Analysis

Hamas Is Exploiting Netanyahu's Unwillingness to Go to War

Netanyahu is under fire for failing to deter Hamas from launching rockets at Israel. Why hasn't he come up with a plan to prevent another Gaza war?

Illustration: Netanyahu and Lieberman in a fighter jet firing missiles.
Amos Biderman

The last three wars in Gaza took place in close proximity to three elections. Operation Cast Lead took place in late 2008 and early 2009, about a month before the election in which Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party returned to power. We’ll always remember Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, standing on a hill outside Ashkelon, rebuking Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for his weakness and promising, almost swearing, to destroy Hamas.

In November 2012, Netanyahu had already been prime minister for almost four years. He and Defense Minister Ehud Barak launched Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, which lasted eight days. Hamas wasn’t destroyed, encircled or even cut in half. Bibi and Ehud got out in time, without dragging the Israel Defense Forces into a ground operation deep inside Gaza that would result in heavy casualties.

>> No matter the outcome, Gaza is becoming Netanyahu’s political nightmare >>

Moving on, we come to Operation Protective Edge, the longest war Israel ever fought, which lasted for 51 days in July-August 2014. Despite incessant trolling and enormous pressure from the right, it too ended without the reoccupation of Gaza. Our leaders, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, displayed responsibility and judgment. Elections arrived about six months later, in March 2015.

And today, with early election fever once again in the air due to the imbroglio of the army draft law (among the political establishment, the preferred date is somewhere in February or March 2019), Israel is closer than at any time in the last four years to a major operation in Gaza.

Where was the government during those four years? Why was this welcome respite not used to submit a daring, comprehensive plan which would have prevented what’s happening now? Any first-year Arabist could accurately predict that when the distress in Gaza worsens, the security situation will deteriorate.

Netanyahu and his ministers were busy with other things, some of them undoubtedly very important. And some were a bit less important, like those ugly, anti-democratic laws. So the southern front was neglected.

Over the past few weeks, and especially over the past few days, social media have been overflowing with rage. So have Likud WhatsApp groups. Netanyahu is taking friendly fire from his own forces. The ongoing saga of the fires near the Gaza border, which, in the Israeli right’s view, didn’t receive an appropriately forceful Zionist response, have hurt the prime minister among his electorate. Not mortally, perhaps not even seriously, but Netanyahu is attentive to such shifts in public opinion, especially when elections are on the horizon.

His image as “Mr. Security” has been undermined. It hasn’t gone up in flames like the fields in southern Israel and their unfortunate wild animals, but it’s definitely been burned. Every child living near Gaza understands that Israel’s deterrence, which had lasted for almost four years, has flown out the window.

Hamas wasn’t deterred from launching incendiary balloons and kites (after all, Israel announced that it wouldn’t go to war over balloons, and rightly). Now, the erosion of deterrence is also being expressed in rocket and missile fire. Hamas understands that Netanyahu doesn’t seek wars, and it’s making maximum use of this card.

The political right is gnashing its teeth. The destroyer from the hilltop has once again been revealed in all his helplessness. Had he demonstrated leadership, had he faced the nation and explained that it’s not possible to destroy Hamas without occupying Gaza and assuming responsibility for the lives of its two million impoverished and ailing residents, most of the public would have been convinced. Ultimately, people are rational.

But Netanyahu is trapped in the vise of his accursed base. And his eyes are locked in a permanent squint toward Naftali Bennett and his Habayit Hayehudi party. If he has any reason for optimism, it lies in the absence of an opponent of any substance on the other side of the river. Yair Lapid and Avi Gabbay aren’t the solution.

Moreover, he always remembers the 2015 election. It was half a year after Protective Edge, Israel’s longest war, had ended in disappointment, though with Hamas badly battered. The right was furious. But on Election Day, his voters went to the polls in droves and gave Netanyahu and Likud 30 seats. In the end, it’s a question of what the alternative is.

Crossing the lines

On her first day as leader of the opposition, Wednesday last week, MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union/Hatnuah) met with dozens of leaders of civil society organizations. She suggested that they link arms and start to coordinate messages and battles against the government.

>> Tzipi Livni to Haaretz: Next Israeli election will be referendum on the Declaration of Independence >>

“We need you and you need us,” she told them. Some of them were flabbergasted. Until now the chief opposition party had treated them like carriers of infectious diseases.

She surprised them again in regard to the labeling issue – yes left, no left. “Listen,” she said, “I led the largest center party in Israel [Kadima, from 2008 to 2012]. Already then I said that center means content, that center is a Jewish-democratic state, that center is the hyphen that connects them.

“That’s not what’s happening today,” she continued. “Netanyahu says that whatever is not to his right is left, and then Lapid comes and says that whatever is not to his right is left. I’m no longer prepared to cooperate with the flight, the alienation and the denial of ‘the left’ or from ‘the left.’ People can call me whatever they want, I don’t care. I will not be part of the delegitimization of the Israeli left.”

This is without a doubt a different Tzipi Livni than the one Netanyahu met with on April Fool’s Day in 2009, when he returned to the Prime Minister’s Bureau. Now, almost a decade later, she’s back. He never left.

Tzipi Livni at the Knesset.
Emil Salman

Betwixt and between, she served as justice minister in his previous government on behalf of Hatnuah. It started well but ended badly. The two will soon start meeting regularly again, once a month, for briefings for her, as the law stipulates. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once suggested to opposition leader Yossi Sarid “to be lawbreakers” and meet more frequently. No way that will happen with these two. The letter of the law will be upheld.

