The jury is still out and few would envy Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s challenge in making the tough decisions required in an extraordinarily complex situation. But despite self-criticism that occasionally borders on masochism, most Israelis appreciate the responsible leadership displayed by the prime minister and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon in the current confrontation with Hamas.
The government’s current overriding obligation is to respond to the incessant targeting of missiles on its citizens.
Yet despite outstanding spokesmen ably presenting Israel’s clear-cut case of defending itself in response to a genocidal aggressor, the global media’s focus on horrific images of dismembered Palestinian children, often entirely out of context, led to reason being subsumed by emotional anti-Israel sentiment.
This morphed into feral anti-Semitism of historic proportions, comparable to the Middle Ages, when individual Jews were perceived as a source for all the natural disasters of mankind. Even the blood libel has been revived in the depiction of Israelis as child killers and war criminals. Leftists, neo-Nazis and Moslems combined in demonstrations, generating violence against Jews unprecedented since the 1930s.
However, in assessing the actual military and political confrontation with Hamas, Israel was more successful.
From the outset, Netanyahu had the foresight to warn the nation that there would be no quick-fix solutions. He and the defense minister (hardly considered a dove) resisted calls for a full scale military conflict. Although the prime minister may yet be obliged to move in this direction, he understood that taking control of the entire strip and its subterranean tunnels could be immensely costly in terms of Israeli casualties. Beyond that, there was every likelihood that global intervention, possibly even spearheaded by the United States, would oblige Israel to retreat unconditionally, creating a triumph for Hamas.
Israel cannot claim a military “victory” as long as Hamas remains in Gaza and if the rockets are not soon silenced, Israel may yet be obliged to take further drastic military ground action. Meanwhile the terrorist organization has taken a tremendous battering. Tunnels were demolished, missile sites destroyed, infrastructure severely damaged and key leaders assassinated. The suffering endured by the people of Gaza must impact on their leaders, especially as they may be impelled to hold some sort of election in the not-too-distant future.
One of Israel’s greatest obstacles has been the ambivalence and at times outright negative attitude of our principal ally. At one stage, U.S. President Barack Obama demanded that Israel open Gaza’s borders prior to demilitarization, thus presenting Hamas with an outright victory. His moral equivalence, support for the involvement of pro-Hamas Qatar and Turkey in the mediation process, and — even in the midst of a war — his threats to limit arms shipments, were incompatible with repeated assertions of “having Israel’s back”. This behavior encouraged Hamas to believe that with western media support there would be increasing global pressure on Israel to give in to its demands.
On the positive side, for the first time, the bulk of Arabs states are snubbing and even condemning Hamas. Egypt may play a crucial role in the future and could be the key to the ultimate demilitarization of Gaza. It is apparent that Netanyahu’s contentious willingness to engage in indirect negotiations with Hamas was motivated by a desire to work in tandem with Egypt.
The most complex aspect of the problem is the role of the corrupt Palestinian Authority. Israel has learned from this Gaza experience that it can only agree to a Palestinian state that is totally demilitarized and in which Israel retains defensible borders. Otherwise, Tel Aviv could wake up with terrorist tunnels emerging into Habima Theater.
It is utterly delusionary to visualize that Mahmoud Abbas could provide us with security. In the absence of the Israel Defense Forces, the PA could at any stage be taken over by Hamas or other Islamic fanatics. It is also unrealistic to expect Israel to embrace Abbas, who, despite being happy to see his “partner” Hamas humiliated and defeated, continues his incitement against Israel. He has now announced unless the UN Security Council forces Israel to retreat to the 1949 armistice lines, the Palestinian Authority will seek to charge Israel with war crimes at the International Criminal Court.
However Netanyahu may yet seek to negotiate a “collaboration” with the PA, subject to demilitarization of Gaza and responsible supervision, enabling Israel to ease the blockade. But there is probably a greater possibility of imposing tough controls to prevent Hamas from replenishing its stockpile of rockets and weapons, for which the cooperation of Egypt is crucial.
The belated global awareness of the serious threat posed by ISIS in Iraq, Syria and other countries, accelerated by shock at the barbaric murders and decapitations, has enabled Netanyahu to demonstrate that ISIS and Hamas are both genocidal birds of a feather. He has stated that “Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas.” ISIS is not even half as strong as Hamas but “look what it can do.” However, a U.S. State Department spokesman explicitly rejected Netanyahu’s analogy, implying that jihadist terrorists threatening Europe and the U.S. epitomize evil incarnate while those murdering Jews are at worst to be defined as “militants.”
At the outset of the conflict, the unity of the nation was reminiscent of that during the Six-Day War. Today, despite a decline in support, the majority of Israelis still back Netanyahu.
Alas, this never applied fully to the political echelons although the opposition was tempered in its approach, even suggesting that Netanyahu had responded “too softly” at the onset with Hamas.
However members of the Security Cabinet have behaved disgracefully. It is unprecedented and unconscionable that in the midst of a war, ministers criticize the policies of their own prime minister, sowing confusion among the public and undermining him internationally. Some behaved as political commentators rather than ministers. Others simply promoted policies that they felt would provide them with additional votes.
The most outrageous was Avigdor Lieberman, who ignored his responsibilities as foreign minister and demagogically castigated his own government for not “finishing off Hamas.” Setting aside the wisdom or otherwise of his remarks, no foreign minister has ever behaved so irresponsibly in the midst of a war.
Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennet, consistently called for an immediate halt to negotiations and a full onslaught against Hamas — a view that could have been advocated within the cabinet (or in the opposition) but should never be aired publicly by a minister during a war.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni condemned the government for not being aggressive enough with Hamas and accused Netanyahu of using this as an excuse to avoid dealing with Abbas and the PA. Even Finance Minister Yair Lapid could not restrain himself from uttering derogatory remarks about Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama.
Netanyahu ignored opinion polls and displayed leadership, crafting a policy that he believed to be in the national interest. While most Israelis today still endorse his policies, if a protracted war of attrition drags on, his support may dwindle and a constellation of political forces in the national camp may seek to depose him.
But irrespective of Netanyahu’s short-term political future, if he ultimately succeeds in providing long-term security for Israelis, especially those in the south, he will have earned his political legacy and would be recorded in history as one of the great Israeli prime ministers.
Isi Leibler may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom