Why Netanyahu Called Off a War in Gaza

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Israelis within missile range of the Gaza Strip went to bed with trepidation Wednesday night, unsure whether a full-scale war in Gaza was imminent. Israel's Security Cabinet had convened for a midnight emergency session Wednesday, following Tuesday’s attack on Beersheba, Israel's largest southern city.

By Thursday, though, it was business as usual. The government's decision not to respond with a major military campaign shows both the limited options available on Gaza and the nature of Israel's defense priorities.

The attack might have been seen as a casus belli. A missile had landed on the home of a single mother and her three children, destroying it; the family escaped with their lives only by using their bomb shelter. Hamas and Islamic Jihad took the unusual step of distancing themselves from the rocket launches, but the denials aren't credible; nobody else in Gaza has Grad missiles.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman had publicly called for a powerful military response. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, cut short his visit to the U.S. and arrived with operative plans. Hamas and Islamic Jihad took the unusual step of distancing themselves from the rocket launches, but the denials aren't credible; nobody else in Gaza has the longer-range Grad missiles.

Leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad went into hiding, fully expecting a major response. The IDF instead announced that it was safe to reopen schools and resume normal activity. The security cabinet instructed the army to increase its range of fire at border demonstrations and take stronger measures against balloon attacks, but these are tweaks of existing policy, rather than a major escalation.

The decision was a surprise, but it shouldn’t have been. It was made by one man, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And he has been signaling for some time that he is not interested in a war in Gaza.

Israel and Hamas have been in a state of low-grade military conflict on the Gaza border for more than a decade. Israel has invaded three times to put a stop to missile attacks. Those campaigns ended in cease-fires and a period of relative calm -- before another round of fighting began.

Since last May, when Hamas began launching mass demonstrations along the border with Israel, things appeared to be moving toward a fourth round; the attack on Beersheba could very well have been taken as a casus belli.

But even hawks like Lieberman understand that Gaza is a chronic problem, not one that can be solved permanently through military action. His stated war aim was, tellingly, “four or five years of quiet.” The IDF can easily defeat Hamas in an all-out war, but total victory would mean occupying Gaza, putting Israel in charge of two million impoverished, hostile Arabs; it would also likely mean significant civilian loss of life. Israel is a prisoner of that paradox.

Prime Minister Netanyahu came to this realization during the 2014 invasion of Gaza. Seventy-one Israelis died in that operation, 66 of them soldiers. When the fighting ended, Israel found itself back where it started. People may want a glorious victory in Gaza, but managing the situation is the best they can hope for.

Over the years, Israel has spent a lot of time and money on tools for doing just that. The IDF has an Iron Dome missile system capable of bringing down most incoming rockets (although the Dome was unaccountably absent in Beersheba). It has techniques to detect and destroy the infiltration tunnels that Hamas once considered strategic weapons. And, under Netanyahu, it is now constructing a barrier -- one that is both high and deep to prevent tunneling -- along its entire Gaza land and sea border.

Hamas has shown ingenuity in the face of these obstacles. The IDF has no answer yet for its incendiary balloons, which have burned down large swaths of Israel’s southwestern agricultural fields and forests. Nor has it been able to end the increasingly violent Hamas-led demonstrations on the border. But these are tactics, not strategic threats. Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas commander in Gaza, is under no illusions. As he recently told an interviewer, “no one wants to fight a nuclear power with four slingshots.”  

The truth is, Hamas is too weak to be anything but a military annoyance. Netanyahu understands this, even if it is a hard message to convey to the Israeli public, especially those who live near the border and find themselves living with burning fields, stray rockets and frequent interruptions of daily life. In an election year, quick-fix prescriptions by hawks like the defense minister may have voter appeal.

But if the polls are any guide, Bibi will coast to another term. He doesn’t need a dazzling victory or bellicose rhetoric. Nor is this primarily a political calculation. Netanyahu is focused on the threat posed by Iran and its proxies in Lebanon and Syria. He does not want the IDF tied down in Gaza, even for a brief period. He needs the military budgets and personnel for the northern war.

Yes, the prime minister would like to reach a deal with Sinwar: Israeli economic cooperation in return for a long-term ceasefire. But if Hamas wants to keep fighting, it is a problem that can be dealt with by technology, targeted killings and an occasional airstrike. Bibi is determined to keep himself, and his army, out of the Gaza briar patch.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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