Despite the launch of the ground operation in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s credit internationally does not seem to have been harmed. Netanyahu’s conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama Friday, and the latter’s remarks in front of the camera immediately thereafter about Israel’s right to defend itself, made clear that in the mean time, the international community is not stopping the Israeli tanks entering Gaza.
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That attitude was also evident in a phone call Obama had a few hours later with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Netanyahu’s name has come up more than once in conversations between Obama and other leaders. Usually it was in the negative context of mutual blowing off steam over Netanyahu’s stance on the Iranian issue, another wave of construction in the territories or his foot-dragging in the peace process.
In the call between Obama and Cameron Friday, it seemed that every mention of Netanyahu was positive. A statement released by Cameron’s office said that the British prime minister and the American president stressed Israel’s “right to take proportionate action” to defend itself from missiles from the Gaza Strip. There was not one word of condemnation for the ground incursion. Not one call for an immediate cease-fire.
The emergency meeting of the UN Security Council at the end of the week was also relatively balanced. All 15 members called for an immediate cease-fire, but most of them condemned the rocket fire from Gaza and expressed support for Israel.
The main reason Israel has received such broad support internationally for its Gaza operation is that unlike in the past, the world’s leaders believe Netanyahu. Obama, Merkel, Cameron and others have felt over the past five years that Netanyahu was deceiving them about the seriousness of his intentions to move the peace process ahead. They felt that his statements about the establishment of a Palestinian state were the opposite of his actions; that in the face of his declarations about peace, he was giving in time and again to domestic political pressure by the settler lobby.
In the past two weeks the attitude to Netanyahu has turned around. The world’s leaders are showing him empathy and understanding. They know that when he tells them that he went into this operation through lack of choice he is not lying. They saw how he dealt with the internal political pressures, how he delayed action for several days and even accepted the Egyptian cease-fire plan. They are convinced that this is not some trick to provide international legitimacy for a re-occupation of Gaza, but rather his authentic desire to avoid escalation.
Netanyahu would like to reach a cease-fire now as well, but he cannot find any international entity, including Egypt, that can bring it about. He is trapped between Egypt that would like to see the Israel Defense Forces continue to strike at Hamas and Hamas that understands that all it has to do to come out a winner is to keep on for as long as possible without raising a white flag.
Last week, before the ground operation was launched, Netanyahu spoke with a Likud minister to persuade him to defend him in the media from criticism on the right about his restraint. “Why are they criticizing me? Don’t they understand that we can’t operate now without international support?” Netanyahu asked the minister. “This is a supply that’s running out and it has to be refilled,” he said.
So far, Netanyahu has a plentiful supply of international support. But it will not keep up for long. The deeper the IDF operation goes into the Gaza Strip, the greater the chances for deterioration and entanglement. If that happens, international support will evaporate within seconds.