring a Palestinian Authority presence in Gaza.

On the other hand, Netanyahu is on a fast track toward removing the Gaza blockade. The way it looks now, he will not lift the siege for any diplomatic purpose – not to strengthen the moderate elements and not as part of a broader move that will advance Israel’s strategic interests. Netanyahu will do it simply to restore quiet. And without making serious concessions to Hamas during the negotiations, there will be no quiet.

So after a month of war, it’s evident that Netanyahu and his cabinet ministers have learned nothing from past wars and campaigns – not from the Agranat Commission that followed the Yom Kippur War; not from the Winograd Commission that followed the Second Lebanon War, and not from the Turkel Commission that examined the raid on the Gaza-bound aid flotilla. To fend off the public criticism that will certainly ensue, they will undoubtedly, in the coming weeks, try to divert much of the criticism to the military commanders. Except that this time, the primary failure is not a military one. The failure is a political one -- the lack of a diplomatic program. The responsibility for that lies with the government, not the generals.