Analysis

Why Netanyahu Really Isn't Eager for a Gaza War

As Gaza boils and Netanyahu balks, Lieberman, one of the premier's main rivals on the right, is demanding a tough response by Israel. Meanwhile, their colleagues on the center-left are looking for a savior

A gif showing Netanyahu and Lieberman strategizing over a map on the Gaza border. The PM is munching on pickles as rockets fly by.
Amos Biderman

A few days before a rocket hit the home of the Tamano family in Be’er Sheva on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with a member of the security cabinet. The minister got the impression, and not for the first time, that a war in the Gaza Strip isn’t in the cards. “I’m not eager for unnecessary wars,” Netanyahu said recently. “Not eager” is an understatement: The possibility appalls him.

What does the prime minister mean by “unnecessary”? The cabinet minister explained: “It’s impossible to eradicate Hamas, to annihilate them. There will always be new and fresh Hamasniks. We’ll bomb Gaza, destroy command centers, kill terrorists, and we still won’t have achieved anything. When you operate in Syria, you achieve something. You destroy a missile factory, incinerate a suspicious convoy. Every bombing run is useful, it delays Iranian consolidation. Gaza is a different story. After every war you go back to square one, with one difference: Occupancy in the cemeteries and the hospitals has increased.”

That approach can explain the quiet that descended on the southern border after two rockets were fired – at Be’er Sheva and at Metropolitan Tel Aviv – followed by precision strikes on the Strip by the Israel Air Force. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the current round of hostilities has ended.

Two campaigns – Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 – started with a surprise attack on Gaza by the IAF a few days after earlier spates of violence had abated. Both operations took place on the eve of a general election in Israel. In the first instance, Netanyahu was leader of the opposition during the Ehud Olmert government. He climbed a hill near Ashkelon and promised to eradicate Hamas. Ten years on, the Islamist organization is at the peak of its military strength, and its leaders are conducting indirect talks with Israel.

The second operation came near the end of Netanyahu’s second term of office. He behaved exactly the way Olmert did before him: He stopped in time, without entangling the Israel Defense Forces in a casualty-heavy and pointless ground offensive in the Strip. He shut his ears to the loud warmongering by the right wing, including in his own party. The responsibility he demonstrated cost Likud Knesset seats – they went to Habayit Hayehudi, in its first run in the Knesset under Naftali Bennett.

Now we’re either at the beginning of another military campaign – or a cease-fire is closer than ever. In any case, Netanyahu will have to resolve the Gaza issue before declaring an early election. You don’t mix one good thing with another, and his head is bursting with good things.

The moderate decision by Agudat Yisrael’s Council of Torah Sages – to allow the latest version of the law calling for induction of ultra-Othodox men to go through, without dismantling the coalition – has given Netanyahu room to maneuver. The government is in no immediate danger of falling, and can address the Gaza problem until it is resolved one way or the other. Without a long-term arrangement in the Strip, and if the violence continues, Netanyahu will be compelled to do what he doesn’t like doing: to decide.

The two politicians who represent the right in the coalition, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) and Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi), are demanding that the prime minister take action.

Lieberman is proposing a harsh one-time blow to be followed by negotiations. Bennett is demanding a substantial intensification of the IDF’s day-to-day activity against the Palestinians who are breaching the fence in the south, and against the launchers of the incendiary balloons. We needn’t envy Netanyahu. Between Bennett and Lieberman, and the posture of the defense establishment and the army, which see no point in another military operation – his inclination is clear.

Anti-climax

Netanyahu at the opening of the winter Knesset session.
David Bachar

The opening of a Knesset session is a festive event. It happens every year, in the fall. In line with a longstanding tradition, a who’s who of dignitaries – the president, the prime minister, the leader of the opposition and the president of the Supreme Court, together with their spouses – gather in the bureau of the Knesset Speaker for small talk and light refreshments before the session begins.

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu didn’t show up on Monday afternoon; the chairs behind the signs bearing their names at the table in the bureau remained empty. The prime minister was also late arriving at the chamber, entering after Speaker Yuli Edelstein had begun delivering his speech. Sara strode in and took her place in the VIP gallery, not before exchanging kisses with everyone she encountered. Edelstein fixed a cold gaze on her from afar. If looks could kill.

A little earlier, Netanyahu tweeted that he would be delivering a very interesting speech before the Knesset. The tweet caught on and the assessments multiplied. What would Bibi say, the media tried to guess. The tweet appeared as a pop-up message on cell phones: “In addition to the prime minister,” it noted, “Edelstein, President Reuven Rivlin and opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni will also speak.”

“We can all learn a thing or two about marketing from him,” Livni remarked.

But Netanyahu did not deliver on his promise. His speech contained nothing interesting or exceptional. An anti-climax. The same slogans, the same boasting about achievements – some of them genuine, others less so – and a reprise of the previous year’s hit: “sourpusses.”

