Analysis

Netanyahu Should Thank Amir Peretz, Barack Obama and God for Enabling His Gaza Restraint

If the prime minister had to contend with a charismatic rabble-rouser like himself, Israel would be at war right now

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a special cabinet meeting marking Jerusalem Day, at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem May 13, 2018.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Israel’s prime minister should thank God for creating only one Benjamin Netanyahu. His life would have been much more difficult this week if he had to contend with a talented, charismatic and unrestrained rabble-rouser such as himself. One who doesn’t hesitate to exploit security incidents to portray the government as weak, rushes to photo-ops in front of burnt out buses and flattened buildings, promises his supporters quick-fix solutions and who stood in Ashkelon in February 2009 at the site where a Hamas Grad missile landed perilously close to a kindergarten, as another rocket did this week in Israel’s south, to make a solemn pledge: “Our government won’t stop the Israeli army. We will bring down the Hamas regime in Gaza.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu would have easily caved in to a leader of the opposition like Netanyahu. He would have panicked at the thought of losing his right wing base to such an unscrupulous agitator. If the protests of a few anti-immigration Likudniks could force Netanyahu to abandon a reasonable agreement reached two months ago with the United Nations on asylum-seekers, a serious right wing uproar on a cardinal issue such as Gaza would have scared him out of his wits. If Netanyahu faced an irresponsible politician such as himself, one who knows how to incite and inflame right-wing masses, it’s likely that Israel would be waging all-out war in Gaza right now, with all the bloodshed, regional tensions and international isolation that such a campaign would necessarily entail.

But since Netanyahu is one and only, and God apparently threw away the mold after making him, Israel could wisely show restraint in its limited reaction to the rockets and mortar shells launched this week by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Because he didn’t have to face someone like Netanyahu, the prime minister didn’t feel compelled to prove his toughness, like Shimon Peres in Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996 or Ehud Olmert a decade later in the Second Lebanon War. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who should also thank his lucky stars that he doesn’t have to face an unbridled firebrand like Lieberman, worked closely with the security establishment, refrained from inflicting casualties in their bombing campaign in Gaza, basked in uncharacteristic international support and allowed the Israeli army to get back to what it sees as more urgent and vital efforts to remove the Iranian presence in Syria. 

Netanyahu also owes a debt of gratitude to Amir Peretz, the short-lived Minister of Defense who became an object of ridicule for peering through shuttered binoculars. It was Peretz who decided in late 2006 to ignore the reservations of Olmert and myriad missile-defense experts to start funding the Iron Dome project. Despite his decision, however, the project quickly ran into budget problems. The defense establishment’s request for more substantial U.S. funding received a cold shoulder from the otherwise pro-Israeli George Bush, who deferred to the Pentagon’s assessment that Iron Dome wasn’t feasible and that Israel should purchase the U.S. made Phalanx anti-missile system developed by Raytheon. In 2007, Peretz’s successor Ehud Barak OK’d sufficient funding to keep Iron Dome alive, but also acceded to Bush administration’s demands by authorizing talks with the U.S. on buying Phalanx and by pushing for closer Israeli collaboration on the development of the American laser-based anti-missile system known as Nautilus.

Which is where Barack Hussein Obama came into the picture and changed everything. Netanyahu should also be grateful to the U.S. President he could never get along with, the one depicted by his allies and supporters as a Muslim-sympathizer, Israel-hater and, frequently, out-and-out anti-Semite. After he visited the beleaguered Negev town of Sderot, target of incessant Hamas rocket attacks, during his 2008 election campaign, Obama asked his advisers to come up with plans to help Israel defend itself from incoming rockets and missiles. Soon after Obama took office, the White House asked then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl to re-evaluate Iron Dome. This is the same Kahl whose name has featured recently in reports about a request made by Donald Trump or someone acting in his name from the Israeli Black Cube company to spy on Kahl and his wife in order to obtain damaging information that could undermine his alleged efforts against Trump’s plans to annul the Iran nuclear deal. Contrary to his predecessors, Kahl signed on to Iron Dome. In September, 2009, Dan Shapiro, then director of the North Africa and Middle East desk at the National Security Council and later U.S. Ambassador to Israel, instructed the Defense Department to send a team of experts to Israel to take another look at iron Dome. This time, their findings were favorable.

