Israelis Want to Feel Safe, Even If That Means War

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It is rare that Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas in Gaza, and Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s hawkish and just-resigned minister of defense agree in public. But agree they did this week, with both claiming that Israel’s hastily declared cease-fire with Hamas was an Israeli acknowledgment of defeat.

Liberman had once promised that within days of his becoming minister, he would have Haniyeh killed. That, of course, didn’t happen; neither the political or military echelons would have approved it. This week, with Haniyeh still very much alive and boasting that Hamas had defeated Israel, it was Liberman’s Israeli government that was seen by many as having capitulated to Palestinian terrorism.

Hamas had fired more than 500 rockets at Israel, resulting in a few deaths, numerous Israelis wounded and extensive damage to Israeli buildings – and still, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to commit to an all-out war. “Liberman’s resignation announcement is an admission of defeat for him and the usurping entity,” Haniyeh said. Liberman, hard-nosed and loud-mouthed, saw Netanyahu’s refusal to follow through on Liberman’s threats as a political comeuppance and, mostly to save whatever may remain of his political career, resigned in protest.

Liberman is hardly alone in believing that Israel had capitulated. A poll by i24news indicated that 74 percent of Israelis were unhappy with Netanyahu’s handling of security matters. For a man who had run for office as “Mr. Security,” that is a significant political liability. Netanyahu is sure to try to craft a different news narrative before he calls for much-expected elections.

Israelis are frustrated because war with Hamas seems inevitable, and many would like to get it over with. David Horovitz, editor in chief of the Times of Israel, wrote a column at the beginning of this week with the headline “Hamas will never change. Sooner or later, it must be faced down.” He noted that Israel is in a lose-lose situation with Hamas. “The riots and the tunneling and the rocket fire amount to extortion,” he wrote. “If Israel does not end the security blockade it maintains on Gaza, Hamas vows, then Israelis will have to continue to endure rocket and mortar attacks, the threat of cross-border terror tunnels, arson balloons burning its fields. But if Israel does ease the security blockade, of course, Hamas will exploit this to import more weaponry to cause still greater harm.”

So why did Netanyahu, with the apparent agreement of the security establishment, shy away from an all-out war with Hamas now? To be sure, there are factors to which the public and the press are not privy, but Netanyahu’s political considerations were obviously primary. Wars are more popular at the beginning than at the funeral stage, and as Netanyahu apparently plans to call elections soon, he wanted to avoid the specter of dozens of military funerals over the weeks ahead.

Putting off the fight also has advantages for the military. Israel recently acquired the capacity to find and destroy tunnels under the border, and in a few months, Hamas may have no tunnels left. Israel is also building a massive wall – below the surface and above ground – along the Gaza border designed to prevent new Hamas tunnels; that project, too, will have progressed further.

The hostilities between Israel and Hamas have been going on all summer, and the latest conflagration started with a botched Israeli intelligence incursion into Gaza. It was meant to have gone entirely undetected, but was discovered and turned into a fierce firefight that left a senior Israel officer (whose name has been blocked by military censors) and several Palestinians dead. Headlines that read “Cost of Botched Gaza Spy Mission? Israel’s Back on Brink of War” gave Israel some indication of how war now would play in the international press.  

Knowing that it faced an uphill public-relations battle, Israel went to great lengths to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties as it countered Hamas’s rockets. It destroyed Hamas’ TV station, but fired warning shots first so that when the building was leveled, it was empty. And Israel destroyed several multilevel buildings in Gaza, to make clear to Gazans that it was very serious, again, though, without a single civilian casualty. Nonetheless, there would be no way to conduct a full war without Palestinian casualties, and Netanyahu apparently decided that the timing was simply not right.

But Israelis are angry. On Wednesday, we were supposed to have a sofa delivered. I called the dispatch office early in the day to find out when to expect the delivery, and was told that they had no idea. The warehouse was in Sderot, near the Gaza border, and with sirens going off every few minutes, it was not clear when or whether they would have enough “safe time” to load the truck and get it out of the area. Eventually, though, the truck did make its way to Jerusalem, and two bleary-eyed young men carried the sofa up the stairs.

I remarked on how tired one of them looked, and he said to me, “We didn’t sleep a minute all night. All the building’s residents were in the bomb shelter, the sirens were wailing all night – no one got a wink of sleep.” I asked him if he had kids. “Kids!? No, we just got married, but my wife says she refuses to have kids if she is going to have to raise them in an environment like that. But our families are in Sderot, and besides, we can’t really afford to leave. So we’re stuck for now. I just wish Bibi would stick it to those bastards once and for all – this is no way to live. I might get called up myself – but if that’s what it’ll take so my wife can finally sleep, it’s worth it.”

It was hardly a nuanced analysis of the political or military complexities the prime minister faces, but it was a window into how many Israelis feel. A country’s first and foremost obligation, they believe, is for it to keep its citizens safe. On that front, they believe their country is simply failing them.

Quiet has returned, but no one here believes it will last for long. This is, as our delivery man noted, no way to live. And (as protests by residents of the south just Thursday proved), voters will not remain docile forever. Sooner or later, Israel’s leadership will have to swallow that bitter political pill and prove to Israel’s citizens that their security still comes before any individual’s political considerations.

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

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."

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