Netanyahu, the conciliatory conservative

The prime minister, who prides himself on his careful stewardship of the national economy, dislikes war and its uncertainties

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv on July 1, 2014. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv on July 1, 2014. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

‘Experience teaches that in times like these, it is incumbent on us to act calmly and responsibly, not with carelessness and loud rhetoric.”

That sentence was uttered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday as a rebuke to ministers in his cabinet who urged a more robust response to the escalating rocket fire from Gaza at the start of the week. The ministers had not been gentle in their criticism.

“It cannot be that after the kidnapping and murder of three teenagers and two consecutive weeks of rocket attacks, Israel’s approach is still to say ‘[Hamas’s] quiet will be answered with quiet,’” Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman railed last Friday while visiting the Gaza periphery.

“You have to teach Hamas a lesson in order to restore calm to the communities and residents of the south,” demanded Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, not well known as a national security personage but nevertheless one of the key power brokers in Netanyahu’s own Likud party.

But Netanyahu was unmoved. For days, he reined in the IDF, withstood a growing chorus of anger and resentment from some of his ministers (and, it must be said, residents of the rocket-battered south) and worked to explain Israel’s predicament to world leaders.

On Monday, that restraint cost him dearly, as Liberman led his 11-seat Yisrael Beytenu party out of its shared Knesset list with Likud, reducing the prime minister’s ruling faction from 31 seats in the 120-member Knesset to just 20 — on the pretext of “fundamental” disagreements over Netanyahu’s handling of Gaza.

“The reality in which we live, with hundreds of rockets in the hands of a terror organization that can decide at any moment to use them, is intolerable,” Liberman said in a hastily convened Knesset press conference to explain his decision.

“Suggestions to wait, listen, delay – it’s not clear to me what we’re waiting for. At the end of 2015, [Hamas] will have thousands of rockets [that can reach 80 kilometers]. We have to end this. We can’t live under this permanent threat, where 1.5 million people have to be ready to run to shelters at a moment’s notice.”

Liberman’s timing, however, was premature. The very next day, amid an escalation of rocket fire by Hamas and an unexplained (and partly censored) explosion in a Hamas tunnel near Kerem Shalom, Netanyahu finally gave the order to launch Operation Protective Edge, an escalating aerial campaign directed at Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.

The conflict marks only the second time in Netanyahu’s eight years in power in which he ordered military action, a remarkable record for the second-longest serving premier in Israeli history. The last time was also over Gaza, in November 2012. That conflict, too, exemplified Netanyahu’s commitment to restraint, with IDF firepower carefully directed away from civilian targets and, at the end of eight days of mutual aerial bombardment, a fateful decision to avoid sending in ground troops in favor of an imperfect ceasefire. Indeed, the cease fire passed the cabinet despite a Hamas bus bombing in Tel Aviv a short time before.

Netanyahu also sought a nonviolent solution to the current crisis, a fact attested not by his own spokespeople but by Egyptian intelligence, according to reports, and by the likes of left-wing activist Gershon Baskin, whose ties to Hamas helped broker the 2011 release of Gilad Shalit.

Baskin is not known as a supporter of the right-wing Netanyahu, to put it mildly.

“The Hamas leadership decided to ignore the possibility of a ceasefire” proposed by Baskin through his contacts, “and instead challenged Israel to ‘bring it on’… I can honestly say that Netanyahu did not want to escalate this war,” he said.

Strategic restraint

In a resounding defense of forgotten former prime minister Levi Eshkol’s role in the 1967 Six Day War, the historian and former ambassador Michael Oren characterized Eshkol’s wartime contributions thus: “Eshkol understood far better than other Israeli statesmen the necessity of guaranteeing American support for Israel, and of resisting pressure to initiate military action before that support was secured. Once the Six Day War began, however, he rebuffed international demands to halt Israel’s advance before it had achieved its objectives… Finally, Eshkol was pivotal in determining the outcome of the two most fateful battles in the war — indeed, in all of Israel’s history — for Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.”

In the run-up to the 1967 war, Moshe Dayan and the IDF top brass counseled an immediate strike to regain the initiative after Egypt’s mid-May deployment of troops into the Sinai and subsequent May 22 closure of the Straits of Tiran. But Eshkol held back for two long weeks, the infamous “waiting period,” sending frantic messages (along with foreign minister Abba Eban) shuttling between Western capitals.

That delay, which cost Eshkol dearly at home, generating so much public disquiet that he was forced to appoint the ex-general Dayan as defense minister on June 1, paid off handsomely once hostilities began. The IDF had used the time to complete a full reserve call-up and to train the air force in precisely the sort of air raids against enemy landing strips that would prove so decisive in the first days of the war. And in retrospect, Eshkol’s careful coddling of Washington during this period appears to have been the decisive factor in the Johnson White House’s willingness to delay any UN action against Israel during the fighting, and even to ward off a direct Soviet threat to intervene on the Syrian front.

And it was Eshkol, not the more charismatic Dayan, who made some of the defining, and difficult, decisions of that war. On the Golan Heights, Dayan urged that Israeli villages be relocated away from the Syrian border, a move he suggested would be preferable to any attempt to take the Heights by force in order to silence Syrian guns. It was Eshkol who pushed for taking the plateau. In Jerusalem, meanwhile, Eshkol counseled restraint. While the generals itched to take the sacred Old City and Jordanian artillery rained shells on the city’s Jewish neighborhoods, Eshkol delayed the IDF’s push eastward in order to offer a truce deal to Jordan’s King Hussein. When Hussein ignored the deal, in full view of the American administration, the push into Jerusalem gained America’s tacit support.

The military historian Eliot Cohen has argued that civilian leaders, who grasp the larger political context of a war, tend to make better decisions in wartime than the grizzled generals they oversee. It is hard to think of a leader more deserving of that praise than the farmer-turned-politician who shepherded a frightened country through its first unequivocal military triumph.

The hardliner

The three-term Netanyahu has often been depicted in the foreign press as a “hardliner.” And, indeed, when it comes to peace talks with the Palestinians, there is little doubt he has set the bar for Israel’s demands higher than some of his opponents on the left might have done.

But when it comes to armed conflict, the “hardliner” has proven less prone to military action than any prime minister in Israel’s history. In that, he follows not in the tradition of Likud leaders such as Menachem Begin or Ariel Sharon, who did not shy away from military confrontation, but rather the old left-wing Mapai leader Eshkol, who preferred diplomacy and politics to war and never lost sight of the broader policy goals, even in the heat of battle.

Like Eshkol, Netanyahu built a significant part of his political reputation on his record as a competent finance minister. Like Eshkol, he does not willingly go to war without first taking great pains to ensure Israel’s overseas allies understand the need. And like Eshkol, he seems unmoved by the drum-beating of his political rivals.

An MBA who prides himself on his careful stewardship of Israel’s prospering economy, Netanyahu does not relish the uncertainties and inevitable unintended consequences of war.

No elected politician can remain in power for long if he is not seen acting decisively in the face of wanton rocket fire on his citizens. Netanyahu may continue to escalate the confrontation with Hamas, up to and including a costly ground incursion into the densely-populated Gaza Strip.

But if he does so, everything in his long record of public service suggests the campaign will be precisely calibrated, limited in scope, and as brief as can be managed.

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