Analysis |

Israeli Defense Candidates Refrain From Going on Offensive Over Gaza

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Amos Yadlin and Yoav Galant all recognize that might is not necessarily right when it comes to Gaza.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
An Israeli soldier flashes the "V"-sign on board his tank near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip while returning from the Hamas-controlled enclave on August 5, 2014.
An Israeli soldier flashes the "V"-sign on board his tank near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip while returning from the Hamas-controlled enclave on August 5, 2014.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The good news is that, 10 days before the election, they are finally talking about last summer’s Gaza war and the 73 casualties on the Israeli side. (No representative of any party right of Meretz will mention the more than 2,200 Palestinians killed, more than half of whom were civilians.)

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon meets IDF soldiers in the Golan Heights, February 12, 2015.Credit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry

In a public event in Be’er Sheva on Saturday, three parties’ candidates for defense minister were interviewed separately: the current defense minister, Likud’s Moshe Ya’alon; Zionist Union candidate Amos Yadlin; and Kulanu’s Yoav Galant.

Israel Defense Forces major generals (res.) Galant and Yadlin, whose parties represent the center-left and center, attacked the Likud government for not having dealt with Hamas’ attack tunnels before last summer’s Operation Protective Edge. They also slammed the government for settling for a “tie” with Hamas at the end of the war, and for releasing prisoners who had been convicted of murdering Jews.

The right-wing Ya’alon, meanwhile, explained patiently that “security is a complex issue, not a matter for slogans. There is a cost to using military force. It is the last resort, when there is no other choice,” he explained.

Ya’alon’s remarks illustrate the gap between Likud’s firm rhetoric in its campaign ads and reality. In a campaign ad last week (which has since been shelved), a battered Hamas activist from Gaza is shown in a support group for people hurt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; the group also includes a port worker and a television license-fee clerk from the Broadcasting Authority. The prime minister repeatedly expresses his pride in the strength he demonstrated regarding Hamas. But in the interviews yesterday, Ya’alon actually said the opposite. War is not a soccer game, and the defense minister does not see things only through rifle scopes, but rather international implications that must also be considered.

If the IDF had taken Gaza, Ya’alon said, rockets would still be fired from there today, and holding the Gaza Strip would cost Israel 10 billion shekels ($2.5 billion) a year.

There is a measure of irony in a learned lecture being delivered from a right-wing candidate about the limitations of strength. But, in fact, that is how Netanyahu and Ya’alon conducted themselves during the war itself, during which they were very careful to avoid any attempt to decisively defeat Hamas, out of fear that the alternatives would be reoccupation of Gaza or the rise of an even more extreme Palestinian regime.

Ya’alon said nothing that Galant and Yadlin do not already know. (Both men served as generals under Ya’alon when he was chief of staff at the height of the second intifada, early in the previous decade.) And during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, when Galant was GOC Southern Command, the center-left government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak also decided not to bring down the Hamas regime.

In light of former Mossad chief Meir Dagan’s recent criticism of Netanyahu, journalist Amnon Abramovich said on Friday that a great majority of former senior defense officials believe, like Dagan, that Israel’s lack of action regarding the Palestinians is accelerating the emergence of a nightmarish binational state.

This opinion is apparently shared by most current security officials. Even if most of the IDF brass doubt a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians is possible (in light of the wide gaps between the two sides), it can clearly be seen that they are fully aware of the basic strategic reality Israel is dealing with: the huge difficulty of attaining a decisive victory against terror and guerrilla groups; harm to the home front from rocket attacks by these groups (exposure whose damage Israel will have difficulty limiting in a more extended war than last summer’s conflict); the continued erosion of Israel’s status internationally due to the freeze of the diplomatic channel with the Palestinians; and the continued dependence on American support, which Netanyahu insists on taking bites out of with moves like his speech to Congress last week.

Yadlin and Galant, to their credit, at least did not argue directly that Israel should have taken over Gaza last August. One person who has done so, however, is Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu), who recently presented himself as a candidate for defense minister in the next government.

That was also the line Lieberman espoused throughout the war. In his campaign ads now, Lieberman explains simply that “terrorists are not released. Terrorists are killed.” Lieberman voted against the deal to release kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit in October 2011. However, he does not bother to note that, in keeping with the principle of collective responsibility in the cabinet in cases of such weighty security decisions (and his decision, on two occasions, not to resign from that cabinet), he was also part the government that decided to release 1,027 “terrorists” and the decision to accept a cease-fire in Gaza without bringing down Hamas.

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