At the conclusion of Operation Protective Edge, it is fair to say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unequivocally won the war he set out to fight – but not, perhaps, the war the Israeli public expected him to fight.
Signs of political danger for the prime minister are multiplying.
The prime minister’s public backing has dropped precipitously, from a high of 82% on July 23, shortly after the start of Israel’s ground operation in Gaza, to 38% on Monday, after 49 long days of rocket fire.
Meanwhile, his critics span the political spectrum. His most vocal critics are not in the opposition, but sit in his inner security cabinet – with Economy Minister Naftali Bennett slamming the prime minister’s ceasefire talks in Egypt as “negotiating with terrorists,” even as Bennett’s Jewish Home party saw its popularity rise by 50%, from 12 seats in the current Knesset to the equivalent of 18 seats in wartime opinion polls.
The day after the ceasefire, critics castigated the conduct of the operation from both sides. “In the next round, we must win,” insisted Jewish Home MK Yoni Chetboun.
“Quiet is always preferable to fire, but for God’s sake, we went through all this just to get back to the understandings from [2012’s Operation] Pillar of Defense?” lamented Labor whip Eitan Cabel.
Even worse, from Netanyahu’s perspective, the political blowback has been noted and celebrated by Hamas, which, like Hezbollah in 2006, is pointing to Netanyahu’s Israeli critics to make the case that Israel “lost the war.”
Internally, too, the PM faces displeasure and criticism in his own Likud party. His loudest critic, MK Danny Danon, chair of the party’s powerful Central Committee and the failed instigator last year of a semi-rebellion against the party leader’s control of key internal Likud institutions, has called a meeting of the 3,000-strong Central Committee in two weeks’ time to “discuss” the operation.
Danon has not been subtle on how he plans to manage the “discussion.”
“The ‘Protective Edge’ war opened with tremendous [public] support, but ended with the people of Israel perplexed and confused,” he said in a statement Wednesday announcing the upcoming meeting.
The war that was won
American military historian Victor Davis Hanson argues that for 2,500 years, democracies have held to a particular view of wars as brief, decisive, winner-takes-all confrontations between like-minded opponents. This notion of war is embedded deep in Western culture. Wars should be as decisive as elections, and since they are ultimately a distraction from life’s true purpose, as brief. This view has given Westerners “a distaste for what we call the terrorist, guerrilla, or irregular who chooses to wage war differently.”
Hanson warns, however, that this expectation of war, rooted in the peculiar Western experience that has its origins in ancient Greece, has become a “burdensome legacy,” since “Western war has not resembled it for a very long time.”
Israelis share this view of war, and the frustration Hanson describes with fighting any other sort of conflict. The IDF’s infantry brigades, where much of the Israeli elite still spends formative years as conscripts, teach the importance of “speed, flexibility and striving for contact.” The IDF trains its young men and women to fight wars quickly, to adapt to changing realities – and to always seek to engage the enemy head-on until a decisive conclusion is reached.
It is a strange cultural artifact in an army that hasn’t fought a war of “speed” and “striving for contact” since the 1970s. Defeated on those decisive battlefields, Arab opponents of Israel have turned to new arenas, to the very terror, guerrilla and irregular tactics that Israelis consider immoral and cowardly. In Lebanon, in the West Bank, in Gaza, in the long-distance chess game with Iran, decisive battles are often simply unavailable. Victory in these confrontations requires patience, deception, intelligence infiltration and resilience.
Netanyahu did not set out on July 8 to uproot Hamas – for two reasons. First, he believes time is on Israel’s side. Hamas is mismanaging Gaza into economic and political oblivion (even those who blame Gaza’s dire condition squarely on Israel have trouble defending Hamas’s decision to drag Gaza’s economy and last open border into the Egyptian civil war, leading to the huge blow caused by the shuttering of that border over the past year). Hamas’s permanent belligerency also forms Exhibit A in Netanyahu’s explanations to the West as to why his security demands in the West Bank are so high.
Second, according to sources familiar with his thinking, Netanyahu believes, as do the IDF chief of staff, the defense minister and others in the Israeli security establishment, that the cost of the sort of military reconquest of Gaza required to root out Hamas is too high to be worthwhile. The IDF believes it could take years to “pacify” such a crowded, politically hostile territory, at the cost of hundreds of IDF dead and untold thousands of Palestinian dead, massive international opprobrium, and vast drains on the IDF’s manpower and financial resources that could limit its operational flexibility on other dangerous fronts, especially Syria-Lebanon and Iran.
Instead of the classic, decisive Western approach, Netanyahu opted for one more suited to the irregular, psychological nature of Hamas’s style of war. Hamas seeks to change Israeli behavior by terrorizing Israelis; Israel, then, has sought to demonstrate to Hamas that none of its planned “force multipliers” – international pressure on Israel due to civilian deaths, domestic political pressure to end the conflict from rocket-battered Israeli civilians – could protect the organization. Israel could operate in Gaza, Netanyahu sought to demonstrate, with no meaningful political or international constraints, dealing pain to Hamas at its leisure and escalating at will.
In response to Hamas’s strategy of long-term psychological pressure, Netanyahu’s response was a kind of game of “chicken.”
While many pundits overseas argued that the global blowback against Israel over the operation was bad for Israel, from Netanyahu’s perspective it actually had an important upside: the more shrill the outcry, the more widespread the demonstrations and denunciations abroad, the clearer the message would be to Hamas that international opinion did not carry any weight in Israel’s strategic calculations.
