A Likud campaign video released last month warned ominously that election opponent Benny Gantz is a “weak leftist.” Another cautioned that he associates with those who would “hand the Gaza periphery to Hamas,” and would even sit with Arab lawmaker Ahmad Tibi in an electoral bloc if he wins the April 9 election.
Gantz’s campaign has responded with accusations no less startling in their vehemence — and no less empty of substance. “Netanyahu,” one Gantz campaign video said, “pays the Hamas murderers 15 million dollars. Every month. In cash. In exchange we got hundreds of rockets on the residents of the south, tens of thousands of dunams burned, hundreds of incendiary kites and balloons, tens of thousands of children in bomb shelters. We won’t pay Hamas protection money,” it vowed.
Gantz has also placed Netanyahu’s 15-year-old votes for the 2005 pullout from Gaza at the center of his campaign. “He voted for the disengagement three times!” one Gantz campaign video cried, while another accused: “Netanyahu expels Jews by force.”
According to the Gantz campaign, Netanyahu is a cagey man, prone to territorial withdrawals and intimidated by Hamas, and his weakness puts Israel’s children in harm’s way. According to the Netanyahu campaign, Gantz is an incorrigible leftist who will “form a weak, leftist government with the left” (the word “left” recurs like an incantation in Likud’s campaign; indeed, it is Likud’s campaign) and in effect hand the reins of national leadership to anti-Zionist Arabs.
What makes all this frenetic image-making so very odd is the fact that it is being deployed at the behest of two men who together helped formulate Israel’s current defense posture toward Gaza and are in near-total agreement about that policy.
It’s even stranger when one considers the fact that there are other theaters in which Netanyahu and Gantz can be said to disagree, even if only a bit. On Iran, for example, Gantz believed the Obama administration’s 2015 nuclear agreement was a done deal while Netanyahu believed direct and persistent confrontation could derail it. Or in the West Bank, where a tight-lipped Gantz is thought to be more amenable to contemplating ways to reduce the occupation, but cautions it may not be possible, while Netanyahu has insisted both that he backs a Palestinian state and that he vehemently opposes one. On Iran the two men’s records are clear; on the West Bank their actual views remain largely guesswork.
Even so, it is their Gaza policy that has so far drawn the attention of their mutual campaigns. And that’s no accident.
A new kind of enemy
On August 25, 2014, the penultimate day of the 50-day Operation Protective Edge, a poll by Channel 2 found that just 38 percent of Israelis said they “supported” Netanyahu’s handling of the war in Gaza. That was an abysmal showing, down 44 points from a high of 82% on July 23, a month earlier, which was in the second week of the war and just after the start of Israel’s ground incursion into the Strip.
The August 25 figure marked the nadir of a long decline — on August 5, Netanyahu’s approval was 63%. On August 21, 55%.
The slow collapse of Netanyahu’s wartime popularity had to do with how Israelis understood the outcome of the war. Israelis, like most Westerners, believe that war should be fought in decisive engagements by military formations. Arab-world opponents of Israel, meanwhile, gave up defeating the Jewish state on such conventional battlefields in the 1970s. By the early 2000s, after continuing Arab political decline had cemented the sense that Arab nationalism and the Arab state as an institution had failed to deliver, a new strategy gradually took hold among many of the region’s Islamist movements that has defined the war against Israel ever since.
During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the influential Israeli analyst Ehud Yaari suggested calling the new strategy, advanced in that war by Hezbollah and subsequently by the Palestinian terror group Hamas, the “Muqawama Doctrine.”
“The literal translation of the Arabic word muqawama is ‘resistance,’ but that does not reflect the full meaning of the term. A more correct translation would be ‘the doctrine of constant combat,’ or ‘persistent warfare,'” he wrote in November 2006.
After Arab states failed to dislodge Israel through military effort, the new strategy seeks to replace direct confrontation by military formations with “the methodical erosion of the enemy’s resolve” through unconventional guerrilla-like means. Thus, “there is no need to defend territory against Israeli occupation, or to try to conquer land,” Yaari explained. The war is ultimately a psychological one: “The essence is to spill blood, and since that is the case, it is better to focus on the civilian population as the primary target. The motto is blood, not land, and the effort is directed at denying victory to the enemy, not at achieving a quick result.”
