Analysis

After Gaza Debacle, Netanyahu Is No Wounded Lion but a Deer Caught in the Headlights of an Approaching Vehicle

Unlike Ariel Sharon, who also defied public opinion by urging restraint, the current prime minister is prone to choking under pressure

Benjamin Netanyahu attends an annual state memorial ceremony for Israel's first prime minister in Sde Boker, November 14, 2018.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

One of the most horrendous suicide bombings in Israel’s terror-rich history occurred on June 1, 2001, at the entrance to the Dolphinarium on Tel Aviv’s beach. Sixteen teenagers were killed instantly and five more subsequently died of their wounds.

Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the wounded in the hospital, but although he was visibly shaken, he shocked an Israeli public baying for revenge. “Restraint is also an element of power,” Sharon said.

Over the next 10 months the suicide bombings continued unabated, but Sharon maintained his self-imposed moderation. Yasser Arafat still ruled in Ramallah, relations with the U.S. were still dicey — before the 9/11 terror attacks and in their immediate aftermath — and Sharon was wary of carrying out a military operation that could end in the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, and accusations that he had purposely dismantled the Oslo framework, which was already on life support though not quite clinically dead yet.

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The bombing on Passover eve at the Park Hotel in Netanya, in which 30 people were killed, finally pushed Sharon to launch Operation Defensive Shield, which lasted for 40 days and effectively destroyed the terrorist infrastructure on the West Bank.

Throughout this period, Sharon’s standing among Israeli right-wingers steadily deteriorated. His maxim “restraint is strength” was mocked and ridiculed. The fabled lion, his critics claimed, turned out to be a mouse. He wants to shed his image as the belligerent architect of the Lebanon War, they asserted, at the expense of Israeli lives.

But Sharon held fast. He sought to build up sufficient goodwill in George W. Bush’s White House before launching an all-out assault on the West Bank. Though he was privately worried about his declining stature on the right, in public he showed nothing but disdain for his critics. After reestablishing his security credentials in Operation Defensive Shield, Sharon went on to score an emphatic victory in the elections held in January 2003.

Although circumstances have changed, Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself in a similar position this week. His decision to refrain from launching a massive military operation in Gaza after Hamas fired 450 rockets at Israel within 24 hours has enraged the Israeli public, and not just the right. Netanyahu’s much-vaunted image as Mr. Tough Guy has been seriously impaired. Within a few days, the aura of Netanyahu’s invincibility in the upcoming elections has dissipated. Like Sharon, he has failed to address the public to explain his reasoning, alluding only to unknown imperatives that he is duty-bound to keep secret.

A picture taken on November 12, 2018, shows a ball of fire above the building housing the Hamas-run television station al-Aqsa TV in the Gaza Strip during an Israeli air strike.
AFP

But while Netanyahu made plans, God laughed. The unexpected flare-up in Gaza, coming on the heels of the botched intelligence incursion in Gaza, in which a senior Israeli commander was killed, did not figure in his game plan. Coupled with the obscene transfer of $15 million dollars of Qatari money conveyed in suitcases to the Hamas leadership, his decision to cease and desist in the face of the brazen Hamas challenge upended years of meticulous grooming of his image as the ultimate security maven and protector of the realm. If Netanyahu were in the opposition now, he would tear a prime minister with similar policies to shreds.

Adding to his woes, Netanyahu’s hitherto complacent coalition partners have suddenly turned surly: Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned in protest against what he described as Netanyahu’s weakness; Education Minister Naftali Bennett asserted that the only way to maintain Israeli deterrence was for him to be appointed in Lieberman’s stead, and Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon rebuffed Netanyahu’s pleas to maintain their right-wing coalition and avert early elections.

Netanyahu’s security credentials, however, were never as solid as Sharon’s. Despite his many years at the helm, his complete domination of Israel’s national security policy and the years of relative quiet that he has provided Israel, Netanyahu’s record is no match for Sharon’s decades of experience as Israel’s quintessential warhorse. Netanyahu could never sustain 10 months of restraint, as Sharon did.

He is, in some ways, the victim of his own success: The extended period of relative tranquility in Israel’s major population centers have made the Israeli public less tolerant of terror attacks and more impatient for a quick-fix solution.

More significantly, as Sharon repeatedly asserted when confronted with Netanyahu’s criticism, the prime minister “cannot stand up to pressure.” Unlike Sharon, who maintained a stoic resistance to the right’s clamor for action, Netanyahu has proven time and time again that when faced with the right’s displeasure, he chokes. Six months ago, to cite just the most egregious example, he lavished praise on a new agreement with the United Nations on the resettlement of African work-seekers in Israel, only to turn around and denounce it as an abomination within the few short hours it took for news of right-wing protests against the deal to reach his office.

Which is why, over the past few days, he seems like a deer caught in the headlights of an approaching vehicle. Rather than dare his coalition partners to opt for early elections with the confidence of their supposed sure-fire winner, and instead of addressing the nation to tackle the criticism being leveled against him head on, Netanyahu suddenly seems desperate to avoid the early elections that he had supposedly been planning himself in order to capitalize on his solid standing in the polls.

One can understand Netanyahu’s panic. He knows that over the past week he has committed a cardinal sin in the eyes of many of his gung-ho supporters: Hamas stared him in the eye, and he blinked first. An overwhelming 74% of the Israeli public disapproves of his handling of the situation in Gaza. Within a few short days, his image has transformed from Master of Israel’s Universe to a panic-stricken leader who now faces formidable political challenges not only from the center-left, but from his militant right as well.

Netanyahu’s whole strategy of using his strong public standing in order to fight off the criminal proceedings facing him — the police will apparently recommend his third indictment next week in the so-called Bezeq affair — seems to be on the verge of collapse. If he once sought to call for early elections in order to face the attorney general’s expected indictments with a renewed public mandate, Netanyahu is now begging his partners to postpone a new ballot in order to allow him to distance himself from his current debacle first.

Of course, it’s not only premature to predict Netanyahu’s imminent political demise, it’s pure folly. He is Israel’s premier comeback kid. Once his secret reasoning for restraint is revealed — uncorroborated reports of an imminent deal with Hamas on returning the bodies of Israeli soldiers, for example — Netanyahu’s prudence could very well be vindicated. A forceful military operation in Gaza is likely to be viewed by his critics as a political ploy, but his currently disillusioned base would rally to his side come what may.

At the same time, one shouldn’t discount the lasting impact of Netanyahu’s week from hell, either. The ground may have irrevocably shifted under his feet. The dust may settle differently than before. His previously unassailable position may turn out to be irredeemable. One of his loyalist pundits described him over the weekend as a “wounded lion,” which will soon recuperate and roar as before. In the meantime, however, the jackals surrounding him are smelling his blood and moving in ever so closer for the kill.