The real target of the Israeli operation in Gaza on Sunday night is unlikely to be revealed for decades to come. Hindsight speculation on whether or not it was wise to launch the operation at the very moment that a long-term cease-fire in Gaza seemed to be finally materializing is largely pointless.
Here’s what we can say almost for certain: When this operation was brought to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s desk at one of the routine meetings with the heads of the security establishment in which cross-border activity is authorized by the prime minister, Netanyahu gave the green light based on the assumption that like a thousand previous operations, this one would be over by morning and no one in Israel and Gaza beyond a small circle of secret partners would be any wiser.
Netanyahu has the experience not only of authorizing such missions, but of actually participating and leading them on the ground. One could say a lot of bad things about him, but few politicians who make life-and-death decisions have his experience in assessing the chances of such an operation going wrong and being revealed.
He’s made mistakes on these calls before; most famously when greenlighting the hastily – planned assassination attempt in Amman of Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal in 1997, which resulted in the arrest of the Mossad agents involved, forcing Israel to administer an antidote which saved Mashaal’s life, and to release seventy Hamas member (including the movement’s founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin) in order to placate the furious Jordanians.
Netanyahu learned his lesson and has over the years become more circumspect when authorizing his security chiefs' plans.
When it comes to mobilizing the entire Israel Defense Forces, he is even more cautious. Netanyahu, as the graduate of a tiny elite unit, has always harbored the suspicion that the “big army”, with its unwieldy armored brigades and divisions, is not up to snuff. In the thirteen years in total that he has spent as prime minister, Netanyahu has been wary of large-scale military offensives. In fact, the only time he authorized a wide ground operation, during the Gaza war in 2014, he held out for weeks despite entreaties from his cabinet colleagues and the IDF General Staff, to let them go in. Even when he gave the go-ahead, it was for limited incursions to deal mainly with Hamas’ tunnels.
Netanyahu, despite his warmongering image, is risk-averse and has the lowest average casualty-rate of any of Israel’s prime ministers. The image is due to the fact that he hates grand peace deals as much as he hates big wars. Now, in the wake of the latest cease-fire with Gaza, he is being criticized for his “weakness” on all sides, from the right-wing within his own coalition and from the center-left opposition parties. On social media he is being mocked with old footage of his own statements when he was leader of the opposition, more than a decade ago, criticizing the Olmert government for its weakness on Hamas in Gaza.
But Netanyahu was doing then what every opposition leader does. The Netanyahu of today, who is prepared to take political flak for the cease-fire, and who on Sunday at a press conference with Israeli reporters during his curtail to Paris (just before the covert operation in Gaza went so badly wrong) strenuously defended the deal to transfer 90 million dollars of Qatari money to Hamas, is the real Netanyahu.
No, he’s not a closet peacenik. A cease-fire in Gaza fits in perfectly with Netanyahu’s rejectionist strategy. It’s a strategy which he expanded twenty-five years ago in his book "A Place Among the Nations" and occasionally, when he gives a rare lecture or a real press conference in which he expands on his philosophy, it remains his unchanging roadmap.
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These are Netanyahu’s five principles on dealing with the Palestinians:
1) He is determined to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. No matter what he may have said nine years ago to mollify then-U.S. President Barack Obama who had scared him early on.
2) The Palestinians in the occupied territories will have to make do with living in semi-autonomous enclaves in Gaza and parts of the West Bank over which Israeli will have ultimate security and border control. Nowadays, to pretend he still believes in the two-state solution, he calls these enclaves a “state-minus.”
3) The responsibility for the welfare of the Palestinians is on the Arab nations who for decades exploited their plight to put pressure on Israel. In this case, the Qatari money to Gaza is just what Netanyahu has always believed in.
4) Israel can and will improve its relations with the Arab nations, without connection to the Palestinian issue. The burgeoning ties between Netanyahu’s government and the Arab Gulf states is proof to him that this is working.
5) Time is on Israel’s side. Netanyahu has argued that in the same way it took decades for Egypt and Jordan to accept the very presence of a Jewish state until they made peace, the same process will happen with the other Arab states and eventually even the Palestinians will have to accept matters as they are.
The cease-fire deal fits perfectly with his long-term strategy. So what if buying off Hamas in Gaza with Qatari money, effectively kicking the can down the road for a couple more years, doesn’t solve anything. At most it will give Israel a few years of temporary calm on the southern front and alleviate the humanitarian situation in Gaza enough to avoid a full-blown crisis. But Netanyahu isn’t looking for a long-term solution now. He doesn’t believe one exists with the Palestinians, besides what he call “peace of deterrence” – another word for bullying the Palestinians until they give up. He’s perfectly aware that won’t happen in the foreseeable future and he’s prepared to wait even for another generation if that’s what it takes.
Netanyahu also has short-term reasons for his eagerness to gain a cease-fire and push Gaza off the agenda for a while. On the domestic front, next year there will be elections. A war in Gaza or a drip-dropping of mortar fire on the communities near the border will erode his standing as “Mr. Security.” Better to take what he believes will be a short-lived hit to his popularity now, present himself as “the only responsible grownup” and closer to the elections win back the hearts of his hard-right base with racism toward Israeli-Arabs and incitement toward the Left, just as he did in 2015.
On the international diplomatic front, Netanyahu wants to make sure that he can deflect any possible peace initiative coming from the Trump administration or from the Europeans. Calm in Gaza reduces international pressure on him to make concessions to the Palestinians. It also energizes the rift between Hamas and Fatah, as Mahmoud Abbas is fuming at the way the Egypt-Qatar-Israel-Hamas deal has totally bypassed his Palestinian Authority and further distanced it from Gaza. A deeply divided Palestinian leadership makes any diplomatic process that much more difficult.
Netanyahu isn’t happy at having to fend off the criticism of his “weakness” to Hamas but he knows the short attention span of the Israeli news cycle. The moment rockets stop flying from Gaza, both the media and ordinary Israelis just push the place out of their minds. The cynical cease-fire with Hamas is exactly what he wants and Sunday’s operation was in no way meant to jeopardize it. He will continue doing everything he can to make sure Hamas is quiet, at least for the next few months.