This logic, a kind of Islamist inflection of classic 20th-century anticolonial guerrilla strategies, has led Palestinian terror groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, to deploy waves of suicide bombers to terrorize Israeli civilians, to hide their fighters and rocket launchers deep within their own civilian populations in order to raise the political cost for conventionally powerful Israel of deploying its assets, and to deliver endless and sometimes unintentionally comical streams of invective and taunting meant to degrade Israelis’ psychological resilience.
Part of this strategy of permanent confrontation includes a redefinition of victory. Whereas Israelis, like most Westerners, are culturally primed to seek a decisive clash, Hamas and Hezbollah see in mere survival a victory, since it permits the continuation of the muqawama. As long as the enemy doesn’t win, it loses. Even as Lebanon burned around it in the 2006 war, Hezbollah insisted it had “won” because Israel had not destroyed it. Hamas, too, in the wake of the 2014 war in Gaza, celebrated its “victory,” despite widespread destruction and the deepening of the blockade on the beleaguered enclave.
Yaari is the clearest spokesman for a view that is now more or less the accepted strategic thinking among Israeli planning elites about the challenge posed by this new way of war.
And Netanyahu, the prime minister in 2014, and Gantz, the IDF chief of staff at the time, are among the key architects of Israel’s response to the new threat.
The waiting game
That response flows from a basic premise: in this waiting game, time is on Israel’s side. There is a corollary: Israel can do a great deal in the meantime to ensure this long war concludes in its favor.
And so Israel has set about degrading the capabilities of its guerrilla enemies and growing its own non-conventional capabilities, from missile defense to cyber and espionage to precision air power to the psychological arena intended to undermine the terror groups’ backing at home. Hence the Gaza blockade and the persistent, increasingly public Israeli air campaign against Hezbollah’s supply chain in Syria.
And Israel enjoys some structural advantages in this effort that its opponents, largely for ideological reasons, are unable to see.
For example, the muqawama doctrine, at least as advanced by Hezbollah, sees in Israeli democracy an Achilles heel, making the country’s leaders overly sensitive to the psychological effects of terrorism and the Israeli public overly prone to self-flagellation and despair. For evidence they point to Israel’s ferocious internal debates and partisan infighting, including during wartime.
But Hezbollah has yet to make the connection between Israel’s political and economic freedoms on the one hand and the economic and technological prowess that drive its military might on the other. Hezbollah is a drain on Lebanon, on its governance and economy, and effectively chains the country’s fate to the warmaking needs of the ayatollahs of Tehran. Israel, meanwhile, has experienced over the past two conflict-filled decades almost uninterrupted prosperity and flourishing. The point here is not moral, but strategic. The very thing Hezbollah and Hamas spokespeople have often depicted as the source of Israel’s weakness — for example, the public anxiety over soldiers’ welfare, the political vulnerability of Israel’s elected leaders — is the source of its stamina. Democratic Israel can afford this standoff, and it becomes more affordable with each passing year of economic growth. Lebanon and Gaza cannot.
It is no accident, then, that neither Netanyahu nor Gantz believes it is in Israel’s interest to uproot Hamas from Gaza. For all its bluster and pious proclamations of permanent holy war, Hamas has mismanaged Gaza into ruin, dragging the impoverished territory into its permanent conflict not only with Israel, but from 2014 on, with Egypt too. It keeps Gaza weak, even as its belligerency bolsters Netanyahu’s case on the world stage for a stricter security regime in any future agreement in the West Bank, and it has spent much of the past 12 years since its takeover of the Strip suppressing more radical groups in the territory, including the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad. It simply isn’t worth the vast toll in lives and treasure, both Israeli and Palestinian, that a full invasion and military pacification of Gaza, the kind of operation that alone might stand a chance of an immediate and direct dismantling of Hamas, would require.
In Hezbollah, too, Israel has discovered an aggressor that, though far more dangerous than Hamas, is nevertheless more vulnerable over time than the muqawama strategy seems to acknowledge. Even as it constructs its state-within-a-state in Lebanon, Hezbollah faces pressure from other Lebanese who do not want a recurrence of the destructive 2006 war, and from its patron Iran and its ally Damascus, whose interests are decidedly state-based and influenceable via the traditional means of the state system: sanctions, military actions and the like.
This is ultimately a strategy of containment, of demonstrating to the muqawama mind and its believers and supporters throughout the region, not least among them the regime in Tehran, that Israel is better positioned to win not only a conventional conflict, but this new psychological game of “chicken” as well.
