Analysis

Netanyahu's Gaza Test: Will He Avoid a War He Already Called Unnecessary?

The more one unpacks the prime minister's nice-sounding words about the cost of war, the clearer the strategy – or, more accurately, the lack thereof

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flanked by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot and other senior officials, November 12, 2018.
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

A key rule of politics, especially in the Middle East, is that the distance between theory and reality is about “a hair’s breadth from a combination of circumstances,” as the poet Wisawa Szymborska once wrote about another universe.

It’s the distance between the fraction of a second in which a mother decides to rush her children to the fortified room in the middle of the night and a national tragedy. Or the distance between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dramatic statements in a Paris hotel about his efforts to prevent an “unnecessary war” and the unanticipated military snafu, just a few hours later, that’s liable to drag him into exactly that.

Because circumstances usually end up being stronger than statements. And the test of a leader is his ability to stick to his principles at the moment of truth and navigate against the tide.

“I’m working in every possible way to try to restore quiet to residents of communities near Gaza, and also to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” Netanyahu said at a press conference he convened on Sunday during his visit to France. “I’m doing everything I can to prevent an unnecessary war. Every war claims lives. I’m not afraid of a war if it’s necessary, but I want to prevent one if it’s not necessary – if I believe another war will only return us to the status quo as of March 29.”

These remarks, broadcast live to the Israeli public, were the most explicit comments Netanyahu has made about Gaza since the latest escalation there began.

Alongside this antiwar speech about young men who go and don’t return, about the terrible price that must be avoided if there’s any other way to achieve the same result, the prime minister also explained his tactical plan: “First calm, and then what’s been termed an arrangement.”

But the more one delves into his responses and unpacks those nice-sounding words about the cost of war, the clearer the strategy – or, more accurately, the lack of one – behind the tactic becomes. There’s nothing inside the verbal wrapping.

Netanyahu doesn’t believe there is a long-term diplomatic solution in Gaza. Moreover, he opposes the very idea of such a thing.

“I can’t make a diplomatic agreement with an organization whose ideology is to destroy us,” he said. “No political solution exists for Gaza, I have no solution for ISIS, I have no solution for Iran as long as it declares that it’s trying to destroy us.”

And when there’s no real long-term plan of action other than Band-Aids and buying time, it’s hard to believe Netanyahu’s grandiose statements will be able to resist the pull of circumstances. He himself admitted at one point that it’s “too early to say” whether his plan will work, and that if the quiet doesn’t continue, “we’ll employ maximum force.” If the carrot doesn’t work, why not try the stick – which, according to Netanyahu, could go as far as “occupying Gaza.”

After all, there’s no ultimate goal in any case, so it’s possible to try anything that will buy him a little more quiet. Or not.

Netanyahu has also said repeatedly in recent weeks, both on and off the record, that he’s willing to deal with public criticism of his containment policy, because he’s accumulated enough political capital to do so. “Ultimately, you accumulate a certain store of credit and you have to use it on a rainy day,” he said. “And that’s what I’m doing, in the knowledge that this is my mission – to ensure Israel’s security.”

The coming days will provide the real test of this mission, and of the worldview he laid out for the Israeli public in his remarks in Paris. Will Netanyahu continue to stick to the principles he articulated? Or will his credit line at the political capital bank suddenly run out, leading him to capitulate and switch to Tactical Plan B, just as he has in the past – for instance, in the case of his deal with the United Nations over the asylum seekers? In short, will he avoid a war he has already termed unnecessary?