Analysis

Netanyahu and IDF vs. Israeli Ministers: How Gaza War Was Avoided at Last Minute

Army chief presented cabinet with grim scenarios: A war in which Israel conquers the Strip, or weeks of violence after which the sides are back where they started

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends an annual state memorial ceremony for Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, at his gravesite in Sde Boker, Israel November 14, 2018.
REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

It's not just the northern front Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at when he said earlier this week at the memorial for Paula Ben-Gurion that there are security considerations he can't share with the public.

In private conversations and, unusually, in several recent speeches, the prime minister has sounded crystal clear: He will continue to do everything in his power to prevent a war that he sees as dangerous and unnecessary.

On the other hand, like Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who just resigned, he is undoubtedly afraid of suffering political damage, even though he said this week that he’s willing to absorb such damage. In Wednesday’s Israel Television News poll, Netanyahu’s Likud party made its worst showing of the last eight months.

In the holding action he is waging against supporters of a war in Gaza, Netanyahu has a reliable ally in IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot. The two appear to be completely coordinated. It was Eisenkot who gave the security cabinet a sober description of the week’s events.

In this case, it was Israel that began the escalation. Thanks to pressure from Egypt, which sent intelligence officials to Gaza, Hamas reined in the violent demonstrations along the fence over the last two weeks. Hamas leaders were also pleased by the positive momentum created by the delivery of fuel and cash from Qatar, and especially the tripling of the number of hours of daily electricity Gaza residents received. Israel thought the atmosphere would also enable progress in talks about a long-term cease-fire.

But despite the volatile situation, a special operation  by an elite unit was authorized near the Gazan town of Khan Yunis. Such operations take place under the enemy’s radar dozens of times a year in various sectors. The army considers them essential and thinks they justify the permanent risk of complications, such as casualties or capture, even under delicate strategic circumstances.

The soldiers’ discovery by a Hamas military wing patrol sparked a gun fight that killed Lt. Col. M., the commander of the Israeli force, and seven armed Palestinians. M.’s deputy was wounded, as were seven other Palestinians. The resourcefulness displayed by the wounded reservist officer and the other soldiers enabled them to make contact with the helicopter that evacuated them, thereby saving the officer’s life.

In the army’s view, Hamas’ response may have been unjustified, but it was understandable. The organization came across a secret Israeli operation behind its lines and suffered many casualties.

Its response included firing some 460 rockets and mortars at Israel and launching an anti-tank missile at a bus near the border on Monday afternoon. The IDF responded with a series of airstrikes against Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets, including several multi-story buildings.

At the security cabinet meeting and in other security discussions, three options were raised: refraining from any response, dealing Hamas a blow the army termed “significant,” or launching a major military operation, another version of the 2014 Gaza war. The IDF, as veteran officers would say it always does, recommended the middle option, which it deemed proportionate.

Some ministers wanted the army to explain why it hadn’t assassinated senior Hamas officials. The answer lies in part in the way the latest round of fighting began. Israel didn’t plan it in advance, and as soon as it erupted, Hamas leaders went underground, so the element of surprise was lost. But in any case, the IDF isn’t enthusiastic about resuming assassinations.

Some ministers think it’s possible to wage a lengthy campaign from afar without sending ground forces into Gaza. But Eisenkot believe the domino effect would come into play. The Palestinians would escalate by firing on the Tel Aviv area, and the government, under public pressure, would call up the reserves. And when the escalation continued, it would send them into Gaza.

>> Read more: Netanyahu's dilemma: Surrender to his arch-enemies or be forcefully dragged into elections | Analysis

At that point, one of two things would happen: Israel would occupy Gaza and get embroiled in maintaining the occupation, or it would stop the fighting after a few weeks – at which point the negotiations with Hamas would resume exactly where they left off.

The General Staff doesn’t believe the number of casualties justifies going to war, and it was a bit surprised by some ministers’ evident yearning to return to the glory days of the Second Lebanon War of 2006 and Operation Protective Edge of 2014. True, this week, an officer was killed, and then a Palestinian worker was killed by a Katyusha rocket Hamas fired at Ashkelon. But the number of fatalities on the Palestinian side is much greater. Some 250 people have been killed in Gaza since the start of the year, compared to three people killed in Israel.

The army doesn’t accept Lieberman’s view that this is a “war of no choice.” By that logic, senior officers said, we’d have been launching a large-scale operation every two weeks for the last 70 years. It’s better to take a deep breath and think before doing something stupid.

War, the army says, must be a last resort, used only after every other option has been thoroughly explored. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whom Eisenkot served as military secretary, launched a war – Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank – only after more than 130 Israelis were killed in a single month, the terrible March of 2002.

The intelligence agencies say that Hamas understands the military balance of power, and it, too, is trying to avoid a war, knowing that the price paid by the Palestinians would be incomparably greater. Moreover, the fact that Egypt and Qatar have demonstrated a deep commitment to arranging a cease-fire means an indirect agreement could still be reached, one that would prevent a war and start easing Gaza’s severe humanitarian distress.

Meanwhile, after a week of almost-war, a last-minute cease-fire, a coalition crisis and the defense minister’s dramatic resignation, Friday is upon us once again, and everyone is waiting to see what will happen along the Gaza border. The IDF will presumably take an especially hard line this Friday to show that it isn’t willing to return to a situation of violent weekly clashes with protesters along the border fence.