Despite being subjected to constant harangues by Republicans in Washington about the harm he was supposedly doing to Israel’s defense in general and to its missile-defense capabilities in particular, the Obama administration proceeded over the ensuing years to funnel close to $1.5 billion for the development and production of Iron Dome. The American generosity was unique, given that Iron Dome was an independent Israeli project that did not include technological collaboration with the U.S. Boosted by U.S. funding, Iron Dome became operational in 2011 and was deployed with increasing success in both Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Protective Edge in 2014. Over the last few days, it has proven its newfound ability to intercept mortar shells as well.

Netanyahu thus owes his freedom of action to Obama’s far-sightedness, Israeli ingenuity, and no small measure of luck, which prevented loss of life from the few Hamas rockets and mortars that successfully evaded Iron Dome. If Israeli children had been killed by the rocket that landed near a vacant kindergarten in one of the settlements near Gaza, even politicians from Habayit HaYehudi such as Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Betzalel Smotrich, whose ability to push a prime minister into a corner is dramatically lower than a Netanyahu in opposition, would have sufficed to compel the prime minister to launch a dangerous, all-out campaign.

Netanyahu has another good reason to miss Obama’s White House. Obama would have harshly criticized the killing of scores of Palestinians during at the Gaza fence on Nakba Day, and would have pressured Israel to restrain itself in responding to the rocket attacks that ensued.Netanyahu could have easily told his saber-rattling cabinet ministers that much as he yearned to lash out at Hamas, Obama the Evil One is holding him back. With Trump in the White House, that convenient excuse is no longer valid. The Trump administration gives Israel uncheckered support and a carte blanche to act militarily as it sees fit. Rather than putting the brakes on Israel, like previous administrations, Trump prefers to cruise in neutral and, according to some sources, even encourage Israel to press on the gas pedal. 

The U.S. President, in any case, is otherwise engaged. His diplomats are pursuing the possibility of reviving the June 12 summit in Singapore with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, despite the findings of a CIA report this week that Pyongyang has no intention of acceding to U.S. demands to denuclearize, though Kim might offer Trump a consolation prize in the form of a burger joint in the North Korean capital. But even North Korea’s nuclear threat is taking a back seat these days to Trump’s increasingly unhinged efforts to undermine Robert Mueller’s investigations, which appear to be nearing their fateful climax.

Backed by an apathetic U.S. President who has acceded to his every wish as well his strategic understandings with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Netanyahu prefers to concentrate on his campaign against Iran, in Syria and elsewhere. A flare-up in Gaza, at this point, would be a nuisance that would have diverted the army’s resources elsewhere. In defusing the crisis, Netanyahu was also fortunate to face a fanatic adversary such as Hamas, which has brought Gaza to the point of collapse, depleted its military options and recklessly squandered the inroads it had made in international public opinion in the wake of the killings on the Gaza fence. Netanyahu came to the table with all the cards in his hands, against an enemy that is increasingly lost and helpless.

Nonetheless, his handling of the immediate Gaza crisis is an exception that proves the rule, an example of calculated foresight that belies his otherwise shortsighted policies. Netanyahu’s government has done virtually nothing since Protective Edge ended four years ago to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which was only made worse in recent days and could still explode in Israel’s face. Instead of utilizing the favorable international environment in order to advance the peace process, Netanyahu prefers to ride on the coattails of the Trump administration’s indifference in order to marginalize Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. So one is left to wonder why Netanyahu limits his responsible conduct to national security affairs while allowing himself to run wild, like a demagogue in the town square, on issues connected to the rule of law, the safeguarding of Israeli democracy, national unity and the delegitimization of anyone who doesn’t agree with him.

This is the true tragedy that was once again revealed this week: The intolerable gap between what Netanyahu might have been, the serious and restrained statesman that oversaw Israeli actions in Gaza this week, and the hesitant, divisive and apparently crooked politician who is the Israeli prime minister in practice. Even if he theoretically has good intentions, all it takes to scuttle them is for Netanyahu to look at himself in the mirror and be consumed by fear that someone just as cynical could suddenly pop out from nowhere to show everyone just what a defeatist coward the prime minister really is.