Had they been in the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman would have ripped the government to shreds last Wednesday for aborting Operation Pillar of Defense with Hamas not merely still standing, but still merrily firing.

The tough-talking duo would certainly have derided Israel’s lily-livered leaders for their weakness in not sending in the IDF’s ground forces to destroy those most sensitive Hamas positions, ensconced in the very heart of civilian Gaza, that could not be hit from the air without massive collateral damage. In all probability, though, they would likely have gone further — castigating the government for pusillanimously electing not to seek to end Hamas’s rule over Gaza altogether.

Suggestions that “now was not the right time” for a ground war, promises that greater force would be used in future “if required,” the assertion that Israel had “done the best it could” — such excuses would have been ridiculed.

If we were in power, the leaders of the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu would surely have claimed, things would have been different.

But of course Netanyahu and Liberman are in power. It was they, along with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who took the decision from the outset not to try to oust Hamas in this round of fighting, they who chose not to approve a ground incursion despite having called up the reserves, they who accepted the vague Egyptian-mediated ceasefire terms, they who offered up the “not the right time” and “we did the best we could in the circumstances” defenses.

And as further details emerge about the behind-the-scenes pressures that led to the cessation of hostilities, one can well understand them. On the plus side, Hamas had been significantly weakened and some measure of Israeli deterrence restored. On the minus side, indications were that Egypt and possibly Jordan might abrogate their peace treaties with Israel if the ground forces went in; international pressure for a halt to the fighting was building even though a comparatively low several dozen civilians had been killed in Gaza (compared to hundreds over the three weeks of Operation Cast Lead in winter 2008-9); and the Americans had made plain they had no tolerance for further escalation.

A large part of the Israeli public — though emphatically not all — has been left with a feeling of disappointment, even humiliation over the outcome. Many residents of the rocket-battered south had said over and over again as the fighting progressed that they would willingly suffer a few weeks in the bomb shelters if, this time, the army was allowed to “do what was necessary” to ensure a period of tranquility that would last more than a few weeks or months. Some of the reservists, as they headed back home at the weekend, professed to feel “ashamed” that they had been prevented by the political leadership from “getting the job done.” And true to form, opposition politicians, led by the likes of Shaul Mofaz and Dalia Itzik from the fast-fading Kadima, have rather risibly asserted that they could have done better, lasted longer, achieved more.

The IDF appears to have fought effectively in Operation Pillar of Defense, striking more than 1,500 times in the heart of densely populated Gaza, with few attacks missing their targets. It conducted itself more intelligently than previously on the second battlefield, too — using social media skillfully for the first time, reporting its activities via Twitter, quickly producing videos to debunk absurd Hamas claims.

But in an international context in which the West is simply intolerant of war, and the Arab world is intolerant of Israel, Netanyahu and Liberman quickly had to internalize that they had very limited room for maneuver.

Sure, Israel’s civilian populace was under indiscriminate rocket attack, and had been for years. Sure, Hamas is an extremist Islamist terror group that cynically puts its own people in harm’s way, exploits every opportunity to improve its weapons capability, and is hell-bent on destroying Israel.

Too bad. Much of the world still has no particular sympathy for mighty Israel if its civilians — thanks to Iron Dome and the other precautions Israel takes to keep its people safe — are not dying in relatively large numbers. And it has profound sympathy for Gaza’s Palestinians if — despite Israel’s best efforts to keep them out of a war into which they had been plunged by their terrorist leadership — they are dying in larger numbers.

Absorbing huge gulps of realpolitik, and instantly mastering the art of offering disingenuous gratitude, the Israeli leadership triumvirate on Wednesday and in subsequent interviews has heaped immense praise on Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi for his ostensibly “responsible” role in helping to defuse the crisis. “We must remember to give a word of thanks” to Morsi for his key part in resolving the conflict, the foreign minister took pains to stress during his brief remarks on Wednesday — in a performance that Avigdor Liberman would have castigated were it not for the fact that he is the foreign minister. And Netanyahu has gone out of his way to hail the US administration for its steadfast support of Israel, its solidarity, its robust reassertion of Israel’s absolute right to defend itself.

But the words of praise are empty, and the members of triumvirate know this all too well. Morsi withdrew his new ambassador from Tel Aviv the moment Israel showed the temerity to strike back at the incessant Gaza rocket fire, immediately sent his prime minister on a solidarity mission to Gaza, and worked out a ceasefire that, as Hamas is already bragging, is most unlikely to prevent the Islamists from rearming and improving their weapons capabilities, the harder and deeper to hit Israel come the next round of fighting.

