Without a Resounding Gaza 'Victory,' Netanyahu Faces Political Disaster

The disturbing truth for the prime minister is that ending the fighting in a way the public will see as weakness, concession or fatigue is liable to cost him his position.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

An alien landing in the country early in the week might have thought that all of Israel’s problems are being caused by someone named John Kerry. The well-meaning but somewhat awkward U.S. secretary of state, who failed in his attempt to achieve a cease-fire, was described in the local press as a diplomatic terrorist, a strategic hazard, a digger of deadly tunnels beneath the country’s security.

The attack on Kerry and the sharp, swift deterioration in relations with the United States signaled that the Israeli government had lost control of events. The cabinet might have refrained from a defiant and “unanimous” vote against the Kerry plan, and solved the dispute quietly and discreetly through diplomatic channels. Instead, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters opened a superfluous front against the Americans, and Jon Stewart mocked Israel’s harsh criticism of Kerry on his late-night television program, “The Daily Show,” a satirical take on the news.

Netanyahu suffered from a serious headache this week. On the one hand, he is dying to end the fighting, but the diplomatic conditions are not yet in place. On the other hand, he is under growing criticism at home. Ministers from his party and his government publicly disagree with the way he is running things; the heads of local authorities in the south are urging him to penetrate deeper into Gaza; and “a very senior officer” in the Israel Defense Forces was quoted as saying that the time has come for the government to tell the army where Israel is headed in this campaign.

In addition, the United States and the rest of the world are starting to get fed up with the situation. And finally, the political conflict between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon on one side, versus Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the other, has become blatant, even at cabinet meetings.

The disturbing truth for Netanyahu is that ending the fighting in a way the public perceives as weakness, concession or fatigue could very well cost him his position. The surveys that indicate tremendous public support for continuing the operation – 85 percent of those polled – are sowing the seeds of political disaster for him. That was the prevalent feeling among the political establishment this week.

When the leader of the right is in danger of losing the support of the right-wing electorate, it will take just one more setback to end his career. The prime minister and Likud chairman’s claim to fame, since his earliest days in politics, has been the way he defines himself – as interested first of all in security, and only then in diplomacy. He might emerge from the fighting in Gaza as the person who failed to deliver the goods – neither security nor diplomacy.

The last word

On Monday evening, while Netanyahu was preparing to talk to the media at Defense Ministry headquarters at the Kirya in Tel Aviv, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Economy Minister Bennett knocked on the door of his office, separately. Each wanted to be the last person to whisper profound, game-changing insights into the leader’s ears prior to his television appearance. Netanyahu has a reputation for formulating his decisions, or at least polishing them, based on the last message he hears.

Bennett won; he entered last. But basically, Livni’s policy had the upper hand. In his speech to the nation, Netanyahu was vague, and everything about him offered the same message he has been conveying since the fighting began: Give me a proper and reasonable cease-fire agreement and I’ll close up shop, withdraw the forces and declare that we won.

Bennett’s appropriate Zionist response was not long in coming. The following afternoon, during a visit to Ashkelon, he invited the media and spelled out what he considers the proper continuation of the fighting: an intensification of the operation, as far as necessary, until Hamas is subdued: “Don’t give in and don’t stop until you achieve that goal… Strike at Hamas mercilessly… until demilitarization, until a victory… until we finish the work.” All that was missing was for the prime minister himself to give orders to fire, and to end with the immortal words: “Advance advance, over and out!”

It’s no wonder that Netanyahu thought he would go out of his mind. The briefings quickly issued by his close confidants were aimed directly at the leader of Habayit Hayehudi. Bennett was accused of irresponsibility, populism, vote-mongering, cynicism, and double talk. What he says in closed cabinet sessions does not accord with his declarations to the media, Netanyahu’s associates claimed: “He is engaging in political spin, exploiting the fact that he does not bear responsibility, in order to try to encroach on the right-wing electorate at the expense of Likud.”

If there is any across-the-board consensus in the political establishment, it is that Bennett’s effort is bearing fruit. He is now considered the clear, genuine, distilled voice of the right. A real threat to Likud. You won’t find him attacking Netanyahu directly. On the contrary. He is extremely careful not to do so. But he continually offers a clear, aggressive, assertive and proud alternative to the prime minister’s policy, one that corresponds well to the public mood and precisely matches the feelings of the right. He sounds exactly the way Netanyahu sounded during Operation Cast Lead in 2009, for example.

In the cabinet, Bennett often clashes with Ya’alon and army officers. He arrives at the meetings after gathering information and collecting intelligence from senior officers in the field – brigade, battalion and division commanders he knows from his military service. In contrast to Lieberman, who constantly recites the old mantra about “occupying Gaza,” Bennett presents plans, outlines and concrete suggestions.

He was the first to suggest to Netanyahu that he exploit the killing of the three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, before Operation Protective Edge, to begin destroying the terror tunnels in Gaza. In closed meetings, he conducts stubborn arguments with the army about the humanitarian cease-fires. Every such lull, he claims, directly helps Hamas to refresh and reorganize, and has a negative effect on the mood among our forces. It’s no coincidence that during every such lull we had casualties. But we need the cease-fires in order to take care of the tunnels, explain the IDF officers. No, he says, taking care of the tunnels is more effective when we advance and fire and cover the area with a big conflagration. And so on.

In his heart, Bennett knows that the cease-fire approved by the cabinet at the start of the operation, despite the opposition of Bennett and Lieberman, granted Israel the international legitimacy to continue. That won’t make him vote in favor of any cease-fires in the future. He finds it convenient that they are approved with the votes of other ministers.

This is his proposal in a nutshell: To continue fighting for a few more weeks until Hamas begs for a cease-fire, and then to insist on an agreement that will include the following clauses: 1. The IDF will remain in the area for a few more months, as long as necessary, during which time it will operate engineering tools that will destroy all the tunnels. 2. When the mission is accomplished the IDF will leave, but will have total freedom of action to enter Gaza at any time it sees fit, to handle immediate terror threats and “prevent strengthening.” 3. In exchange, he is willing to grant the Gazans “everything they could want” in terms of economic and civil benefits: opening of the crossings, a seaport, an airport. A brilliant, generous and cruel one, that Naftali.

Operation Yoav

Thinner, fresher, more moderate: Thanks to the fighting, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant, former head of Southern Command and former candidate for chief of staff, is making an impressive comeback these days, three-and-a-half years after he had to give up the job after he illegally appropriated land for his property on Moshav Amikam.

Of all the former generals who are playing musical chairs in the television studios, Galant is the most relevant, informed and expert commentator. His knowledge, his self-confidence (“I know what has to be done,” he explained more than once) and his balanced policy – anti-occupation and against the destruction of Gaza, which accords with the policy of Netanyahu and Ya’alon – have become the talk of the political corridors. Some wonder whether at the end of the operation it will turn out that the person who sat in the TV studios every evening is not an IDF retiree, but a contender for the position of the next chief of staff.

That depends, of course, and first of all, on Netanyahu who, along with then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, really wanted Galant for the job. But it also depends on how the war in Gaza ends and the public mood afterward. If the nation demands a tough, battle-hardened officer who will strike fear into terrorist hearts, it’s not at all certain that the leading candidate, Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, will seem rough and belligerent enough to meet expectations. In any case, Galant has apparently not given up on his dream.

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