Netanyahu and the limits of military power

Op-ed: Doubtless harming his popularity ratings still further, the prime minister on Wednesday acknowledged the near impossibility of smashing Hamas by force. Does he have a supplementary plan?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on Wednesday, August 27, 2014 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on Wednesday, August 27, 2014 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The popularity of Benjamin Netanyahu, seen by most Israelis until a few short weeks ago as the only credible prime minister, is nose-diving. A snap opinion poll for Israel’s Channel 2 on Wednesday night showed only 32% of Israelis happy with his stewardship of the war against Hamas. Barely a month ago, at the start of the ground offensive on July 23, his approval rating in a similar poll for that same TV station was 82% — a full 50% higher. Even in war, there can be few precedents for a decline of that magnitude in a leader’s popularity in the space of five weeks.

Plainly Israelis are deeply dissatisfied with the conduct of the latter stages of the war with Hamas — the fact that there were latter stages in a war people wanted to see won definitively and quickly; the fact that residents of the south were assured that they could come home safely in early August when they all too evidently could not; the fact that Hamas was firing merrily and murderously to the end. And they are deeply troubled by the ambiguous conclusion.

It probably doesn’t do much for your popularity, either, when you announce, as Netanyahu did on Wednesday night  — after a bitter 50-day conflict in which 64 soldiers and six civilians have been killed, in which you’ve pounded enemy territory to a rising tide of global criticism, and in which thousands of your people have had to flee their homes — that you “cannot say for certain” that your central declared goal, of ensuring sustained quiet for the citizens of Israel, has been attained. Thus the next favorability ratings for Netanyahu could well be even worse.

Yet there is much that can be said to Netanyahu’s credit about the handling of this conflict, and the very unhappy Israeli electorate of today may come to appreciate this tomorrow.

As the prime minister and his chief of staff pointed out, extinguishing terrorist organizations working from the midst of dense residential areas is a highly complex task. The US, with all of its resources, Netanyahu noted, has signally failed to wipe out al-Qaeda.

It’s all very well to talk about “smashing Hamas,” as security cabinet critics such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett repeatedly urged over the seven weeks of war. But attempting to “smash Hamas” would have likely cost hundreds of soldiers’ lives and thousands more Gazans’ lives, with no guarantee that Hamas would be utterly quashed, and no clear Gaza exit strategy post-smashing. This is not about “populism and Facebook,” Netanyahu sniped during the Q&A section of Wednesday night’s press conference, aiming the barb at social-media savvy Bennett and fast-learning Liberman. When the smashing was over, the prime minister observed, there would be the not inconsequential question of what to do with almost two million extremely hostile Gazans.

Israel utilized its relative advantages wisely in this conflict, notably its air supremacy, Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz pointed out. And its troops fought courageously and successfully where vital in areas more favorable to Hamas — notably when tackling the terror tunnels in the heart of Hamas strongholds such as Shejaiya. Israel’s intelligence gathering proved capable of pinpointing and thus eliminating some of Hamas’s most important commanders, at the height of a conflict when their self-preserving precautions were at their strongest. Hamas lost an estimated 1,000 gunmen to Israel’s 64 fallen soldiers — a remarkable ratio. That 64 fallen soldiers is widely seen as intolerable only serves to underline how rapidly opinion would have turned against a more drastic and inevitably far bloodier ground offensive, were the leadership to have allowed itself to be prodded into one.

Netanyahu also responded effectively to the Hamas truce breach on Tuesday, August 19, with the strikes on Hamas commanders and by ordering an intensified series of raids that included the demolition of what he called Gaza’s “terror` towers” — high-rises that Israel alleges housed Hamas command centers among other, civilian, functions. It may be the realization that Israel was stepping up the airstrikes and thus the Gaza devastation — and was proving able to do so without a clamor of international insistence that it desist, and without an outcry and worse against Israel from the West Bank and the wider Arab world — that finally prompted Hamas to accept the ceasefire.

