Not Just Gaza: Netanyahu’s Image Needs Rebuilding, Too

The prime minister spent decades telling Israelis that he was the man who would subdue Hamas and bring it to its knees. What now?

AP

We will only be able to get answers regarding the weighty strategic issues further down the line. Did Israel establish deterrence in the Gaza Strip and make a lasting impact on perceptions there after nearly two months of fighting?

Has Israel defeated the terrorist organizations? Will Israel’s pounding of Gaza, the mass killing of civilians, the hundreds of thousands of refugees and the assassination of senior Hamas officials, make their replacements think twice or three times before the next round of fighting, as it has with Hezbollah in Lebanon since 2006?

In the meantime, because we live from day to day, the picture informing the political and public narrative is grim, troubling and caustic. In the 50 days of fighting that just ended with an open-ended truce, Israel didn’t take the initiative, didn’t lead, didn’t dictate outcomes (other than the targeted killing of Hamas commanders, including, perhaps, the head of the group’s military wing, Mohammed Deif).

For the most part, Israel was dragged into events, responding to the tune set by Hamas. The ideal point at which Israel would have exited Operation Protective Edge was after the destruction of Hamas’ attack tunnels, built under the Israeli border. But the other side didn’t cooperate. And Israel then discovered that it didn’t have a strategy beyond that point.

Residents of the south fled their homes; Ben-Gurion International Airport was frequently threatened by rockets; the symbol of Israel’s strength and power, Tel Aviv, was targeted by rocket fire over and over; and the summer vacation season was ruined.

Foreign tourism shriveled, the economy licked its wounds, and 70 people, including dozens of young soldiers and a 4-year-old boy, were killed. Hamas remained on its feet and has organized baseless victory celebrations while preparing to negotiate its demands.

That’s what most of the Israeli public sees and feels. The public doesn’t care one iota about the shock and suffering and destruction in Gaza. It’s been said that people talk about their own hurt. As a result, the reasonable Israeli won’t buy the line the government has been plying from morning to night that we won the war. Israelis, as is reflected in how support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken a nosedive in the polls, have been unwilling to accept the narrative the PM is trying to sell them.

Such sentiment is particularly pronounced among his own electorate on the right. This presents him with the major political challenge of appeasing those disappointed voters and restoring his electoral base.

It’s not only Gaza that has to be restored and reconstructed. So does Netanyahu’s image, which was fashioned with such effort over a period of decades, portraying him as the leader capable of dealing with terrorism, the man who would subdue Hamas and bring it to its knees – if he was only given the chance.

Hamas did indeed suffer a major blow, but it was not eradicated. That’s because Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon ruled out any possibility in advance of a wide-scale ground invasion and occupation of Gaza. Their decision eroded their political support, but saved the lives of hundreds of Israeli soldiers.

Operation Protective Edge has ended and now the politicians will do the talking. Cabinet ministers on the right – particularly Habayit Hayehudi head Naftali Bennett and Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman – will remain in government as long as it serves their interests, enjoying the perks of public office while taking potshots at Netanyahu from within the coalition. In the next election campaign, they will copy Netanyahu’s slogans from 2006 and 2009, riding them all the way to election day. The man who promised to stand up to Hamas will have to reinvent himself, but it won’t be easy.

Along the way, he may also encounter the problem of a loss of respect as leader. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert experienced the same thing at the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. The public gave him the cold shoulder, but Olmert – a master at human relations – had a lot of friend in high places in the political establishment. They were actually wary of offending his honor, and so didn’t shun or abandon him. And one of them – none other than Avigdor Lieberman – even brought his Yisrael Beiteinu party into Olmert’s lame government after the war, giving a government that had been on its last legs new life.

Netanyahu has no other government coalition (even if the Shas party headed by Aryeh Deri is impatiently pacing outside the cabinet room). At the moment, the prime minister also has no reason to move up elections and thereby risk facing internal party pressures that are far from simple. Netanyahu needs time. Time for rehabilitation and rebuilding.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz