Analysis

This Memorial Day, Netanyahu's Biggest Achievement Is the One He Won't Talk About

Far fewer Israelis have died from terror and warfare under Bibi, but this belies his image as a tough man to meet on the battlefield

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks past wreaths during a ceremony marking Memorial Day, at a monument in Jerusalem, May 7, 2019.
Ronen Zvulun/AFP

On Wednesday, as Benjamin Netanyahu attends the Memorial Day service on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, as he looks down the long rows of graves in the military cemetery, one of them of his brother, he may allow himself a brief moment of satisfaction. Under his premiership, just as during the tenures of all his predecessors, those lines have lengthened, and new ones have started as more soldiers have been lain to rest. But on his watch the march of death has been slower.

This isn't just a statistical blip. Netanyahu has the lowest annual casualty rates of any Israeli prime minister. In his nearly 13 years in office, the average number of soldiers and members of other security forces dying in the line of duty – and of civilians killed in terror attacks or acts of war – is 103.

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The only prime minister who comes close is the unelected Moshe Sharett, whose annual average during his short term in office was a death toll of 126. The next lowest was Ehud Olmert at 181. For previous prime ministers, the number skyrockets.

These figures, compiled by data analyst Nehemia Gershuni-Aylho, are incomplete. Due to the way the security services define death in the line of duty, the tally also includes personnel who died in accidents, from natural causes while in service, and from complications of old wounds.

Thus they aren’t a perfect indicator of the level of violence and warfare, but the gap in Netanyahu’s favor is still telling. Far fewer Israelis have died from terror and warfare under Netanyahu. Especially in the last decade, since he returned to office, there have been significantly fewer wars, major military campaigns and terror attacks. (There aren't yet corresponding figures for Palestinian and other Arab deaths during the terms of Israeli prime ministers, but it seems that on average these numbers have also been lower in the last decade.)

Not just Netanyahu

There are multiple long-term reasons for the dip in violence. Of the three Arab neighbors that previously fought with Israel, two, Egypt and Jordan, made peace with it under previous prime ministers, not Netanyahu. And in the case of Syria, internal turmoil has decimated its power to wage war. Since the second intifada ended in 2005, the Palestinians have lost much of their appetite for armed insurrection and are more focused on the internecine Fatah-Hamas conflict. In Lebanon, Hezbollah fought its last major battle with Israel in 2006 under Netanyahu’s predecessor Olmert and has since been biding its time.

While many of the factors are long-term and beyond Netanyahu’s control, he still deserves credit for not letting Israel be sucked into any of the regional wars, even when they’re being waged so nearby as in the Golan or Sinai. And while in the last decade Israel has embarked on two larger-scale operations in Gaza, in 2012 and 2014, in countless other escalations, including the one last week, Netanyahu has been prepared to enter rushed cease-fires with Hamas even though his right-wing base and many of his cabinet colleagues urged much more forceful action, including a ground offensive.

In Syria, as the Iranian presence grew, attacks against the Quds force and Hezbollah were nearly always carried out without fanfare. It has been the same in the West Bank. When waves of violence like the “stabbing intifada” at the end of 2015 began, Netanyahu chose the more low-profile options presented to him by security officials: increased surveillance, economic inducements in the form of work permits, and working with the Palestinian Authority’s security apparatus.

A healthy awareness of the limits of military force, combined with, in Netanyahu’s case, an unhealthy suspicion of the politically-unreliable generals. Netanyahu’s security policy, certainly ever since he stopped saber-rattling about a war with Iran in 2012, is a cautious and risk-averse one that favors covert operations and surgical strikes over the temptation of unleashing the army’s unwieldy armored divisions.

Maybe he’s right

The result, as far as Israelis are concerned, is fewer casualties. But strangely, this is the one good thing about Netanyahu’s administration that he doesn’t boast about. God knows he boasts about enough things that he doesn’t deserve most of the credit for – like Israel’s economy, which is booming largely on the efforts of his predecessors and the entrepreneurs of the private tech sector, who are hardly among his natural political supporters.

Perhaps the fact that Netanyahu doesn’t mention his relatively low casualty rate as an achievement tells us more about him – that he doesn’t want to be seen as a cautious leader, even though he is. That he believes it’s more in his political interest to be seen by Israelis as a prime minister who wouldn’t hesitate to go to war, and it serves Israel’s purposes that the world perceives him as a warmonger.

And maybe he’s right. Israeli voters like a strongman. Benny Gantz evidently thought as much, or his campaign wouldn’t have run that horrendous video that basked in the number of Palestinian fighters killed and Gaza buildings razed in 2014 when he was army chief. And certainly in the Middle East, the perception of weakness can be just as bad as actually being weak.

Better for Netanyahu to be known as a stubborn leader who won’t make concessions to the Palestinians than one who will try to avoid a bloody confrontation. He’s happy to be seen as opposing peace, but opposing war isn’t a good look for him. Perhaps Netanyahu feels weak at not having acted the warlord as his predecessors did. I’ve asked right-wing campaigners why they think Netanyahu doesn’t play up his low casualty rates, and they were unanimous that he fears looking indecisive.

If he’s right, and few politicians have a better understanding of their electorate than Netanyahu, it also says something very tragic about his voters. While every day, especially on this day of remembrance, Israelis keenly feel the loss of their young soldiers, they prefer to reward Netanyahu for his uncompromising posture rather than for preventing more deaths. And Netanyahu would rather be thought of as a leader prepared to sacrifice lives than one who saved them.