On both substance and politics, Israel’s security cabinet is divided over Gaza.
As the fighting continued through its 48th day Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon reiterated their strategy of “patience and determination” in the conduct of the war.
Meanwhile, critics of Netanyahu on the right, especially Minister of Economics and Trade Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, warned that the current policy does not seriously threaten Hamas’s rule in the Strip, and therefore cannot force the group to end the rocket fire on Israel.
The increasingly public disagreement in Israel’s highest echelons may pose a political problem for Netanyahu after the war, and critics of both sides warn that it is already allowing politics to intrude into the wartime cabinet’s decision-making. It’s plainly angering Netanyahu, who castigated unnamed ministerial critics at a press conference last week. But it’s not affecting his conduct of the war, and he has thus far maintained a majority in the eight-member inner security cabinet.
The prime minister repeated on Sunday his Gaza policy of waiting out Hamas’s rocket fire while inflicting damage on the Islamist group in ways that do not drag Israel into costly and unpredictable military incursions. He called for Israelis to be patient.
“The more determined we remain, the more we demonstrate patience, the sooner our enemies will understand that they will not succeed in wearing us down,” Netanyahu said Sunday morning in a cabinet meeting held at IDF Headquarters in Tel Aviv.
“While they try to tire us,” he said, referring to Hamas’s rocket fire, “they are being crushed. I think anyone who observes [Hamas’s losses] in recent days understands this. The IDF continues to deliver, and to increase, its painful blows against Hamas and the terror groups in the Gaza Strip, and will continue to do this until the goal [of quiet in southern Israel] is achieved.”
Defense Minister Ya’alon echoed the PM’s statement moments after Netanyahu spoke.
“If the heads of Hamas think they can wear us out… they are wrong. We’re not rushing anywhere. We have patience,” he said.
The two leaders, who have made all the key decisions related to the Gaza conflict since its beginning last month, are wary of escalating the fighting because they believe such an escalation could result in a costly IDF reconquest of the Strip, according to sources close to the two men. IDF estimates of the toll of such an incursion suggest it would result in many thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of IDF soldiers killed, severe international opprobrium and heavy financial outlays. Israeli leaders are also loathe to find themselves once again in control of the territory that Israel left in 2005.
Instead, Netanyahu and Ya’alon – and their security cabinet allies Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid – seek to sustain steady but limited military pressure on Hamas while denying the group economic or political gains from the fighting, gains that might come if a larger invasion goes wrong. This policy has moved the focus of the conflict from the military theater in Gaza to the political wrangling in Cairo over the terms of the ceasefire. Those talks are stalled because Hamas cannot afford to end the fighting without economic and political gains commensurate with the suffering Gaza has sustained, while Israeli leaders can’t afford to give it such gains as the fruits of its bombardment of Israeli cities.
But Bennett and Liberman, along with many outspoken MKs on the right, have been vehemently critical of this strategy. Hamas cannot be swayed or deterred by such a waiting game, they argue, because Hamas believes it is not threatened by the Israeli strategy. (Liberman and Bennett have not had the votes to challenge Netanyahu, Ya’alon, Livni and Lapid in the security cabinet, because although Liberman loyalist Yitzhak Aharonovitch could back them, Gilad Erdan has been siding with his Likud party boss.)
“If the order the army was given, according to the defense minister himself [in a statement made over the weekend], is merely to force Hamas to the negotiations table, then why would Hamas feel threatened enough to stop firing?” wonders one right-wing MK who declined to speak by name but reflected the views of many of Netanyahu’s right-wing critics.
Liberman has called for a dramatic escalation of the IDF’s operations in Gaza since before the start of Operation Protective Edge on July 7, and every week since, and pointed to his differences with the prime minister over Gaza as the main reason for severing his Yisrael Beytenu party’s electoral alliance with Likud last month.
In light of Hamas’s rejection of multiple Egyptian ceasefire proposals – all of which offered an end to the conflict but without promising economic or political gains for the Palestinian terrorist group – Bennett proposed last week a “unilateral” plan of his own: abandon the Egyptian talks, end the indirect negotiations there with Hamas, and adopt a policy of unilateral action in Gaza.
“We should not negotiate with a terrorist organization,” a source close to Bennett told The Times of Israel on Sunday. “Israel should retain for itself operational freedom as needed, similar to how it operates in the West Bank. If there is quiet, Israel will be willing to open up [border] crossings and allow in humanitarian aid, but all of it under some sort of mechanism that will need to be established to ensure that construction materials such as cement, metals, etc., go to specific construction projects and not to terror [infrastructure].”
Under Bennett’s proposal, Israel would offer humanitarian aid in exchange for quiet while maintaining a state of belligerency that would allow the IDF a free hand to continue operating in Gaza if the quiet is not maintained.
Bennett and members of his Jewish Home party have criticized Netanyahu over the past two weeks for “negotiating with terrorists” in the Cairo talks – leading the prime minister to offer his own angry condemnation. On Wednesday he chastised Bennett and Liberman in the cabinet meeting, and on Thursday at a press conference called on cabinet members “not to offer idle chatter, empty slogans and hollow words… I expect everyone to be responsible.”
The increasingly vocal disagreement over Gaza in the security cabinet is seen by some close observers as more than a pure substantive policy argument. Bennett has risen steeply in the polls, to 18 Knesset seats and more (from his party’s current showing in the Knesset of 12) as his call for a harsher response to Hamas has attracted many voters – including Likud voters – to his banner. Liberman, meanwhile, may be looking to rehabilitate his weakened party among its traditionally hawkish electorate by attempting to distinguish himself from Netanyahu’s Likud over Gaza.
After an IDF assessment of the cost of a Gaza ground incursion was leaked from the cabinet meeting three weeks ago, MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnua), a former minister and longtime Likud hand who was coalition chairman and finance minister in Netanyahu’s first government, suggested the cabinet debate is fueled by “unbelievable” personal animosities.
“The prime minister feels that he does not have anyone to rely on in the cabinet. I don’t remember anything like this,” Sheetrit said.
“There is a problem in the behavior of the cabinet,” agreed Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman MK Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), coalition chairman in Netanyahu’s last government and, by dint of a coalition rotation agreement, slated to become chairman again in this one.
“Political considerations are entering [the cabinet’s decision-making], and that’s intolerable. Members of the [security] cabinet must peel off their politics and consider only the security of the state,” he said Sunday.
Liberman and Bennett have denied their criticism is driven by political considerations.
“Minister Naftali Bennett is busy right now helping to defend Israel against Hamas terror, and to fight back against a violent brutal terrorist organization. Politics are not on his mind at all,” said a source in Bennett’s office on Sunday.
And Liberman said in a Saturday TV interview that he gives Netanyahu “full backing” — but then added that “it is my obligation to speak my mind” and called for Israel to defeat Hamas so that it “raises the white flag and begs for a ceasefire without any preconditions and requirements.”
Amid the substantive policy debate, a political tug-of-war is underway – whether instigated by the cabinet members themselves or simply because in politics the perception of a thing can act as the thing itself.
“The critics are positioning themselves to take advantage if the operation ends with a public backlash against Netanyahu,” said a senior Likud source, pointing to the public frustration at former premier Ehud Olmert’s handling of the Second Lebanon War in 2006 as a key cause of Olmert’s political downfall. “We have to wait until this war ends before the ramifications for the prime minister will become clear.”
But Netanyahu’s cabinet critics believe the war won’t end anytime soon if the prime minister sticks to his current course. So there’s a whole lot more than the question of his political well-being, and theirs, hinging on the argument.