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Taking the Gloves off in Gaza (Reluctantly)

by Shmuel Rosner

2 weeks ago

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, left, consults with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo by Reuters/Baz Ratner

There is very little room for humor in the current Israeli state of affairs: A murder of three innocent Israeli teens by Hamas terrorists; then a murder of an innocent Palestinian teen by Jewish terrorists; then demonstrations, some violent, of Arab Israelis; then rockets, an intensifying barrage of them, followed by measured Israeli retaliation, then by more intensified retaliation – and we do not yet see an end to this sudden summer round of violence.

So humor is hardly the commodity people are looking for, yet my colleague Tal Schneider – an Israeli political blogger, formerly a Washington correspondent for an Israeli newspaper – apparently could not resist the urge to post something funny on her Facebook page on Tuesday. It was a short video clip of Prime Minister Netanyahu from five years ago, when he was still running for Prime Minister, a clip from the 2009 election campaign.

Netanyahu is sober and solemn in that clip, almost grim, and chastising. "Hit them hard", he preaches to then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "Retaliate immediately, retaliate immediately and forcefully". When the Likud Party will be in power, he promises the soon-to-be-his-voters, restraint and forbearance will no longer be Israel’s policy when rockets trickle down on Israeli towns. Promises, promises. We all know that politicians' words should not be taken too seriously - surely they should not be taken literally when these politicians run for office. Still, the contrast between the 2009 Netanyahu and the 2014 Netanyahu is entertaining. A comical example of the old truism "where you stand depends on where you sit".

The 2014 Netanyahu is himself the victim of such urging – ‘hit them’, ‘what are you waiting for?’, ‘enough with the patience and the restraint’. On Monday, his erratic Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, decided this was the right time to dismantle the partnership between his party, Israel Beiteinu, and Netanyahu's Likud. It was not a very successful partnership to begin with – the two formed it in the hope that it will raise their number of shared mandates, but the result was abysmal. Granted, the Likud-Beiteinu was the largest party and Netanyahu became the Prime Minister – we don't know if this would have happened had the partnership not been formed – but the two parties shrank. And their members found many reasons to bicker about their future as partners until it became clear that at some point it will no longer work.

And yet Lieberman's timing was curious: in the middle of a crisis, the Foreign Minister decided it was his time to make a political move. So he made it – and criticized the Prime Minister for his policy of restraint. Lieberman, for a while now, has been calling for Israel to reconsider an occupation of the Gaza Strip.

Lieberman might be blunter than others, but he is not alone in thinking that a ground operation in Gaza is long overdue. Naftali Bennett, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, has also criticized the policy of the government of which he is a member and called to escalate Israel's response. Minister of Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz, a member of Netanyahu's party, also believes that the reoccupation of Gaza – "cleaning it and then leaving it" – is Israel's only option. This school of thought, the hawkish wing of the hawkish camp, has two main arguments in support of this proposition. One – Israel, by adopting a policy of restraint and avoiding harsh action following the fall of Kassam rockets, is sending a message of weakness and eroding its own deterrence. Two – Hamas is becoming too strong to be ignored, its arsenal of weaponry too large to be left alone. Amos Yadlin, a former IDF chief of intelligence who is the director of the Institute for National Security Studies, has given voice to this view in recent days. He doesn't preach for a permanent reoccupation of Gaza, but he does think that "Israel should neutralize the threat [of Hamas] through a broad military move".

Former Minister and former head of the Shin Bet (Internal security) Avi Dichter hoped to be a Knesset member in the Likud-Beiteinu partnership of Netanyahu and Lieberman but did not quite make it. To be honest: not even the most optimistic projection for this partnership was optimistic enough to get him in. Lieberman believed that the merger could get the party as many as 50 seats, but Dichter was number 56 on the list (Likud-Beiteinu eventually got 31 seats).

He lives in Ashkelon, a city barely eight miles north of the Gaza Strip. And as he looks to the south he no longer sees a terror organization that took over a small territory, he sees an army. The army not strong enough to endanger Israel, but could it possibly be strong enough to deter it from action? Dichter hears the constant talk about the weakening of Hamas – having lost its sponsors in Iran (because of Hamas' support for the rebels in Syria) and in Egypt (where the Muslim Brotherhood lost its power). Yet he is not impressed. Politically speaking, Hamas might have a problem, but operationally it is getting stronger. In an area that appreciates power more than anything else, this is much more significant than the occasional political setback.

Dichter, then, should be counted among the second group – not the occupy-Gaza group, but rather the dismantle-their-infrastructure group. As of Tuesday, this was not a group of which Netanyahu was a member. Netanyahu, as I wrote in the New York Times last week, "was a voice for restraint amid a barrage of bombastic vows of retribution". Time and again he resisted the calls for action, offering Hamas the chance to calm things down and go back to the understandings reached after the 2012 operation Pillar of Defense.

Hamas didn't seem to want that. It kept firing rockets at Israel, further and further to the north, adding more cities to its circle of violence. By the time Netanyahu decided it was time to escalate, to "take off the gloves" as it was described by his office, there was barely anyone who still believed in prolonging the period of restraint. "Hamas chose to escalate the situation and it will pay a heavy price for doing so," the prime minister said. This almost sounds as if Hamas will pay a price for hitting Israel and will also pay an additional price for personally disappointing the Prime Minister.

On Monday evening, the leader of the Labor Party, the head of the opposition, was invited to speak on Israel's Channel 2 TV news and had nothing but praise for the Prime Minister. Yitzhak Herzog, the son of a general, the bother of a general, might be in opposition to some of Netanyahu's policies – he might think that Netanyahu was not accommodating enough in the peace process or complain about his tendency to gain political calm by giving the settlers what they want – but he is no pacifist. And he knows that a party can't ask for votes and oppose retaliation for such a blatant violation of Israel's sovereignty.

So as Netanyahu made the decision to escalate Israel's response, he enjoyed the support of a broad majority, and if there were people grumbling against this they were people of the right, not the left. Both him and his Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon are not known for their dovish approach and don't easily fall prey to the kind of character besmirching that a leader of the left might encounter for following a policy of restraint.

Yet for Yaalon, objecting to an occupation of Gaza would not be an anomaly. Many years ago, when Hezbollah made itself more powerful in Lebanon by stocking more and more rockets and missiles in its bunkers, Yaalon preached for a policy he described as "let them rust" – that is, as long as the rockets are in bunkers, it doesn't matter how many of them Hezbollah has. In an interview following the second Lebanon War, he still insisted that his policy was the right one to follow: the Syrians have thousands of missiles and we do not attack them. In other words, the fact that an enemy has weapons doesn't always mean that Israel has to attempt to dismantle them (this is different when it comes to weapons of mass destruction).

Yaalon also said at the time that Hezbollah could not be eliminated by military means alone – and he might think the same about Hamas. Rockets can be found and destroyed, operatives can be killed or captured, leaders can be arrested or assassinated – but this does not necessarily mean an end to Hamas. Thus, Yaalon, like Netanyahu, prefers caution and interim understandings over an attempt to put an end to something that has no end.

The decision to up the ante of a response to Hamas rocket attacks doesn't reflect a conviction by Netanyahu and Yaalon that the time indeed has come to destroy Hamas. What it does reflect is the understanding of both – and of coalition partners Lapid and Livni, and of opposition head Herzog - that Israel's deterrence must be restored, that Hamas must be re-convinced that the price for attacking Israel will be heavy. In other words, Netanyahu was reluctantly forced to buy the first one of the two claims made by the opposition to his right. And he still believes that waiting it out was worth it, since it helped gain full support for the action from all factions in Israel.  

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