After month of conflict, Netanyahu the politician is as relieved as the reservists he’s sent home

After month of conflict, Netanyahu the politician is as relieved as the reservists he’s sent home

The PM who didn't 'finish the job' emerges from the Gaza war more centrist and more politically secure, with his right-wing rivals muffled

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, in Tel Aviv on August 07, 2014. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, in Tel Aviv on August 07, 2014. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just finished fighting his first real war. Deep into his third term, having led the country for eight and a half (nonconsecutive) years of relative calm and prosperity, the premier now finds himself an unexpectedly unifying wartime figure.

This may be good news for the future electoral prospects of the man once seen as one of the most divisive figures in Israeli politics, and bad news for those who disagree with his positions on the Palestinian issue.

Indeed, Netanyahu may have demonstrated in this war more clearly than at any time in recent memory the extent to which Israeli political opinion, which can appear fractured and bitter in the nightly television new debates, is relatively unified on key aspects of the Palestinian question.

Labor leader Isaac Herzog was an avid supporter of the Gaza operation, as were many Meretz voters on the staunch left, according to polls. After all, nothing more endangers the left’s hope for a future Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank, they argue, than the violence emanating from Gaza.

This simple reality has been a unifying thread in Israeli politics for a decade and a half.

Ahead of the IDF’s withdrawal in 2000 from the two-decade-old “security zone” it had carved out in southern Lebanon, then-foreign minister David Levy, who supported the withdrawal, vowed that aggression from Lebanese terror groups such as Hezbollah would be met with a severe Israeli response. “If Kiryat Shmona will burn, the land of Lebanon will burn,” he shouted in the Knesset plenum.

Levy was a former right-wing candidate for Likud leader who had split with the party to found Gesher, which then ran successfully with Ehud Barak’s left-wing Labor in 1999. In straddling the political divide so early, he was a harbinger of the politics of today, grasping better than most – and earlier than most – that the left’s policy of reducing Israel’s military (and civilian settler) footprint outside its 1967 borders would only be feasible if a majority of Israelis concluded it was safe to do so. Such withdrawals, therefore, must be accompanied by promises, and ultimately demonstrations, that Israel was ready and able to massively escalate its responses to cross-border aggression, Levy reasoned.

This was Ariel Sharon’s strident promise to Israelis, many of whom were skeptical about the Gaza withdrawal in 2005. “Israel will initiate a defensive, unilateral move of separation from the Palestinians. The purpose of the disengagement plan is to minimize terror as much as possible and give Israelis the highest level of security,” he said in his 2004 Herzliya Conference speech announcing the initiative.

If terror attacks are launched from Gaza, he vowed at a cabinet meeting the following August, shortly before the withdrawal was carried out, “our responses will be of a different type [then what had come before], and with the addition of very severe measures if there are terror operations after we clear out of the Gaza Strip.”

Withdrawal and a heightened willingness to aggressively respond would actually mean greater security for Israelis, Sharon argued, than the past policy of permanently holding territory containing hostile populations.

And, indeed, these “measures” have included the shuttering of most of Gaza’s border crossings following Hamas’s rise to power and its large-scale efforts at smuggling arms into the Strip, and the IDF’s increasingly tough responses to Hamas rocket fire and cross-border attacks since 2006.

This promise – that attacks on Israel would be met with deterrence-inducing responses – drove Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision-making during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 after Hezbollah’s cross-border attack that summer, and his decision to wreak devastation on much of the country’s infrastructure. It was a message as much to Israelis as to Lebanon and Hezbollah, as Olmert himself said when he explained on national television that the Lebanon war would open the political window for fulfilling his campaign promise from that year’s election: a Gaza-style withdrawal from much of the West Bank.

Olmert’s West Bank withdrawal never happened, of course. But the logic of the policy did not change. It drove Olmert’s 2009 handling of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, during which he intoned repeatedly in the run-up to the fighting a simple piece of advice: “I don’t recommend that they [Hamas], or the other terror groups, test us.”

In November 2012, in the wake of eight days of strikes against Hamas in Operation Pillar of Defense, then-defense minister Ehud Barak, one of the first Israeli leaders to implement the withdrawal-response doctrine over a decade earlier, explicitly acknowledged the long-term nature of this strategy.

“The memory of the painful hit [dealt to Hamas in 2012], as it fades in the future, will require that we act with even greater force” next time Israel is attacked from Gaza, he said.

Netanyahu’s conduct of this month’s Operation Protective Edge was an explicit continuation of this generation-old policy, a policy adopted by politicians from right and left, a kind of compromise between the left’s optimism that territorial withdrawal could bring stability and even peace, and the right’s belief that only hard power carries any weight in the political cultures and calculations of this unforgiving region.

