Netanyahu is wary of going to war, but don’t call him a peacemaker

Netanyahu is wary of going to war, but don’t call him a peacemaker

By putting the kibosh on Palestinian sovereignty and jumping at the chance to abandon the operation against Hamas, the PM shows he prefers the status quo over change

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon consult at the IDF's Southern Command (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon consult at the IDF's Southern Command (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is often described, and rightly so, as a right-wing hawk, and he recently revealed that he will never agree to full Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank despite the lip service he’s paid to the two-state solution in recent years.

But one thing Netanyahu is not is a warmonger.

Heading what some observers have called the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history, Netanyahu was extremely hesitant to launch Operation Protective Edge. He issued several ultimatums before he was left with no choice and ordered a limited military campaign attempting to restore calm to Israeli cities, after more than 200 rockets had fallen within the span of a few days.

Even perennial critics from Israel’s left such as Yossi Beilin and Gershon Baskin had to acknowledge that the prime minister acted wisely. The relative restraint with which he reacted to the ongoing rocket fire from Gaza secured him broad international support for Operation Protective Edge, despite more than 190 killed Palestinians, many of whom were civilians.

On Tuesday morning, Netanyahu succeeded in convincing his security cabinet to vote in favor of an Egyptian ceasefire agreement (only Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman opposed it). For the second time in his premiership, Israel decided to end an extensive military campaign against terrorists in Gaza without sending in troops to “finish the job,” as some Israelis demanded. Just like during the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, the Israeli government had repeatedly threatened a ground invasion, but never really intended to go through with it.

During the most recent mini-war, the prime minister would have had even more reasons and legitimacy for such a step, as Hamas significantly stepped up its game, shooting countless rockets at Israel’s main population centers, and attempting so-called “strategic terrorist attacks” via sea, air and land.

Netanyahu in 2009:  We won’t stop IDF, will topple Hamas

On February 3, 2009, a few days after then-prime minister Ehud Olmert ended Operation Cast Lead — which did include a ground operation — by declaring a unilateral ceasefire, Netanyahu, who headed the opposition at the time, declared that if he were in charge, the army would have gone all the way. “I want to say here and now: we won’t stop the IDF. We will complete the work. We will topple the terror rule of Hamas.”

Just a few days ago, messages from Jerusalem suggested that this time, Netanyahu was serious about destroying Hamas, or at least hitting it so hard as to deter it from resuming terrorist attacks against Israel for the foreseeable future. “We’re not interested in a band-aid,” a senior government official said Thursday. “We don’t want to give Hamas just a timeout to rest, regroup and recharge batteries, and then next week or in two weeks they start again to shoot rockets at Israel. Such a quick fix solution is not something we’re interested in.”

The Egyptian ceasefire proposal is a sure-fire recipe for exactly that scenario. To be sure, its terms are worse for Hamas than they are for Israel. The terrorist group will only receive quiet for quiet — something it could have had before the whole crisis started — and perhaps the opening of border crossings.

The fact is: as prime minister, Netanyahu twice ended, or offered to end, weeklong military campaigns without destroying Hamas. Hesitant to actually step up an entirely safe aerial campaign and send Israeli troops into harm’s way, he has twice refused the call of his right-wing constituency for harsher action against the terrorists in Gaza. In the hours before Egypt announced the ceasefire offer, Israeli pundits said that whether Netanyahu opts for a ground invasion or a ceasefire depends on how many Knesset seats he fears he would lose to his hawkish rivals. It appears that the prime minister’s wariness of war won over political expediency.

It remains to be seen whether Israel fully achieved the goal it had set for Operation Protective Edge: the “restoration of quiet for a long period while inflicting a significant blow on Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip,” as Netanyahu said. What is a “long period” — four years? Fifteen months?

The prime minister did succeed, however, in the diplomatic arena. The campaign had the full backing of the international community. With his hesitance to launch the operation and his immediate, unconditional acceptance of the ceasefire, he scored major points in capitals around the world — including the Arab world, where people slowly but surely have started to blame Hamas for Gaza’s misery, understanding that Israel had no other choice but to act against incessant rocket fire.

But whoever says that Netanyahu is not keen on war needs to mention that he is no peacemonger, either. While supporting a two-state solution in principle, he on Friday indicated that under his leadership Jerusalem would never be able to agree to an independent Palestinian state with control of the Jordan Valley. Citing Israel’s security needs in a region troubled by Islamist extremism, he said that even if it’s desirable, full Palestinian sovereignty is simply impossible.

Netanyahu is a man of the status quo. With terrorist threats looming literally from every corner of the Middle East, Netanyahu’s skepticism of bold steps toward regional reconciliation is understandable. But his constant pessimism appears to paralyze him. It prevents him from taking active steps, from launching his own diplomatic initiatives, from being proactive rather than reactive. That’s why under his leadership, Israel has seen no wars, but also no serious attempt at peace.

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