Netanyahu Devises an Exit Strategy, With a Touch of Risk Management

If rocket fire continues after IDF forces pull out of Gaza, the prime minister is likely to be held responsible for national humiliation.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Netanyahu and Ya'alon during a press conference in Tel Aviv, August 2, 2014.
Netanyahu and Ya'alon during a press conference in Tel Aviv, August 2, 2014.Credit: AFP
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

As the operation in the south began, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to minimize losses at almost every possible step. He did so despite the groaning hearts of the public and of many within his party, as well as the clamoring for war heard in television studios from commentators and old retired generals. To Netanyahu’s credit, it should be mentioned today, that even the capture of 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin did not prompt him to change the operation’s strategic objectives. Capture during combat does not justify going to war, or even expanding the operation. The Goldin family’s heart wrenching plea to the media that Netanyahu not withdraw from Gaza until their son was found and returned was easy to predict. They know that there won’t be a repeat of the Shalit deal.

Last night, Netanyahu continued his policy of minimizing risk as he signaled the end of Operation Protective Edge. This time, however, the dangers facing him are immeasurable: if the rocket fire on the south continues even after IDF forces withdraw from the Strip, he is likely to be held responsible for national humiliation, which would cause him to lose support from within his coalition, his party, and ultimately, the Prime Minister’s Office as well.

We’ve written more than once that public opinion is fickle. Currently, Netanyahu enjoys both support and appreciation, but that could change in an instant should some kind of security emergency require that the IDF return to the Gaza Strip. Imagine what would happen if after the tunnels are destroyed and the troops go home, an unknown tunnel hatches a terror attack within one of the communities near the Gaza border.

Netanyahu’s remarks at a press conference in Tel Aviv last night signaled the troops exit route from Gaza during the coming days: “We will deploy in positions that will limit the danger to soldiers. I am concerned for each and every soldier,” said Netanyahu on Saturday as he emphasized yet again the exemplary cooperation between himself, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, once again attempting to utilize some of their popularity and professional authority. Netanyahu, who doesn’t usually like to share credit for achievements, this time was especially generous. Perhaps that is a sign of what’s to come.

Israel’s victory narrative has begun, with motifs that we will likely hear more of: “significant damage to thousands of terror targets,” neutralization of “dozens of tunnels,” strengthening ties with “states in the region” and of course, we mustn’t forget the well-known mantra of every prime minister during a unilateral Israeli withdraw: “If the fire continues, the other side will pay an insufferable price.” No one ever delivered on that promise, by the way, not Ehud Barak when he left Lebanon, or Ariel Sharon when he evacuated Gush Katif. Ironically, the retreat of IDF soldiers from the Gaza Strip, and the threat of disproportional response, comes exactly nine years after the disengagement.

Netanyahu’s primary goal last night was to make it clear to the public, that in contrast with the series of events that characterized the last 26 days, this time, Israel is not being led, but is leading. This is only partially true. Israel could be perceived by some of the public as running away from decisive action. It’s no coincidence that most of the praise for Netanyahu last night came from representatives of the left: Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and MKs Ofer Shelah and Shelly Yacimovich. Netanyahu would rather see his own ministers sitting down in the studios and supporting the decision. The chances of that are slim.

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