Tony Karon looks at the Israeli prime minister's strategy in resisting ceasfire and then withdrawing troops, and the relationship between Israel and the US
Realities in Gaza undermined Netanyahu’s flawed narrative
‘Sources familiar with conversations between [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and senior US officials, including secretary of state John Kerry say the Israeli leader advised the Obama administration ‘not to ever second guess me again’ on the matter (of seeking a truce in Gaza),” the Associated Press reported on Saturday, adding that Mr Netanyahu expected the trust of his allies in the matter of Hamas.
An educated guess says the sources leaking this account of these high-level conversations were Israeli, since it’s hard to see why their American counterparts would want to publicise the spectacle of US officials being scolded like errant children by Mr Netanyahu. The Israeli leader, on the other hand, mindful of the challenge from rivals in his cabinet who have staked out more hawkish positions on how to end Operation Protective Edge – and are more hostile to the idea of a new ceasefire – needs to spin the inconclusive outcome of his Gaza operation as a singular triumph.
Thus Saturday’s reports that Israel would no longer engage in ceasefire talks, and would instead dial down the Gaza operation on its own terms, keeping the option of continued shelling and bombing even as it pulled back ground troops from the potential quagmire into which they were being drawn. Israel lost 64 soldiers in the first two weeks of the ground war, which is a high figure for an Israeli public more accustomed to cost-free pummeling of Gaza.
Mr Netanyahu’s messaging to his own public on the war has been fluid: it began in concert with his calls for vengeance on Hamas for the three teenage settlers slain in the West Bank in June (even though many in Israel’s security establishment have concluded that the perpetrators were not acting under orders from the Hamas leadership); then it was cast as an effort to neutralise Hamas’s capacity to fire rockets at Israel’s cities, and later as a drive to shut down the tunnels through which Hamas sent fighters into Israeli territory.
Finally, however, the primary goal was recast as the familiar “restoring Israel’s deterrent” – or “mowing the lawn”, as it is called in Israel’s security establishment – by periodically inflicting massive destruction on Gaza as punishment for Hamas continuing to bear arms against Israel.
Mr Netanyahu’s aversion to a formal ceasefire is not hard to understand. Any plausible truce would, inevitably, share the key characteristics of the November 2012 ceasefire brokered by Egypt, which would be a win for Hamas. That’s because the previous truce required an end to the crippling economic siege that Israel, with help from Egypt, has imposed on Gaza for the past seven years. Hamas made reopening the border crossings, extending fishing limits and farmers’ access to land in areas unilaterally branded “buffer zones” by Israel the focus of its current demands – which even many Israeli commentators branded as perfectly reasonable.
When the US sought a ceasefire, it naturally defaulted to the parameters of the November 2012 one, at which the Israelis baulked.
Mr Netanyahu had taken extensive criticism from within a coalition moving steadily to the right for failing to destroy Hamas in the 2012 campaign, and for the prisoner swap that achieved the release of soldier Gilad Shalit. A ceasefire that Hamas would claim as a victory, and his coalition partners would scorn as a failure, held no appeal for the Israeli leader. Nor could Israel afford the cost in both the lives of its soldiers and the international isolation that would follow a reoccupation of Gaza, from which an exit would be increasingly difficult.
Even destroying the Hamas leadership in Gaza held perils – Israel’s generals and securocrats have long warned that Israel needs Hamas to police the more radical factions, being fully aware that if Hamas was destroyed in Gaza its successor would be more like the Islamic State than the Palestinian Authority.
What had been a war of choice for Mr Netanyahu – Hamas had signalled publicly at the outset that it was willing to fight, but preferred to avoid a confrontation – has achieved dubious political results. Hamas, which had been struggling for its political life as a result of the regional political tide turning sharply against it, has been reinvigorated, its difficulty governing now overshadowed by its reclaimed mantle of “resistance”. Indeed, the earlier Israeli demand that the crossings into Gaza be policed by PA security would still have been a win for Hamas, since that’s what it had agreed to in the Palestinian reconciliation deal months earlier.
Mr Netanyahu had opted for a fight in which Hamas proved capable of inflicting heavier military casualties on Israel than anyone had expected, and it also struck the psychologically powerful blow of forcing a two-day refusal by major western airlines to fly into Ben Gurion Airport.
The scale of civilian casualties in Gaza turned the tide of international public opinion sharply against Israel, serving to widen the appeal in western civil society of the movement to pressure Israel via economic and cultural boycotts. Closer to home, the Gaza events and the crackdown that preceded them have set the tinder for a new surge of protest in the West Bank.
The Gaza war has also heralded the collapse of the narrative that has sustained Mr Netanyahu’s tenure since 2009 – his claim to have delivered security “calm” despite the steady expansion of the occupation, and despite abandoning any pretence of seeking to resolve the conflict through the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
These are long term trends which thatt be easily reversed. Months of turmoil lie ahead, following a conflict that has laid bare the fallacy of the assumptions that a “peace process” remains underway that will resolve the occupation by the creation of a Palestinian state. Whatever Mr Netanyahu believes events in Gaza have demonstrated, it’s unlikely they’ve made a case for western governments to trust that his method of dealing with Hamas is either viable or sustainable.
Tony Karon teaches in the graduate programme in international affairs at the New School in New York