And so it is no wonder that over the past month, the rhetorical saber-rattling against Hamas was hardly limited to Netanyahu’s right. “Let them test us,” Israel’s chief peace negotiator Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said last month in a tone strikingly reminiscent of 2006. “We will withstand this test.”

This continuity of policy across the political divide – Netanyahu was once a vociferous opponent of the disengagement, and as recently as 2009 argued that Hamas must be forcibly overthrown by the IDF in Gaza – is no accident. Simply put, the policy is popular. Netanyahu’s cautious approach to entering the conflict, waiting for two long weeks from the end of June as rocket fire from Gaza increased in intensity, led to harsh criticism from his right, and to the very real political blow of the breakup of the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu joint list in the Knesset.

On July 7, the day before the start of Operation Protective Edge, Yisrael Beytenu head Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman convened a Knesset press conference and explained that the splintering of his alliance with the prime minister came because of Netanyahu’s weak response to the rocket fire from Gaza.

“The disagreements between the prime minister and myself have become essential and principled and don’t allow the continuation of a shared framework. My view is different, and I don’t hide that… When I say, ‘finish the job,’ that doesn’t mean to strike once. We don’t need to respond, but to lead. And we have to finish this operation with the IDF in control of the entire Gaza Strip… We can’t always be tormented, we can’t always be doubting, we can’t hesitate,” he declared.

But the very next day, Netanyahu robbed the move of its political cachet when he brought to the cabinet the vote that would launch Operation Protective Edge.

By August 4, at the operation’s end and after the IDF’s stark assessment of the costs of retaking the Strip had been presented to the security cabinet, Liberman’s tone had changed dramatically. “We have to consider returning the mandate for managing Gaza, and control of Gaza, to the UN, and I certainly don’t rule that out,” he told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

From an Israeli reconquest to a UN mandate: whatever the merits of the substantive debate about the conduct of the war, there is little doubt that the political fallout favors Netanyahu.

As Channel 2 political analyst Amit Segal has noted, Jewish Home chair Naftali Bennett, often cited as another right-wing critic of Netanyahu’s relatively limited goals for the operation, came close but studiously avoided calling specifically for retaking the Strip throughout this war.

And this week we learn from high-level leaks that both Bennett and Liberman actually voted with the other six members of the security cabinet against expanding the goals of the IDF’s ground operation to include conquering the Gaza Strip.

The bluster from the right is muffled, the 15-year deterrence-focused policy of the center-right and center-left has been reaffirmed, and the prime minister’s public approval rating is soaring – to 65% in the last week of the operation, driven in no small measure by the extraordinarily high level of satisfaction (91% of Israeli Jews) with his handling of the Gaza operation, according to a Haifa University poll.

This war ends, in short, without any of the public anger or political fallout that characterized the end of the equally-long Second Lebanon War in 2006, when the failure to crush Hezbollah decisively was viewed by wide swaths of the Israeli public as a profound misstep on the part of Israel’s leaders.

In the intervening years, perhaps due to the simple fact that Hezbollah has kept largely quiet on the northern border since that conflict, most Israelis have concluded that this imperfect policy, with all it entails in terms of the humanitarian costs on either side and in political damage to Israel in the international arena, is the least bad of the choices available to them.

The Knesset’s summer recess began last week, giving Netanyahu a three-month post-war breathing period in which political rivals will have relatively few opportunities to criticize him and be noticed.

He also has his main critics on the right over a barrel. Yisrael Beytenu has only 12 seats in the current Knesset, but a generous five ministers in the cabinet. With polls showing the party dropping to eight seats or less in an election, and the alliance with the Likud dismantled by Liberman’s own hand, few parties in the Knesset are less keen on elections than Netanyahu’s closest parliamentary ex-partners.

Meanwhile, the staunch-right edge of the political spectrum seems to be consolidating behind Jewish Home, which has risen to a whopping 19 seats in a Knesset Channel poll from two weeks ago. But Jewish Home is the only party in the current coalition that cannot sit in a coalition run by the left, or even center-left – an unlikely but nevertheless not impossible outcome of an election. The party will not risk its seat at the decision-making table of a right-led coalition simply to expand its Knesset representation.

The same recent polls that explain Liberman’s and Bennett’s softening rhetoric in recent days also show Netanyahu dramatically strengthened in the center. The Knesset Channel poll shows Yesh Atid dropping from 19 seats to 11 – with many of those voters responsible for the Likud’s rise from 19 to 24. With six seats for centrist ex-Likud minister Moshe Kahlon and five for the other centrist former Likud minister, Tzipi Livni, the broad center-right coalition on which Netanyahu currently relies has only grown.

Things can change quickly in parliamentary politics. The Gaza operation itself is technically only in a momentary lull as Egyptian mediators work to extend and secure a fragile ceasefire. But for now, in what appears to be the immediate aftermath of the war, Netanyahu can breathe a sigh of relief as heartfelt as those of the dust-covered reservists he has sent home at war’s end.

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