And having declared the US-Israel relationship rock solid, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in the very next breath, insisted on her arrival here last Tuesday that the situation in Gaza had to be deescalated. She then left it to Morsi to preside over the ceasefire specifics — albeit partly because she could not deal directly with Hamas — to Israel’s obvious detriment.

Israel’s room for maneuver might have been wider had the Netanyahu-Liberman-Barak government more credibly demonstrated Netanyahu’s much-articulated desire for a substantive negotiating process with the West Bank Palestinian leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, leading to a two-state solution. Heading a dovish, Kadima-led government that conducted serious talks with the Palestinians in the West Bank, prime minister Ehud Olmert attained far greater international backing four years ago, for far longer, for a far bloodier assault on Hamas in Gaza.

Abbas is, to put it mildly, a problematic character. He is capable of indicating to an Israeli interviewer that he earnestly seeks peace on terms that would enable Israel to thrive as a Jewish state, mere weeks after delivering a speech to the UN that outdid Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in its vicious misrepresentations of Israel, a speech seen worldwide that was guaranteed to whip up anti-Israeli sentiment among his own people and far beyond.

But in choosing not to freeze settlement-building at least in those areas Israel does not envisage retaining in any permanent accord, and in failing to make a priority of stanching the despicable phenomenon of “price tag” attacks by right-wing extremists on Muslim and Christian places of worship and other targets, the outgoing government made it easy for Abbas to depict Israel as being led by intransigent hawks, and never forced Abbas to make the choice between pernicious critic and would-be peacemaker.

Although Israel did not attract fierce public castigation from Western leaders for striking in Gaza, its capacity to defend itself as it saw fit was demonstrably constrained. Indeed, it seems to have been given no choice but to halt an operation in which it had planned for a ground offensive, because strategic interests like those two peace treaties were at stake, and the US administration was unwilling to or incapable of helping Israel both retain those treaties and use ground forces to root out more of the Hamas terror infrastructure. All this despite what should have been the unarguable legitimacy of Israel’s cause: to defend its people against unprovoked rocket attacks, fired from an area with which it has no territorial dispute, by a terror group plainly delighting in achieving maximal Israeli civilian casualties and transparently indifferent to the well-being of the population under its own command.

Initial opinion polls indicate that some of the Israeli public’s displeasure at the conflict’s unsatisfactory outcome might be felt on election day, with the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu merged list losing some support for its leaders’ purported poor performance, and parties to their right — the National Union under its new young leader Naftali Bennett, and the extremist Power to Israel party of Michael Ben-Ari — gaining ground.

Parties to the left might also have been expected to benefit from this tangible display of the limits of force, were it not for the fact that the egos have landed and are raging uncontrolled in that part of the political spectrum, where Barak, Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid and Shelly Yachimovich are all offering much the same political alternative to the Netanyahu-Liberman axis. Their claims to be the potential saviors of Israel are somewhat discredited by the evidence that not one of them to date has been willing to subsume the desire to be the head of his or her own little empire to the wider interest of the state of Israel.

The axiom has it that only the right can make peace for Israel, because middle Israel will only believe that the deal is as good as it can be if it has been negotiated by a skeptical, hawkish leadership. Operation Pillar of Defense would suggest that only the left can make war for Israel, because the international community will only accept that a resort to force was unavoidable if it is reluctantly championed by our peace-loving moderates.

The conclusion is as familiar as it is unrealistic. Facing the immense challenges that now confront it, Israel desperately needs to be governed, at least in the short-term, by a consensual, middle ground coalition — one that works toward creating a climate in which negotiations can move forward, without deluding itself about the intentions of the other side and without neglecting Israel’s day-to-day and long-term security needs.

It needs our diminishing stock of credible, competent, mainstream political leaders working together for the greater national good rather than separately, for the benefit of one narrow swathe of the electorate over another.

Instead, in two months’ time, we seem likely to choose ourselves another deeply fragmented parliament, peopled by small groups of warring politicians. While the threats to Israel mount, we may have to watch them either trying, Netanyahu-Liberman-Barak-style, to defend their policies in government amid the complex realities of realpolitik, or sneering and shouting unfoundedly from the opposition benches that they could do a better job.

Or maybe, just maybe, they can recognize the gravity of the hour — with Iran closing in on the bomb and our region in a state of such instability that the only safe bet is growing hostility to Israel — and mount a political Operation Pillar of Unity.