People demonstrated in the streets of Sderot on Tuesday, and who could blame them? They had spent days running back and forth to bomb shelters and safe rooms, enduring the tension and dangers of being subjected to hundreds of rockets fired at their town, as well as the rest of southern Israel, by Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists from Gaza.
But their reaction to news of a ceasefire between Israel and its foes didn’t bring the usual joy and relief. They were mad that once again, Hamas had terrorized and held hundreds of thousands of Israelis hostage—and gotten away with it. More to the point, they blamed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for failing them and the country by refusing to respond more forcefully to the 450-plus rockets fired on the country. They said he had not only abandoned them, but had encouraged Hamas to repeat this dismal process the next time it suited them.
Nor were these demonstrators alone in castigating Netanyahu. Some members of his coalition sniped at him for what they considered timorous behavior. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman denounced Netanyahu and went so far as to resign because of the prime minister’s failure to escalate the conflict against Hamas. Lieberman’s motives were transparently political since he opposed military action only weeks ago; his goal was to position himself to Netanyahu’s right if the country went to early elections. But opposition leaders also joined in the Bibi-bashing, giving some on the left the rare opportunity to criticize him from the right for allowing a dangerous security situation to develop and then not resolving it in a satisfactory manner. Most embarrassing was the way his critics in the Knesset and the media used video clips of Netanyahu saying the same things about former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s similar policies towards Gaza when he was in the opposition.
But being hoisted on his own petard in this manner didn’t appear to faze the prime minister. Nor should it. The world looks a lot different from the perspective of being the person who must make life-and-death decisions, as opposed to those who can criticize from the sidelines.
The impulse to say enough is enough about the terrorist state in Gaza is almost irresistible. As long as Hamas rules the independent Palestinian state in all but name only, there will always be a dagger pointed at Israel’s throat. While Hamas agrees to ceasefires and now speaks of being willing to accept an agreement in which Israel would be forced back to the 1967 borders, it isn’t interested in peace. Its goal—made painfully obvious by the violent mass protests conducted every Friday at the border with Israel since March—is the elimination of the Jewish state. Long-term peace with it is impossible.
Why then doesn’t Netanyahu seek a final reckoning with it, rather than forcing Israelis to endure weeks like the last one, punctuated every few years by a massive counter-attack—like the operations launched in 2008, 2012 and 2014—that always stop short of deposing Hamas?
Though he is routinely denounced as an opponent of peace, when it comes to the use of military force, Netanyahu is one of the most cautious prime ministers Israel has known. The reasons are part personal and part strategy.
As a young man (and like his brother Yonatan, the slain hero of the 1976 Entebbe rescue), Netanyahu served in an elite military unit often sent to do the most difficult and dangerous tasks. He understands the cost of battle and has only ordered troops into battle after every possible alternative is exhausted. Over and above his sure grasp of Israel’s diplomatic and military situation, the fact that he spends Israel’s most precious resource—the lives of its soldiers—only with great reluctance is part of the reason why he is trusted by most Israelis.
More than that, Netanyahu doesn’t believe that sending the army into Gaza is in Israel’s best interests. He knows that even a decisive knockout blow against Hamas would likely make the situation even more unbearable for the Israeli people.
The fact is that Israel is in a “no win” situation with respect to Gaza. The fault for this belongs to the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who withdrew every soldier, settler and settlement from the strip in 2005. Though he vowed that if Gaza became a terror base, Israel would strike back and re-occupy it, his successors realized that such a vow was easier said than done.
The cost of such a campaign would be prohibitive in terms of Israeli casualties and catastrophic when one considers how many Palestinians would be sacrificed as human shields as Hamas made its last stand. The opprobrium that would be directed at Israel from a hypocritical international community that regards the Jewish state as the only one on the planet that doesn’t have a right to defend itself would be a problem. But the real concern would not be foreign criticism, but the fact that the aftermath of even a successful military effort would leave Israel with the issue of governing Gaza. Maintaining an occupation would also be costly. So would an attempt to install the rule of the Palestinian Authority there. The P.A. leader desperately wants to get control of Gaza, but is only willing to do so by fighting to the last Israeli.
Netanyahu also realizes that as bad as it is, the status quo—both with respect to Gaza and the West Bank—is better than the available alternatives, all of which would present a greater danger to Israel and make a Palestinian state more, rather than less, likely. Rather than satisfying the need of his people for a resolution of the Gaza problem, the prime minister is playing the long game. He understands that standing pat and waiting—however long that wait must be for the Palestinians to give up their century-long war on Zionism, without making foolhardy choices to give up territory or to launch wars with unpredictable consequences—is the smartest strategy.
The frustration of the residents of Sderot and other Israelis under fire about this decision is real and understandable. But as painful as it may be, those who care about the Jewish state and understand the complex politics around it should also acknowledge that Netanyahu is right to avoid another war if it all possible.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.