For 50 long days, Israel struck at thousands of targets across the Gaza Strip. It escalated at will, surprising Hamas with a sustained ground incursion, and deescalated at will. It accepted all ceasefires, but then upped the tempo of attack when Hamas rejected or broke them. It bombed rocket launch sites even when they were buried in dense urban areas – legal under the laws of war, but profoundly unpalatable to global opinion. It brought down apartment buildings containing Hamas command centers without even bothering to explain itself.
Israel showed it was better at Hamas’s own forms of fighting than Hamas’s own fighters. In tunnels and compounds built by Hamas expressly for the purpose of doing as much damage as possible to IDF forces, Hamas probably lost about 10 fighters to every Israeli soldier it managed to kill. (Israel and Hamas obviously disagree on the numbers of Hamas dead, but third-party death toll reports suggest that scale of disparity in the ground fighting.)
In the final days of the war, as apartment buildings started to fall and its most senior commanders began to die in airstrikes, Hamas faced the start of real resistance from Gazans that led it to carry out dozens of panicked executions of “collaborators.”
And in the ceasefire, Netanyahu cemented this strategy. All reports of the ceasefire’s stipulations indicate that Hamas received none of its “preconditions” for stopping the shooting. No Palestinian prisoners were released. The border crossings will only open under PA auspices – an idea actually put forth by Israel early in the conflict. No seaport, no free flow of dual-use construction materials.
The Israeli victory, as defined by Netanyahu’s strategy, is complete
The terms of the truce are nearly identical to the Egyptian offer accepted by Israel a month ago. This was before Hamas lost its top military leadership and many hundreds of fighters, before the worst damage of the ground incursion had been done, before most of the civilian dead had died or apartment buildings had fallen, and before Hamas began to feel the need to execute “collaborators” – indeed, before any opponents could plausibly suggest that the group had killed more Palestinians in the conflict than Israelis.
Even worse for Hamas, the talks set to begin in a month in Cairo – assuming the truce holds – will include Israel’s demand for Gaza’s demilitarization, something Hamas has said it would never accept as part of the agenda of any ceasefire talks.
The Israeli victory, as defined by Netanyahu’s strategy, is complete.
To be sure, no one in Israel expects Hamas to accept Israel’s demand for demilitarization, and thus no agreed-upon ceasefire is likely to emerge from Cairo. But even if the sides remain in a formal state of belligerency, that only sustains the dire pressure on Hamas. Both ideologically and financially, the group is ill-equipped for the work of rehabilitating the devastated civilian life of Gaza. And as long as an armed (and presumably rearming) Hamas remains in control, the Israeli-Egyptian siege will remain in place as well.
In the end, Netanyahu believes, patience and sustained pressure will destroy Hamas by demonstrating, first and foremost to Gaza’s own beleaguered population, the link between Gaza’s suffering and Hamas’s belligerency.
Netanyahu’s strategy has much to commend it. It recognizes and addresses the challenges posed by terrorism and irregular conflict – the civilian toll, the political traps, the importance of the psychological battlefield.
But it may suffer from one overwhelming flaw: in the minds of Israelis, it doesn’t look like war. It is hard to explain to millions of Israeli voters under rocket fire, to the families of dead children and dead soldiers, to a nation that expects decisive action from its leaders in wartime, why an enemy as derided and detested in the Israeli mind as Hamas can sustain rocket fire on a country as powerful as Israel for 50 days.
This gap is starting to have political consequences for Netanyahu. The growing chorus of critics, and the plummeting of Netanyahu’s approval rating, show the extent of the disparity between the government’s Gaza strategy and the nation’s expectations.
As one Gaza-area mayor put it on Tuesday with bitter sarcasm: “Gaza’s disarmament continues – through the massive fire on the Eshkol Council that is emptying the arsenals of Hamas.” The mayor, Eshkol Regional Council head Chaim Yellin, demanded at length on national television that “the government of Israel wake up, stop talking and start doing. Hamas’s leaders are in bunkers and you are in Jerusalem.”
And the fraying of the coalition has already begun.
“As long as Hamas controls Gaza, it won’t be possible to ensure security for Israel’s citizens,” railed Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday afternoon in a direct challenge to Netanyahu’s strategy – a statement that led political blogger Tal Schneider to wonder if Liberman is already preparing his resignation letter.
Even on his left, Netanyahu isn’t safe. While the right is dissatisfied with what it sees as the ambiguous outcome of the fighting, the left argues that Netanyahu’s strategy ultimately requires creating a more attractive alternative for Palestinians in the form of a peace agreement in the West Bank.
“The Yesh Atid party will reexamine its future in the government, based on the political decisions the prime minister makes,” Yesh Atid’s MK Ofer Shelah said Wednesday, referring to such efforts.
“Even those who support a [peace] agreement, like us, will reconsider their future in the government. Netanyahu understands that we are serious: if in the end we don’t succeed in leading a political process, the people will decide and we will find ourselves in elections,” echoed Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri, also of Yesh Atid.
In Operation Protective Edge, Netanyahu navigated on multiple fronts to achieve his goals: the military operation, the diplomatic alliance with Egypt and others, the negotiations over the ceasefire terms. Even if he succeeds on those fronts, he may yet face the consequences of failure in another arena altogether: explaining to his own people what just happened.