Unlucky Day 13, when the PM faced the nation, and an operation became a war

Unlucky Day 13, when the PM faced the nation, and an operation became a war

Six thoughts on Netanyahu's view of Protective Edge, which he defines as an existential battle, albeit one that can end at any moment

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, July 11, 2014 (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, July 11, 2014 (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)

Day 13 of Operation Protective Edge was an exceedingly difficult one for Israel; 13 soldiers died in bloody battles in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood. During the fighting, more than 60 Palestinians were reportedly killed, many of them civilians. Toward the end of this fateful day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the nation and, for the second time in nine days (after a long period of avoiding the local press) answered the questions of Israeli journalists. Here are six thoughts on what he said:

1. The operation has become a war. Until Sunday, the Israeli government was hesitant to refer to Operation Protective Edge as a war. Cynics pointed out that refraining from designating a military campaign as a war brings with it advantages for the National Insurance Institute, which pays higher rates to victims of war than to those harmed by enemy action otherwise defined.

But on a day on which more than a dozen Israeli soldiers fell in enemy territory, Netanyahu was no longer stating that this was anything but a full-fledged war. “I would like to say to you that there is no war more just than that in which your sons and ours heroically fell,” the prime minister said, addressing the bereaved families.

2. It’s an existential war. The current campaign should not be seen as an imperialistic endeavor or an adventure to turn tyrannies into democracies, Netanyahu said. Unlike other nations who send their armies to fight in far-flung provinces, Israel is fighting for its very survival in its ancient homeland. The 13 soldiers from the Golani Brigade died “so that we can continue to live here,” he said. “We find ourselves in a milhama al habayit — a war for our home. Our forces are currently active in the field; they are operating professionally, with determination, great strength — great firepower and great strength of spirit.”

3. The war’s objective is loosely defined. Before he became prime minister, Netanyahu said that once he was in charge, the IDF would not refrain from finishing the job in Gaza — in other words, toppling Hamas. But now, in the middle of an expansive military campaign, with troops on the ground in Gaza, removing Hamas from power was not on his list of objectives.

Rather, the prime minister steadfastly defined the operation’s aims as restoring quiet to Israel for a prolonged time and severely damaging terrorist infrastructure in Gaza. This is a much more modest goal than what he promised his voters in 2009, before he was elected. At the same time, however, he did say that Hamas would eventually be neutralized — militarily, diplomatically, or by a combination of both.

Netanyahu also spoke Sunday of his wish to demilitarize Gaza, but he did not specify how this would occur.

Netanyahu has formulated his goal in so amorphous a way as to enable him to stop the operation whenever he sees fit. At any given moment in the coming days — if, say, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to the region brings a speedy ceasefire (a big “if”) — Netanyahu could turn to the Israeli people and declare that the operation’s objective had been achieved. He accepted the Egyptian ceasefire proposal last week, saying that the objective had been achieved, and after Hamas rejected it, he launched the ongoing ground offensive, still seeking that objective.

4. Abbas’s role. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas could be part of the solution to the conflict, Netanyahu said — provided Abbas understands that Hamas cannot be part of the peace process. From the moment Abbas created a Palestinian unity government, backed by Hamas, in April 2014, Netanyahu shunned the PA leader, saying that he had to decide whether he wants peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. Now that even many parts of the Arab world see Hamas for what it is — a terrorist organization that, by refusing the Egyptian ceasefire proposal, proved that it doesn’t care about the lives of Palestinians — Netanyahu feels vindicated. Not everyone saw the light when he saw it, he said Sunday, but slowly the world is realizing that he was right about the Palestinian unity government all along.

5. Relations with Turkey. Ties between Ankara and Jerusalem have hit rock bottom. In May, it seemed that the four-year-old feud between the two countries was about to end. The two governments had agreed on all outstanding issues that had stood in the way of an agreement to fully restore bilateral ties to their pre-Gaza flotilla level. It only needed Netanyahu’s signature, officials said. That didn’t quite work out, but officials in Jerusalem were still hoping that sooner or later the two sides would get their act together and sign a deal.

But after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent rants, during one of which he accused Israel of “barbarism that surpasses Hitler,” chances for a rapprochement have been reduced to close to zero. On Sunday, Netanyahu said that he is currently busy with the Gaza front, refusing to answer a question about Turkey. But he did not pass up the opportunity to slam his Turkish counterpart for his “anti-Semitic” comments. “This is something that you would expect to hear from Iran or from Al-Qaida,” Netanyahu said.

6. Questions don’t hurt. Finally, a point that might seem mundane in times of war, but which is not entirely unimportant for a country that considers itself an exemplary democracy: the prime minister seems to have understood that Israeli journalists don’t bite, or at least not always. Netanyahu gives plenty of interviews to the foreign media, but very rarely fields questions from local journalists. At one stage, before Operation Protective Edge commenced, Israeli correspondents had actually been mulling over whether to boycott the statements he was giving to the media as Israeli troops were searching for the three Israeli teens abducted (and it turned out killed) on June 12. Netanyahu routinely entered the room, read his written message and disappeared, ignoring questions.

On Sunday, the prime minister took questions from the press, for the second time since the current operation started. And lo and behold, the Q&A format seemed to work just fine. His answers were considered to the point and and shed additional light on his thinking on various geopolitical issues.

“The press conference was excellent,” Israel Radio’s diplomatic commentator Chico Menashe opined afterwards. “If you’re not afraid of the media, you succeed.” Even political blogger Tal Schneider, one of Netanyahu’s harshest critics when it comes to his disinclination to answer questions, was full of praise, noting that he was “focused and precise” and didn’t dodge the issues.

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