As far as the many critics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are concerned, there’s very little that goes wrong that can’t be attributed to what they consider to be his malevolent influence. Even the actions of Palestinian terrorist groups.
That’s especially true when things happen that work out in a way that gives him what may prove to be at least a temporary political advantage.
So it’s hardly surprising that the series of events that began with an outbreak of Palestinian rioting in Jerusalem, followed by an unprecedented barrage of thousands of rockets and missiles aimed at Israel from Hamas in the Gaza Strip, is being seen as somehow an example of his supposed politiical wizadry rather than another lesson in how Palestinians conduct politics.
The conflict, which appears to be ending with another unsatisfactory ceasefire with Hamas, came just as it seemed possible that Yesh Atid Party head Yair Lapid might be about to create a coalition that would both end the two-year long governmental stalemate and oust Netanyahu after 12 consecutive years in office.
But once Hamas’s terrorist offensive sent Israelis running to bomb shelters, the chances of a “government of change” being sworn in and the Netanyahu clan being finally chased out of the prime minister’s residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street seemingly evaporated.
Not only did the right-wing Yamina Party led by Naftali Bennett immediately think better of allying itself with left-wing opponents; the Islamist Ra’am Party, led by Mansour Abbas, which had negotiated with both Netanyahu and Lapid in a precedent-setting attempt for an Arab party to join or be connected with an Israeli government, also found itself reneging on its promises. Just as Bennett and perhaps even Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope Party, which might be best described as a “Never Netanyahu” faction of Likud, may think that it must return to its right-wing roots in wartime, so, too, did Ra’am dread being seen by its voters as supporting the forces firing back at Gaza.
For those who believe there are no such things as coincidences, Netanyahu’s good fortune can’t be an accident of history. Those who have watched him survive against impossible odds have come to believe that he is not only a deeply cynical man, but also possessed of near magical political powers. That creates the temptation to view the events of the last few weeks as nothing less than a plot hatched by him straight out of a political thriller.
Netanyahu is as cynical as his detractors claim him to be. But the idea that he can summon the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to do his bidding anytime he needs a crisis is giving him both too much credit, as well as falsely accusing him of sacrificing the lives of the Israeli people for political gain—something he is equally known for not doing.
There is much about Netanyahu that is deserving of criticism. But thinking that he started a war as one more survival tactic says more about the derangement syndrome he has inspired among frustrated critics than it does about what Israel has endured these past two weeks.
Like all previous such fights with Hamas, this one is ending with the terrorists claiming victory. While the Israeli Defense Forces may have inflicted tremendous damage on Hamas’s ability to wage war, as well as its infrastructure of tunnels and arms caches, the Islamist group not only remains in control of Gaza; its reputation among Palestinians has been significantly enhanced due to its ability to sometimes overwhelm the Iron Dome air-defense system and inflict multiple casualties on Israel.
Netanyahu is being bashed by the left for his offensive measures, while centrists and fellow right-wingers are attacking him for not inflicting sufficient harm on Hamas. They’re also understandably upset about a ceasefire that doesn’t ensure that this won’t happen again whenever it’s in the interests of Hamas and other terror factions operating in Gaza.
Still, all of his opponents realize that the options were limited. Not firing back at Hamas missile barrages would only encourage more terror and further strengthen the Islamists. The use of overwhelming force—either in the form of increased air power or a ground invasion—to truly cripple Hamas or oust it from power would involve a toll of Palestinian and Israeli casualties that any leader fears.
Nor does the charge that Netanyahu somehow cooked up the attacks by provoking the Palestinians stand up to scrutiny.
The claim that the potential eviction of Palestinians from homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem was knowingly plotted by the prime minister in order to engender protests that would stop Lapid is absurd. Leaving aside the false charge that is widely accepted in the West that the case is an attempt to “Judaize” Israel’s capital (meaning that Jews should be forbidden from living in parts of the city), the case had nothing to do with Netanyahu. That property dispute concerns Arab squatters who have managed to remain in place for decades, thanks to a slow-moving Israeli justice system, despite the homes in question being Jewish-owned and the occupants not having paid them rent.
The idea that Israeli actions on the Temple Mount inspired riots in Jerusalem is also one rooted in ignorance of regional politics and history. Palestinian leaders have been ginning up religious-based hate against Jews over supposed threats to the mosques on the mount for the last 100 years. The person who had an incentive to create these disturbances was Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who was desperate to distract those under his rule from his decision to postpone elections that would put his 15-year undemocratic rule at risk.
Hamas’s decision to fire at Israel didn’t come from Netanyahu. It was a function of their posturing as the defenders of Muslim holy sites and thereby enhancing their political standing by shedding Jewish blood. It was Abbas’s justified fears of Hamas gaining support that caused him to cancel elections in the first place.
Could Netanyahu have done something to prevent any of this from happening?
That would have required him to enact policies on restricting Jewish rights in Jerusalem or allowing Palestinians to use the Temple Mount to make worship at the Western Wall untenable. Neither is conceivable, and—like the boasts of his detractors about what they would do to Hamas—are things that none of his rivals would have done.
Nor is it fair to blame Netanyahu for civil strife between Jews and Arabs that was largely fomented by the same sources of unrest among the Palestinian population, especially after he spent the last several months seeking to appeal to Arab voters. Promoting a two-state solution that might turn the West Bank into a larger version of Hamas-run Gaza would be an act of self-destruction that no rational Israeli government would countenance.
There is an argument to be made that it’s time for Israel to find a new leader who isn’t carrying around the baggage of corruption charges or the disillusionment that any politician who is in power for that long always generates. But in the absence of term limits and with a plurality of Israelis still thinking that he is their most able leader, he has no intention of going quietly into the night.
Whether the reversal of fortune created by the recent fighting enables the prime minister to stay in power or not, it’s time for his critics to stop thinking of him as some sort of magical evil genius. Clever he may be, but he doesn’t control the Palestinians, who deserve the blame for their own destructive decisions. Nor is he—or anyone else—capable of doing anything more than managing a conflict that won’t be solved so long as the Palestinians are led by people that still won’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn. If Netanyahu winds up holding onto office, the responsibility belongs to the same Palestinian leaders that have discredited the Israeli left, and helped elect and re-elect Netanyahu so many times in the past.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.