It’s not hard to imagine the rhetoric that would be pouring out the mouth of Binyamin Netanyahu, were he heading the opposition right now, as opposed to sitting in the Prime Minister’s Office.
He would be rushing from one television studio to the next, demanding that the Israeli government totally destroy Hamas, end any cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and flood the West Bank with settlements. He would also no doubt be heading mass demonstrations, bringing back memories of the crazed, hate-filled protests he led during the Oslo years, which ultimately led to the murder of Yitzhak Rabin.
So on the one hand we should be glad Netanyahu is prime minister, sparing us all this. We should also be thankful that, despite his strident oratory, both in and out of office, Netanyahu has proved to be one of the most cautious prime ministers in Israel’s history in terms of using military force.
Having paid for the recklessness with which he opened the Western Wall Tunnel at the beginning of his first term as prime minister back in 1996, a decision that cost the lives of 17 IDF soldiers and over 100 Palestinian protesters, Netanyahu has since avoided moves that would lead to unnecessary escalation. During the most recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas – Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 – Netanyahu refrained from sending ground troops into Gaza, despite the urging of those on the Right, thereby minimizing casualties on both sides.
This time around, Netanyahu, ignoring the wild entreaties of some of his cabinet colleagues demanding that the full power of the IDF be unleashed, has wisely avoided – at least as of the time of this writing – launching another campaign against Hamas in Gaza. Israel has nothing to gain, and much to lose, in terms of international standing and future well being, from re-occupying the Gaza Strip. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s remarks in Sderot over the weekend, where he denounced a policy of Israel rewarding quiet with quiet, was just further proof of how unsuitable this man is for his current position.
Belatedly, Netanyahu also addressed the lynch-mob mentality toward Palestinians that has taken over the streets of Jerusalem since the discovery of the bodies of the three murdered three Israeli boys. In a speech at the US Embassy’s July 4 celebration, the prime minister called on Israeli citizens to “exercise restraint in your actions and words. Our hearts ache, our blood boils, but we must remember that we are, first and foremost, human beings and we are citizens of a law-abiding country.”
While the prime minister could have made these remarks earlier, and in a more direct manner to Israel’s citizens that would have attracted wider media attention, it is nevertheless important that he made them. If the murder of the teenage Palestinian from Shuafat is proved to be the work of Jewish nationalists, then a more forthright condemnation will also be needed, along with a condemnation of the hate-filled speech filling the Internet.
Israel has a cabinet minister, Yuval Steinitz, responsible for monitoring Palestinian incitement against Israel. It’s about time he hired extra staff to report on Israeli incitement against Palestinians.
I’m not talking here about the anonymous racists who flood the talk backs to any Internet article that suggests Palestinians are human beings; that would be too mammoth a task. It would be enough to make a start with monitoring Israeli officials, such as Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, who called for the razing of Palestinian villages on his Facebook page in response to the kidnapping of the three boys, or Rabbi Noam Pearl, secretary-general of World Bnei Akiva, the religious-Zionist youth movement, who declared: “a whole nation and thousands of years of history are demanding revenge.”
But although Netanyahu’s caution on the military front is to be admired, his wariness in negotiations with the Palestinians has brought about the current situation in which any spark has the potential to set off a much larger explosion.
His do-nothing approach to peace-making, while seeking to expand Jewish settlement in the West Bank, is reminiscent of the Likud prime minister under whom Netanyahu first served: Yitzhak Shamir.
Netanyahu would do well to recall, on the one hand, that Shamir fell from power because the majority of Israelis finally lost faith in a leader whose refusal to negotiate seriously over the future of the territories, and, on the other, that a determination to build more settlements created an atmosphere that led to the first intifada. The tension of those days is fast returning, highlighted by Palestinian feeling that they have nothing to lose. The anger among Israeli-Arabs which burst open this weekend.
It is within Netanyahu’s power to change this. The question is whether he truly wants to “pay the price” of helping create a viable Palestinian state. The evidence of his performance so far as prime minister tells us, sadly, the answer has to be no.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.