Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deserves praise for his leadership in Operation Protective Edge. He shares responsibility for the deterioration that led Israel into a large-scale conflict with Hamas. But from the moment the military operation began, he has acted judiciously: He has sought to ensure international support for Israel and rejected the irresponsible calls of his political partners on the right for escalation, reoccupying Gaza and “going all the way.”
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From the start, Netanyahu set modest goals for the operation: restoring quiet to the Israeli home front and damaging Hamas. He refrained from empty boasting and coordinated his moves with the United States and Egypt. Thus far, no cracks have emerged in his coordination with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and the heads of the intelligence agencies. It seems that Netanyahu fears a new edition of the Goldstone Report, and over the last few days, the number of civilians killed in Gaza has fallen.
Netanyahu was right to have accepted the Egyptian cease-fire proposal unveiled on Monday. After Hamas rejected it and launched barrages of rockets at locales throughout Israel, the prime minister ordered the IDF to escalate its attacks. But in his speech to the public, he made it clear that he considers the diplomatic route preferable, and that his goal is a cease-fire, not “a new regional order.”
Yet the principal challenge Netanyahu has faced during this operation has come from his political partners, both from within his own party and from the coalition’s right-wing factions. Instead of giving him backing, ministers Naftali Bennett of Habayit Hayehudi and Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu, together with a long list of Likud politicians, have assailed the prime minister and called for a far-reaching escalation of the military operation. Lieberman even convened a press conference yesterday to justify his vote in the cabinet against the cease-fire and to urge escalation.
Bennett and Lieberman are vying for the leadership of the right at the expense of the security of Israel’s citizens and the welfare of IDF soldiers. Netanyahu rightly dismissed them as “background noise” and took the long overdue step of firing Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, one of the most prominent spokesmen of the extreme right. Fear for the integrity of his coalition is presumably preventing Netanyahu from sending similar letters of dismissal to Bennett and Lieberman.
Netanyahu must stick to the policy he has pursued since the military operation began and aspire to reach a cease-fire as soon as possible that will reinstate the previous understandings with Hamas. He must also release Hamas prisoners who were arrested in the West Bank and against whom there is no evidence of involvement in terror, and ease the payment of salaries to Palestinian civil servants and the passage of goods into Gaza. Israel has only one interest in Gaza: ensuring long-term quiet. That is what Netanyahu must aspire to achieve.