‘We shall not stop, not until the very last tunnel.”
“The war on terror has no end date. The ‘quiet for quiet’ formula is no longer on the agenda.”
“We care about Gaza’s children more than they do.”
Those words, spoken at various junctures since the start of Operation Protective Edge on July 8, were not uttered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the right-wing Likud party, but by Israel’s most powerful centrist, and in parliamentary terms its most powerful dove, Finance Minister Yair Lapid.
Lapid has vowed to leave the current coalition if peace talks with the Palestinians are abandoned (he remained after they stalled, but argued that the Palestinian Authority, not Netanyahu, was responsible for their failure, and urges their resumption). Yet over the past month, he has been one of the government’s most articulate spokesmen for the continued Gaza operation – second only, perhaps, to the coalition’s most dovish dove, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.
“This is the time for us to unite around the understanding that terror must be fought. This is a tough war, but a necessary one,” she said on July 20.
And on July 27: “I visit [our wounded soldiers], try to comfort them and promise that the deaths [of their comrades] were not in vain, that the IDF will continue [the Gaza war] until the goals are achieved and the operation is completed, until security and long-term quiet is achieved for us all. This truth is the little I have to offer them.”
No decision about the current pace of operations – the decision to launch the air war on July 8, the decision to send in ground troops on July 17, the acceptance of three truces, and the angry rejection of the last American-proposed ceasefire – none of these were decisions taken by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alone. All were brought to a debate and a vote in the security cabinet, and the centrist doves Lapid and Livni have been as eager as any of the coalition’s most outspoken hawks to see this war continue — at least until, as they have characterized it, Hamas is dealt a painful deterrence-restoring blow.
On Tuesday, a BBC World anchor asked this reporter on the channel’s live broadcast where the Israeli “peace camp” has gone, why the rallies that once drew hundreds of thousands in support of peace and Palestinian independence now attract perhaps one percent of that number, even as children die in Gaza.
The answer is that the majority of the left, and even many on the far left, avidly and wholeheartedly support the operation in Gaza, at times more eagerly than the right.
A study conducted by the left-leaning Israel Democracy Institute found that nearly all Israeli Jews – 96%, 92% and 97% in three July polls that were part of the study – believe the Gaza operation is just. Such high figures necessarily include peace activists, a majority of Meretz voters and most of the rest of the staunch left.
Doves at war
The eight members of Israel’s security cabinet hail from all five parties of the coalition: from Likud — Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan; from Yisrael Beytenu — Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch; from Yesh Atid — Finance Minister Lapid; from Jewish Home — Economy Minister Naftali Bennett; and from Hatnua — Justice Minister Livni.
Eight people, each with a vote on whether Israel expands the war or seeks a ceasefire, whether the infantry moves deeper into Gaza City in pursuit of Hamas leaders’ bunkers, or remains on the outskirts with the more limited mission of ferreting out the tunnels that penetrate into Israel.
And the members of this cabinet committee have not been shy about expressing their views publicly.
On July 7, Liberman angrily announced he was breaking up the joint Likud-Yisrael Beytenu Knesset list over Netanyahu’s refusal to go to war in Gaza – a day before Netanyahu, with the unanimous backing of the security cabinet, did so. It was a moment of political grandstanding that probably backfired on Liberman, who has struggled in the polls since his party united with Likud for the Knesset elections of 2013 and voters found it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two parties.
Bennett, too, has called for Israel’s response to be an aggressive one. “Hamas can be defeated and disarmed from its rockets and tunnels,” he said on Sunday. “[Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah is watching. [Islamist group] Da’ash is watching. Iran is watching. The Arab world is watching. Europe and the US are watching. The people of Israel are watching. Everyone is waiting to see if Israel possesses the courage to defeat Hamas once and for all.”
These sentiments — Liberman’s accusations and Bennett’s promises that a triumphant victory is plausible — are predictable. They match the parties’ platforms and past rhetoric.
But it is the stance of Livni and Lapid, the two most senior Israeli politicians who still see their political future as at least partly dependent on the continued viability of the two-state solution, that offers a window into the way this war is perceived within Israel and into the deeper trends of Israeli political life.
For these two centrists of the coalition, the war in Gaza isn’t only about Hamas in Gaza, but also, emphatically, about Abbas in Ramallah.
Unlike Bennett or Liberman, Livni has articulated the war’s purpose as part of a long process of weakening the anti-peace tendencies on the Palestinian side, which she believes must be accompanied by greater Israeli engagement of those among the Palestinians who reject Hamas’s strategy of permanent confrontation.
“While IDF soldiers fight, it is important to say that the end of the operation will not strengthen the extremist terrorists. Hamas will not get what it wants, not through military means and not through any other sort of pressure, not at our expense and not at the expense of those who reject terror and want to live here alongside us,” Livni said in a statement on July 24.
The flexible middle ground
The single largest political party in Israel, at least when it comes to the Palestinian issue, isn’t a party at all. It is what local analysts sometimes call the “floating vote,” Israelis who eagerly support peace when it seems possible, but just as firmly gird for war when the enemy seems implacable.
Polls have shown that nearly half of the voters for Bennett’s Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home, a party whose most basic political identity lies in its rejection of Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, say they support in principle precisely that – the establishment of a Palestinian state in much of the West Bank – provided that Israel’s security can be assured.