For all the Hamas post-war grandstanding, Netanyahu has also assured Israel that the ceasefire terms are essentially the very same ones that Israel accepted throughout the conflict and that Hamas rejected until the very end — with no Gaza seaport, airport, or unsupervised movement of people and goods through the border crossings. We now wait to see where the planned talks on a long-term arrangement will lead. Netanyahu seemed to suggest that the answer might be nowhere. “It’s not clear there will be” a long-term negotiated deal, he said on Wednesday. In which case Hamas might restart its attacks? In which case Israel “will hit them back seven times harder,” vowed Netanyahu.

Again, we shall see. But if Netanyahu is right — and Hamas is deeply battered, and proves disinclined to put Israel and Gaza through all this again anytime soon — the current bitter Israeli mood will gradually lighten. The more so if it becomes clear that Hamas is unable to rearm, and if talk of demilitarizing Gaza begins to turn into action. Unfortunately, since Hamas has not been sufficiently weakened, those are highly improbable “ifs.”

While Netanyahu slapped down the hawks for their unrealistic populism, he didn’t bat away the doves as firmly. In fact, he spoke Wednesday of wanting to see Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s forces return to Gaza, of hoping for a resumed Israeli-Palestinian peace effort, and of “checking” possibilities for wider regional cooperation.

That’s all too vague for some of the dovish critics, including the left-wing Meretz, whose leadership argued all along that this conflict would have been prevented had Netanyahu made the necessary compromises for an accord with Abbas long ago. Labor leader Isaac Herzog, largely supportive of the resort to force, also Thursday claimed the war “could have been avoided” if Abbas had been embraced.

These voices, however, are even more out of sync with the mainstream Israeli mood than is Netanyahu right now. It’s a safe bet that the coming surveys of Israeli political affiliation will show a rise on the right and a decline on the left. The prime minister has made a compelling argument that the Hamas takeover of Gaza needs to serve as a warning against ceding overall security control in the West Bank.

Given his determination to prevent a replication of the Hamas Gaza takeover in the West Bank, the question is how Netanyahu intends to utilize the new diplomatic possibilities he claims to see. On the one hand, he says he’s happy to have Abbas restored to a role in Gaza. On the other, he is resistant to partnering with Abbas toward full Palestinian sovereignty.

In a turbulent Middle East in which Islamist terror marches brutally forward, one suspects that more and more Israelis share his reservations. But this need not prevent Netanyahu galvanizing an international effort to address some of the root causes of the rise of Islamic extremism, in the territories as elsewhere in the region — advocating efforts to marginalize extremism and tackle incitement in schools, mosques and the media. Extinguishing Islamic extremist terror groups is indeed extraordinarily complex. But pursuing non-military paths to tackle extremism might assist in the task.

Netanyahu’s press conference on Wednesday night amounted to a strikingly candid acknowledgment of the limits of military power. That is a difficult, discomfiting and unpopular message for the Israeli public, so psychologically reliant on the assumption that its army can ultimately de-fang all threats, and that if the army fails to do so, that must be because it did not get the correct orders from the political leadership.

One wonders, given those acknowledged military limitations, whether Netanyahu has a supplementary plan — whether he will now also energetically pursue non-military methods to help try to marginalize some of the enemy forces challenging Israel and the West. For a start, he might look to encourage like-minded international partners to reform or replace UNRWA, maintaining assistance to the needy in a framework that does not artificially and uniquely perpetuate the Palestinian refugee problem. “There are no magic solutions,” Netanyahu said at a previous press conference, in Tel Aviv last week. But there may be gradually helpful ones.

Ultimately, the Israeli public, like normal people anywhere, looks to their government to keep them safe. It’s angry and disappointed with Netanyahu right now because it’s not convinced that he’s managing to do so. Even he’s not convinced that he’s managing to do so.

But is he just going to wait and see? Or is he going to initiate other processes also aimed at enabling sustained calm, to be pursued alongside the resort to force when necessary? Long-term, that might do wonders for his popularity. And for Israel.

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