With all the friendship and affection that existed between her and her former associate in Zionist Union, Isaac Herzog (now the director of the Jewish Agency), she is determined to prove day by day and hour by hour that she is not Bougie. That his style is not her style and his path is not her path. “I don’t intend to worry about what people think,” she promised a few hours after Zionist Union activists, with her knowledge and agreement, held up posters with the text of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in the visitors’ gallery of the Knesset and were evicted by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud).

“The rules of the game have changed,” she informed the parliament in her debut speech in the Knesset this Wednesday as opposition leader. “We will not be silent, we will not kowtow, we will not be afraid and we will not be conformists, even if we’re called traitors and collaborators with the enemy.”

What does that mean in practice? It means tough speeches and militant interviews and “going down into the street” when the street isn’t abroad or in a holiday trance. And also crossing lines which she had previously avoided crossing.

Livni practiced what she preached on the day after the Channel 10 News report about the scolding that Sara Netanyahu gave Leah Goldin, the mother of the abducted fallen soldier Hadar Goldin. Two years ago, the bereaved mother dared to invite Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi), whom the lady from Balfour Street loathes with a passion, to speak at a memorial ceremony for her son. According to the report, the prime minister’s wife seethed with anger (emotion is not alien to her) when she saw Shaked. She phoned Leah Goldin, called her “ungrateful” and warned – hard to believe – that “your connection to my husband’s rivals is liable to affect the effort the prime minister undertakes on this matter [of getting Hamas to return Goldin’s remains].”

Anyone who’s lived in these parts in recent years and has heard recordings or read transcripts of the Lady, can imagine her belching these words. Livni among them. Speaking on the morning news program of Kan Radio, she said, “Those comments are incomprehensible and inhuman. The country is headed by a couple who make clear that Israel is divided into those who are for them and those who are not for them, and those who are not for them will get nothing, even if it’s the bodies of their sons who were sent into battle.”

The phrase “the country is headed by a couple” was never before uttered by any party leader in Israel. It’s a term that only wicked newspaper columnists allow themselves.

This, in a nutshell, is the new 2018 model Livni, heading for 2019. Not obfuscating, not apologizing, not ashamed. And even as she makes her way from the center to the left, little sister Meretz is gradually parting with its left-wing banner and identity.

A few months ago, I reported that the word “left” had been deleted from the posters in Meretz’s room in the Knesset. The new party leader, MK Tamar Zandberg, explained that it was part of a redesign.

It seems to have caught on. An alert reader noticed that in the Druze community demonstration in Tel Aviv last Saturday evening, Meretz supporters held up signs from which the word “left” was absent. The word did appear on the T-shirt of a person hoisting a sign. It’s apparently an old item of clothing, from a previous, primeval era.

End of the road

For Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, this government has run its course. There’s more to be done, of course, but it’s possible, even desirable, to go to the voters in February-March 2019, four years after the last election.

“We’ve completed the term of office,” he’s telling Netanyahu when they speak. Henceforth, or more accurately from the start of the Knesset’s winter session, in mid-October, the government will be like standing water. We all know what happens to puddles. Nothing good comes from them.

Here’s Kahlon’s take on the situation. The 2019 budget was passed in the Knesset last March. It’s signed, sealed and delivered. All the reforms, all the plans are already there and being worked on. The price rises in housing have been curbed. No one disputes that. To move from the stage of containment to that of lowering prices, he’ll ask the electorate for another turn. Four more years.

In the polls, his party, Kulanu, gets a steady seven seats. With a little luck and a good campaign, he’ll garner two more than that. He has a reasonable prospect of returning to the treasury, under Benjamin Netanyahu. The constant noise that claims he’s in advanced, not to say feverish, talks with Netanyahu about a Likud-Kulanu hookup or even merger, bugs him. He thinks its source lies with Likud elements who want to weaken him.

“What do I need that for?” he asks, with considerable logic. “What good would it do me to be part of Likud? What would I get? Mega-finance minister? Sub-foreign minister? And why take the risk? I’m ready to take risks if there’s a benefit. But there is none – not numerically, not politically, not personally.”

In fact, he has nothing more to do. A finance minister who’s pushed through a budget engages mostly in putting out fires. He needs to restrain irresponsible MKs who put forward crowd-pleasing, populist – and expensive – reforms in the shadow of the approaching party primaries.

The Knesset’s winter session will last five months and is likely to be difficult. Either he’ll end up being the bad guy who refuses to do what’s good for the people, or he’ll wantonly slacken the reins. Neither option makes him eager to drag out the Knesset until its natural end (in April 2019), and dissolve it only then.

It’s possible that the High Court of Justice, which set the government a new date – this coming December 2 – to enact a military draft law, dictated the timing of the election for the first quarter of next year. In that scenario, the Knesset, unable to agree on the terms of a draft bill, will dissolve itself in November. The election campaign would last about 100 days – during which the court would be asked to grant another postponement for the law’s passage.

Accordingly, the legislation would be part of the next coalition agreements. The desire of the potential partners to be part of the new government will drive them to adopt an attitude of moderation and compromise that they didn’t show before the election.

Netanyahu says he wants to ride out the Knesset’s term to its end: four years and eight months. That would be unprecedented. “If we pass the draft law, I see nothing to prevent us from continuing together until November 2019,” he told the heads of the coalition parties on Sunday, in their weekly meeting.

A few days later, following talks Netanyahu held with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), who is against the proposed draft law, and with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu), whose ministry is the one that drew up the legislation, the premier’s people issued a press communique stating that both sides had expressed a desire to find an agreed-upon solution so that the coalition can serve out its full term. Sounds too good to be true.

Kahlon is skeptical. He finds it hard to see Netanyahu getting the law passed – after it undoubtedly has undergone a partial overhaul to please Litzman’s rabbinical master – before going into an election. MK Yair Lapid is just chomping at the bit for the opportunity.