Livni, who spoke after him, had scribbled a response on a piece of paper. She wanted to say: We are not sour, Mr. Prime Minister, we are smoked – a not-so-subtle reference to the events in the fields and orchards bordering the Gaza Strip. But at the last minute, she decided to drop the idea.

Netanyahu’s two senior cabinet members, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu), didn’t bother to show. Lieberman was busy with Gaza issues. Earlier that day, at a meeting of his party’s MKs, he took a swipe at Netanyahu: “Those who wanted to use the conscription law as an excuse for calling an election, will have to look for a new excuse.”

Kahlon was a no-show because he just didn’t feel like being there. He’d had enough of Netanyahu the previous week, when he found himself playing the potted-plant role at a spontaneous press conference the prime minister had called for economic affairs reporters, who had come to hear their joint announcement about the candidate for the next governor of the Bank of Israel. Netanyahu, who realized he’d gone too far, later compensated Kahlon by singling him out from all the ministers for praise, for lowering housing costs.

“I am way past the stage of compensation,” Kahlon later commented dismissively.

The premier survived the Knesset festivities. Another day at the office. But the next day was a bad one – which is rare, since he hardly has any bad days. He lost his cool and good manners during a visit to Kiryat Shmona, when a local social activist (and veteran Likud voter) complained, rightly, about the closure of an emergency room in the Upper Galilee town.

Labor leader Avi Gabbay.
Emil Salman

The mocking, shameful words he hurled at Orna Peretz, deliberately speaking slowly, at dictation speed, immediately entered the local political lexicon. “Look, you’re just not interesting. You’re boring us. Say something interesting.” She complains about the lack of an emergency room – he derides her, disdains her, is almost contemptuous of her.

The explanation provided later by his aides – that the boss was grieving over the death earlier that day of his close friend and longtime lawyer, Jacob Weinroth – was far from convincing. If the wise and restrained Weinroth had come back to life, he would have advised Netanyahu to apologize.

Avi Gabbay’s Zionist Union, which has very few good days – and those it has are not of its making – then did what was called for. His party launched an internet campaign and hung signs in the streets of Kiryat Shmona, a traditional Likud stronghold: “Orna, you’re of interest to us.”

All well and good. But the question is whether Zionist Union – the current incarnation of Labor that local residents still dismissively refer to by its old name, “the Alignment” – interests them. That’s far from certain.

The walking dead

Every passing day, every newscast, every public opinion survey drives home to Labor/Zionist Union that without a major shake-up, a genuine big bang, its fate is sealed.

With an average of 12-13 potential Knesset seats, according to the surveys, the road to a single-digit result and total collapse is short, quick and painful. If the party and its candidate for prime minister aren’t leading the center-left bloc and aren’t perceived as a threat to Likud, as they were in the 2015 campaign after Zionist Union was created – the voters will flee for their lives: to Yair Lapid, to Orli Levi-Abekassis, to Meretz and of course to Benny Gantz. The party will have to close up shop and recite Kaddish for itself.

There is also growing awareness that Gabbay cannot lead the party and that he won’t lead it, either. But he won’t be ousted; for Gabbay to be ousted, there would have to be someone to do the ousting. Someone who would agree to become an alternative candidate and raise a limp banner. There is no such person. Neither Gantz nor MK Amir Peretz nor Ehud Barak would lend a hand to a dirty maneuver whose acrid stench would stick to them, too.

The solution the MKs are pondering and day and night is to oust themselves. From Gabbay and from the whole sad Zionist Union brand. “Split” has become a magic word, an obsession, an option. But the act of splitting is the easy part. What’s the next stage? Who will head those who leave? Who will be their leader in the election campaign? They look this way and that, and see Tzipi Livni, illuminated in bright lights.

One idea that’s come up recently in their conversations is to split from Labor, establish an independent faction and then say to Livni: That’s it, the story of Zionist Union is over. Dismantle the partnership with Labor, take the MKs from your party – Hatnuah – and we’ll all go with Gantz. We will become the alternative. Lapid will shrink, Zionist Union will disappear, a new bloc will come to life. Winds of change, of hope, will blow among us and breathe life into the cadaver.

All the signs show that their analysis is correct. Gantz and Livni together could be just what the doctor ordered for the center-left bloc. It’s true that the former chief of staff hasn’t yet uttered a word, articulated any position, committed to anything or set forth a creed. But it’s not too far-fetched to envision him in the breathing space between Labor and Likud. The combination of a security figure and a statesperson, a man and a woman, a former chief of staff and an ex-foreign minister, with much joint experience between them, might work.

The Zionist Union MKs, the walking dead, aren’t just content to talk among themselves. They are coaxing Livni. It’s true, they’re telling her, that you signed an agreement with Gabbay for partnership under his leadership, in return for becoming opposition leader. But the country comes first. Toppling Netanyahu and the right-wing coalition – or at least restraining them in a future government that will not be able to be formed without us – is more important. Sometimes you have to dismantle things in order to put them back together and bring them back to life.