In the 2006 war, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, a strategic neophyte, proclaimed in the war’s early days that the goal of the conflict was to “annihilate Hezbollah” — playing wholly into Hezbollah’s narrative that survival is victory. Netanyahu has led Israel through three wars in Gaza since, and his approach, which Gantz helped shape and in 2014 successfully implemented on the ground, shows the new Israeli strategic concept in action: each war was limited, geared toward denying Hamas successes while not paying the high costs that would be demanded for meaningful Israeli gains. In each, Israel refused to be drawn into escalations by Hamas, instead escalating the fighting at its own slow, measured pace, leaving Hamas the problem of explaining to Palestinians why their suffering seemed to be increasing amid Hamas’s promises that the enemy was cowed and victory was inevitable. And then, crucially, Israel refused a ceasefire on any terms that meaningfully altered the conditions in place at the start of the fighting.
In each case, the point was to demonstrate to Hamas that none of its “force multipliers” – international pressure on Israel due to civilian deaths, domestic political pressure from rocket-battered Israeli civilians – could protect the organization. Israel could operate in Gaza, Netanyahu and Gantz sought to show, with no meaningful domestic or international constraints, dealing pain to Hamas at its leisure and escalating at will. Each round of fighting, they sought to show, left Israel better off and its opponents worse off. The permanent muqawama was dismantling Palestine, not Israel.
When it comes to Gaza, Israeli security policy is divided not between “right” and “left” as these are depicted by the current political campaigns, but between those who grasp this strategy and those who, for various reasons, rail against it.
On the right, that latter group includes Naftali Bennett, now of the New Right party, who has long charged that this systematic avoidance of decisive engagements eats away at Israeli morale and deterrence. On the left, it includes some members of the Meretz party, for example, who view the permanent standoff engendered by this strategy as exacting an untenable cost from the civilian populations on both sides — evidenced by the humanitarian crisis in blockaded Gaza and widespread post-traumatic symptoms among Israeli residents of Gaza-bordering working-class communities like Sderot.
But the upshot in this election season concerns the way the Netanyahu and Gantz campaigns have tried to distinguish themselves from each other, and often appealed to the Gaza conflict to do it.
Credit where it’s due
Gantz is taking credit for the Hamas forces destroyed under his command, while lashing Netanyahu for working to ensure that Hamas’s regime doesn’t fall by allowing it to receive fresh cash infusions each month — though it was Netanyahu who ordered the escalations of 2014 that dealt Hamas the blows Gantz is celebrating, and Gantz himself who sought to avoid a Hamas collapse even as he sent airstrikes and ground troops to demolish its installations and tunnels.
Rocket attacks have not ended under Netanyahu. Last November, over 400 rockets struck Israel in a single 24-hour volley. It was Netanyahu who made the decision then not to get drawn into renewed fighting in Gaza, not Gantz. It is Netanyahu who released 1,100 terrorists for Gilad Shalit in 2011. The absurdity reached a kind of apotheosis when a Netanyahu campaign video showed images of terror attacks blamed on the “left” that it claimed would return if “leftist” Gantz won the election — but the attacks shown occurred while Netanyahu was prime minister.
Meanwhile, as Gantz’s campaign slams the cash suitcases to Hamas and Netanyahu’s 15-year-old votes for the Disengagement, very few Israelis believe Gantz would have voted against the Disengagement in his stead, or, were he still in uniform, would be fighting to stop the cash payments that are backed by the bulk of the defense establishment.
This isn’t just hypocrisy. It is a more active and fervent sort of dishonesty. It is an attempt, in essence, to hide the very fact that the two contenders for the premiership actually share a single policy on Gaza. And the smaller the gap that divides them, the harsher and more dishonest the rhetoric seems to grow.
Gantz and Netanyahu are both careful strategists pursuing a careful strategy in Gaza, but it’s a difficult strategy to explain to a rocket-battered public. It may be a wise policy, and in the meantime arguably successful, but as Netanyahu’s declining poll numbers during the 2014 war showed, it will never really be popular.
And so, ironically, it is on the issue where Gantz and Netanyahu may be most similar that their campaigns have invested the bulk of their smearing efforts, subjecting Israelis to a mindless barrage of pretense and posturing in which, without shame or hesitation, each side accuses the other of holding its own views.