Netanyahu Made the Right Call on Gaza

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman marks the unofficial opening of the election season in Israel. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a full year before elections must be held, the departure of the five MPs from Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party leaves the governing coalition with the slimmest possible majority — 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset — and vulnerable to more defections.

Lieberman, declaring Netanyahu’s cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza as “surrendering to terror,” is demanding early elections, and other opposition figures may follow. Netanyahu was reported to be contemplating an early vote; now, he may be pushed to do so. Recent polls suggest the prime minister is in a strong position to win, but the campaign could get ugly.

The political din breaking out in Jerusalem threatens to drown out Netanyahu’s uncharacteristic decision to make an accommodation with Hamas, long his bête noire. The prime minister calculated, correctly, that this would free Israel up to deal with the more ominous threat to the north, from the troika of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. The decision also suggests he has finally acknowledged that Hamas’s control of Gaza is a political reality that cannot be wished — or bombed — away. This opens a path to greater cooperation, brokered by third parties.

Netanyahu seems to hint at this pragmatic approach before the latest flashpoint, when he told a press conference in Paris on Sunday that he didn’t want another war in Gaza. Even as he was speaking, an Israeli commando force had entered Gaza on a secret mission. Technically the prime minister has to sign off on such operations, but incursions are common and permission is pro forma. Most succeed: this one didn’t.

The force of seven commandos was discovered by at a Hamas check-point in Gaza. In an exchange of fire, the Israeli commander, at Lieutenant Colonel known to the public only by his first initial, ‘M,’ was killed. Another member of group was badly wounded. The rest escaped, after killing a Hamas officer and six of his men.

The next day, Hamas fired an anti-tank missile at a bus on the Israeli side of the border. In the following 24 hours, it launched more than 450 missiles and rockets at Israeli towns and villages. Forcing hundreds of thousands into shelters. Netanyahu cut short his visit and returned home.

In previous confrontations, Netanyahu has ordered the Israeli Defense Forces to seal off Gaza, and pound it into submission. This time, his response was more restrained: the air force bombed the Hamas television studio, a couple of evacuated Hamas installations, and a few empty high-rise buildings. No Israeli ground forces were deployed, and the Gaza fatality count was seven. 

Hamas’s attacks were less lethal. The Iron Dome missile-defense system shot down about 100 of Hamas’s rockets; most of the others landed in open fields. Only a couple of dozen actually hit buildings. One civilian, a West Bank Palestinian living in Israel, was killed. During the fighting, Israel kept the gate to Gaza open, allowing fuel and supplies to enter.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu convened his war cabinet for almost seven hours, persuading it to go along with his decision to accept a ceasefire.

Hamas declared victory, leaving Netanyahu to deal with the political fallout. Right-wing members of the cabinet, including Lieberman, let it be known that they had wanted Israel to continue fighting. Tzipi Livni, the center-left leader of the parliamentary opposition, accused the prime minister of sacrificing Israel’s deterrence. Yair Lapid, a centrist rival, mocked Netanyahu’s weakness.

Netanyahu must now persuade Israelis that he has not gone soft on Hamas, which he considers an Islamic terrorist group. His argument will be that he is simply being realistic. Hamas’s control of Gaza is a fact of life; defeating it with an invasion, would be costly and ultimately counter-productive, since it would leave Israel with an even more hostile Arab population. Others have been making this argument for years, but Netanyahu never spelled it out explicitly until his press conference in Paris.

He will argue, too, that the Iron Dome, and a massive border wall scheduled for completion next year, render Hamas no more than a nuisance, compared with the potent threat of Hezbollah. Israel estimates that Hamas has somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 thousand missiles. Hezbollah has 10 times that many, as well as allies in Syria and Iran. This is where Netanyahu wants to concentrate Israeli military power and deterrence.

Despite losing Lieberman, Netanyahu will likely keep up his efforts to reach an accommodation with Hamas: a cease-fire of indeterminate length, in return for easing the siege of Gaza. This deal will need to be brokered, possibly by Egypt or the United Nations, and underwritten by Qatar, which was recently allowed by Israel to bankroll the cash-strapped Gaza government. How long it can last will depend on Hamas’s ability to control its violent impulses, and Israel’s willingness to promote relative prosperity in Gaza. That means encouraging foreign investment, allowing imports, and easing restrictions on travel.

Most difficult, both sides will have to prepare their public for the realization that Islamist Hamas and Zionist Israel are both here to stay. That may not be an easy message for Netanyahu to take into an election campaign, but it is the right one.

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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