Meanwhile, in the last round of Gaza fighting, in November 2012, the far-left Meretz party openly supported Netanyahu in the air assault on Hamas, while one of the wounded soldiers in Gaza made news last week because he was the grandson of former Meretz head Haim Oron. Meretz has shown it is composed of staunch doves who nevertheless do not shy away from what they believe to be a necessary war. (It should be noted that current Meretz head Zahava Gal-on opposes the latest operation; most of her electorate does not.)
This flexible middle ground now encompasses a majority of the Israeli electorate, from the rightist half of left-wing Meretz to the leftist half of right-wing Jewish Home, and including most ultra-Orthodox Israelis. For those counting, that’s at least 92 out of 120 Knesset seats.
For Lapid and Livni, whose parties are incarnations of this vast, ambiguous political center, it is here that the intra-Israeli battle for peace can be won – and only here. The floating voters, Lapid has written, are unimpressed by UN resolutions or protests in European capitals. They cannot be pressured into a West Bank withdrawal if they believe the result would mean war and rockets and tunnels full of terrorists reaching into their homes. No amount of boycotts or American assurances or European riots can overcome their resistance when they believe their security is not assured.
Yet it is in this majority of Israeli Jewish voters, too, where ideologies and messiahs go to die. These voters reject the clear-cut analyses or creeds that once defined the right-left chasm of Israeli politics. They can be convinced.
And so from the perspective of the cabinet’s doves the military campaign against Hamas is an urgent necessity, a prerequisite for peacemaking.
This logic is not new. In 2005, before the disengagement from Gaza that August, then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz assured Israelis that as soon as Israel withdrew from Gaza, “one rocket will bring a crushing Israeli response.” The willingness to fight meant the risks of withdrawal were tolerable. (Critics have since noted that many hundreds of rockets must fall before Israeli responses are deemed politically palatable.)
At the onset of the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, then-premier Ehud Olmert, who ran and won election on the express platform of a withdrawal from the West Bank, announced that the Lebanon war would leave Israel better able to pull out of the West Bank, since it would demonstrate Israel’s ability to crush an enemy who attacked Israel from territory (in this case, southern Lebanon) from which Israel had withdrawn – that if things go sour in the West Bank, Israel would be able to defend itself.
By the time the dovish Olmert was finished with Hezbollah – sooner, to be sure, than his electorate wanted – not a single bridge was left intact in all of Lebanon. And for all the criticism of the conduct of that war, eight years have passed without meaningful conflict on Israel’s northern border.
This logic has now come to define the left’s reaction to enemies such as Hamas and Hezbollah: the more one wants Israelis to believe in a future peace, the more the enemies of peace must be given no quarter. There is no other way to crack open the political window in domestic Israeli politics that would enable the signing of any future peace deal that includes an Israeli withdrawal.
Thus, when US Secretary of State John Kerry last week seemed poised to rescue Hamas from the ignominious defeat of the Egyptian ceasefire proposal, the Israeli cabinet’s response was unanimous. Indeed, Lapid and Livni were reportedly more horrified at the Americans’ tentative offer of an easing of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza than the cabinet members on their right.
Netanyahu, front and center
As long as Likud and Yisrael Beytenu formed a single list headed by Netanyahu, the prime minister enjoyed a majority of five in the eight-member security cabinet: himself, Ya’alon, Liberman, Aharonovitch and Erdan. With the severing of that link, Netanyahu’s faction is down to three.
But his control over the cabinet does not appear to have weakened. Livni and Lapid have quietly stepped into the breach. While Bennett urges the overthrow of Hamas (“The mission isn’t the tunnels, but victory. Only victory over Hamas will prevent the next war and the next victims,” Bennett said angrily in a direct attack on Netanyahu on Tuesday, as talk of a ceasefire grew), and while Liberman demands a deeper campaign, the two centrists have backed the prime minister’s slower, more restrained escalations.
This new coalition in the security cabinet is a stable one. Netanyahu has always been uncomfortable with expanding the military operation indefinitely, even as he is determined to deny Hamas a victory image. He wants to end the fighting as soon as he can guarantee the latter condition. And Livni and Lapid are equally determined to sustain the economic and military pressure on Hamas, but only until they find a way to translate it into their true war aim: a victory for the Palestinian Authority.
Abbas, they believe, must be shown – both to Palestinians and Israelis (and, at a distant third place, the international community) – to be the only viable Palestinian leader who can deliver peace and prosperity to a future Palestinian state. That means crushing Hamas, or at least weakening it enough to bring Abbas into focus once again. And it means giving Abbas the spoils of victory – such as control of Gaza’s border crossings and finances.
The Netanyahu-Livni-Lapid axis in the security cabinet has not been any more sparing in its military assault on Hamas than the previous Netanyahu-Liberman bloc would have been. Indeed, it may be more aggressive, since it has more to lose from Hamas remaining the driving force in Palestinian politics.
But when the fighting finally draws to a close and the battle over the ceasefire terms begins, the dividing line between the doves and the hawks will become stark and unavoidable, with each maneuvering for a very different endgame. Netanyahu may soon find that his de facto national-unity coalition will evaporate, and he will have to make hard choices, any of which will likely anger and alienate key coalition partners.