Livni listens and sighs. Her caution, her experience, her apprehension – all these are making her keep mum. She won’t say anything that will get her into trouble, that will be leaked and necessitate a denial. Just before the Knesset’s summer break, when she negotiated the renewal of the partnership between Zionist Union’s two component parties with Gabbay, Labor MKs tried to talk her out of it. Don’t sign, they implored, don’t lash yourself to a sinking ship. We need you.

But being appointed official leader of the opposition was major bait. Livni signed. She told Gabbay that she intended to go on working in the name of connections, mergers and fusions. She announced publicly that she’d be ready to give up the place reserved for her on Zionist Union’s Knesset slate for the sake of a talent like Gantz. That was a hint to Gabbay, that he should do the same. He demurred, saying that Gantz wouldn’t come.

Livni is meeting with every potential political player in the gallery, on the shelf, in the closet or in the freezer. One of them is Moshe Ya’alon, the former defense minister. She is also meeting with Gantz and with Barak. After years of bad blood, she and Barak have patched things up.

Livni’s presence in the established media and the social networks far exceeds Gabbay’s. The role of leader of the opposition accords her a great advantage. Her Twitter account and Facebook page are pulsing with life.

Anyone not familiar with political minutiae could easily get the impression that Livni is the leader of the party and Gabbay is just another backbencher who occasionally gets interviewed. MKs who speak with him say that she is driving him crazy. Barak also throws him off course. They both overshadow him.

Gabbay is going through the worst period of his life. He can be compared to the CEO of a big company whose shares are plummeting and whose financial reports are catastrophic, but who is helpless. He can’t fire anyone, he can’t streamline, he can’t merge. He’s alone at the top.

Most of those who backed Gabbay in the Zionist Union Labor primary have abandoned him. Others are keeping a safe distance. Each option is worse than the last: declaration of bankruptcy, going into receivership, a going-concern audit or resignation.

With friends like these

A member of the Likud Central Committee, one of 3,700 in the body, got a phone call this week. On the line was the campaign headquarters of Nir Barkat, the outgoing mayor of Jerusalem, who will run in the Likud primary.

The caller told him that Beverly, the candidate’s wife, was organizing a surprise party for his birthday, on November 2. Does the central committee member plan to attend? We would be delighted, we’d be deeply appreciative.

“What kind of surprise?” the recipient of the call wondered. A “save the date” message about the event has been circulating among Likudniks’ WhatsApp groups for the past two weeks. Everyone’s talking about it. He also wondered why he had been singled out. He doesn’t know the candidate personally. He wasn’t invited to any of his previous 58 birthday observances. Checking Wikipedia, he discovered that the man of the hour was born on October 19. Who holds a party for himself two weeks after his birthday? Why not on the actual day, or closer to it? It’s not even a round age, just plain old 59.

Why not, indeed? Because the event is totally political, totally geared to the primary, the explanation will also be political. Likud activists are much in demand these days. The MKs, the cabinet ministers, the new candidates, anyone who wants to be buddies with them – all are meeting with activists in the local branches, in parlor meetings, at numerous gatherings and family events being celebrated by them.

Barkat, the wealthiest politician in Israel – Forbes estimated his worth at 450 million shekels (about $112 million) in 2013 – knows that the way to the hearts of the party’s functionaries is through their stomachs. They are willing to travel, in their thousands, dozens of kilometers every year during the Sukkot week, for lukewarm beer and limp sausages at the home of Yisrael and Ronit Katz in Moshav Kfar Ahim. The free food and drink work on them like a charm, lures them like a moth to a flame.

At the Avenue Conference Center in Airport City, one of the most expensive banquet halls in the country, Barkat will offer them a lot more than a basic menu. They’ve seen his deep pockets in the tours of Jerusalem he organized for them during the past year, which included lunch in good restaurants. None of his Likud competitors is capable of giving them the good time they’re going to have on November 2. No way.

The bizarre late date might have something to do with the date of the municipal elections, October 30. Before that, central committee members and other activists will be busy working on behalf of Likud candidates and local council lists all over the country. They won’t be available. After that day, even if there are second rounds of votes here and there that require less energetic commitment and action – they will have time on their hands, and will be free to celebrate 59 autumns for Nir.

A spokesperson for Barkat’s headquarters stated that the celebration of his birthday is “a private event that is not political, is not being underwritten by public funds and is being held at the initiative of Beverly Barkat. It’s an appropriate occasion to note a notable and honorable chapter in Nir Barkat’s life. The people invited to the event are those who have accompanied Nir in different periods of his life, in the army, in business… and during his tenure as mayor… and, indeed, also good and dear friends in the Likud movement.”

A “private event” that’s being publicized in the least private forum possible – mass WhatsApp groups – and followed up by personal phone calls from headquarters, is a refreshing innovation. Turning central committee members who have never exchanged a word with the birthday boy into his “good and dear” friends, is nothing short of unconditional love. Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi could take a leaf from this book.