Seemingly seething with rage, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu devoted a resonant chunk of his Wednesday evening press conference to a scathing assault on his own ministers.
Netanyahu castigated cabinet “colleagues” for what he called their empty slogans, unrealistic positions, and general public criticisms of his handling of the now month-and-a-half long conflict with Hamas.
He named no names, so we couldn’t be certain if he was more incensed by the incessant demands of Avigdor Liberman and Naftali Bennett to just smash the hell out of Hamas already, Tzipi Livni’s carping that Israel shouldn’t have been talking indirectly with Hamas at all, Yair Lapid’s suggestions for international fix-Gaza conferences, the copious quantities of hot air being blown by all manner of more junior ministers, or the whole damn talkative lot of them. Plainly, though, the prime minister was mightily miffed, and it’s a safe bet that he was particularly angry with those like Liberman and Bennett whom he correctly regards as scheming rivals.
However warranted the critique may have been — and Liberman has been quite spectacularly disloyal throughout this conflict — the sight of a prime minister looking and sounding extremely irritated, albeit still in firm control, is no great comfort for a watching Israeli populace that has spent six-and-a-half weeks under sustained rocket fire.
Ironically, this first public evidence of Netanyahu looking anything other than assured came precisely as the military operation against Hamas was marking its first surprise, unexpected achievements. The previous night, Israeli intelligence had enabled the targeting of a building where Hamas’s terror chief Muhammad Deif, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis in a particularly evil career dating back to the 1990s, was believed to be hiding out. As of this writing, it is not clear whether Deif survived. And soon after Netanyahu’s press conference, another intelligence breakthrough saw the killings of three senior Hamas terror chiefs, including two of Deif’s closest colleagues — a targeted strike that The Times of Israel’s Avi Issacharoff describes as the gravest blow suffered by Hamas to date in this round of conflict, one that shows the highest echelons of the organization to have been penetrated by Israeli intelligence.
Ironically, too, the prime minister’s evidently heartfelt but ill-advised outburst against those grumbling subordinates overshadowed, at least for the Hebrew-speaking audience, a far more important message — placing Hamas in the wider context of regional Islamic terrorism. Fortunately, he highlighted this message in more detail in English remarks at the end of the press conference.
Netanyahu listed Hamas, Islamic State, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad, their separate and sometimes conflicting agendas notwithstanding, as part of a network of brutal extremist organizations seeking gains across the region, and beyond, that are underestimated at the free world’s peril. Hours after Islamic State executed American journalist James Foley, Netanyahu asserted that Islamic State is only half as strong as Hamas, but marveled in horror, “look what it can do.”
Hamas and ISIS, he said, are “branches of the same tree.” The beheading of Foley “shows you the barbarism, the savagery of these people.
“Well,” he declared, “we face the same savagery” from Hamas terrorists who “wantonly rocket our cities”; who seek to conduct mass killings; who “murder children, teenagers, they shoot them in the head” (a reference to June’s killings of three Israeli teens in the West Bank); who “throw people from the sixth floor – their own people” (a reference to the Hamas seizure of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in 2007); and who “use their people as human shields (a reference to this and other post-2007 rounds of conflict with Israel, fought from the heart of Gaza’s neighborhoods).
“Hamas is ISIS; ISIS is Hamas. They’re the enemies of peace; they’re the enemies of Israel; they’re the enemies of all civilized countries. I believe they’re the enemies of the Palestinians. And I’m not the only one who believes it,” he concluded.
The degree to which the Israeli leadership can impress upon the international community that Hamas is one of the tentacles of Islamist terror along with the likes of Islamic State and Al-Qaeda may well prove critical to the way this conflict, and thus Israel, are perceived in the weeks, months and years ahead.
Netanyahu has clearly internalized the imperative to stress that this is not a war against Gazans, but a war against the terror group that took over Gaza — in the same way that IS seeks to take over Syria and Iraq, and that Al-Qaeda spreads its rapacious territorial and ideological agenda. Critically, for an America stomach-churned by the Foley beheading, and for a Britain belatedly realizing that many of its own citizens are now engaging in Islamist jihad, this places Israel on the front line of the battle against terrorism — challenging the false narratives critics so successfully peddle of obdurate, aggressive Israel as a root cause of that terrorism.
With a narrative of that importance to convey, Netanyahu, generally such an effective communicator, would normally have known better than to be distracted by the moaning, groaning and sniping of his rivals. Forty-five days in, it’s no great surprise to see that the strain of this war, which has long since gotten to most Israelis, is having its impact on the man at the helm. It’s no great surprise, but it is a little unsettling.