Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu should add another objective to Operation Protective Edge’s goals: the dismissal of Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. The job of any Israeli foreign minister is to improve the country’s standing in the international community, strengthen existing alliances and create new ones, and spearhead Israel’s charm offensive. In all these aspects, and way before the launching of Operation Protective Edge, Liberman has been a colossal failure. His rabble-rousing, racist domestic policies made him a virtual persona non grata in Western capitals while his embarrassingly sycophantic behavior towards Kremlin strongman Vladimir Putin failed to change Moscow’s position on any of the issues vital to Israel such as Iran.
Now, shamelessly in a time of war, Liberman has systematically undermined Netanyahu. His calls for an expansion of Operation Protective Edge’s aims to include the re-occupation of the Gaza Strip and his strident criticism of the government’s hesitancy in launching a ground operation against Hamas are unparalleled in any properly functioning government. Instead of working the phones to buy Israel more time for its offensive or seeking to explain, and thereby mitigate the PR damage caused by the worryingly high percentage of civilian casualties in Gaza, Liberman has reserved his all energies to attacking the policies of a cabinet in which he is the most senior coalition member.
Such behavior must not go unpunished. The minute the operation is over, Netanyahu needs to rid himself of his foreign minister, even at the cost of destabilizing his coalition. Few Israeli governments ever last out their full term of office and the prime minister should not be too concerned if, by taking decisive action against a recalcitrant minister, he hastens the date of elections by six months or so.
THE TRUTH is that Netanyahu has so far performed admirably in Operation Protective Edge, even if his voters, and the majority of his own party, see it differently. By refusing to rush into a ground invasion of Gaza, and by earlier accepting the Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire, the prime minister has gained international understanding of Israel’s position.
Voices such as Nick Clegg, the deputy British prime minister, who has accused Israel of imposing a “disproportionate form of collective punishment” on Gaza, are rare.
Far more common are the phone calls and public statements of support from the likes of US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, both of whom stressed the right of Israel to defend itself against Hamas terrorism. Had Israel launched an offensive on the lines Liberman has been suggesting, these calls of support would have turned into United Nations Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli violence.
In many ways, Prime Minister Netanyahu is very different from opposition leader Netanyahu, which explains why he has come under attack from Liberman and the right-wing Likud Knesset members such as Danny Danon who, thankfully, Netanyahu did not hesitate last week to dismiss as deputy defense minister.
Back in 2009, a few weeks after the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and just before the general elections of that year which brought Netanyahu to power, the then Likud opposition leader visited Ashkelon after a Grad missile attack and promised “I want to tell all the mothers in Israel: We will bring down the rule of Hamas and bring you all security.” Today, after five years in office, and one Gaza operation behind him (2012’s Pillar of Defense) and one ongoing, Netanyahu knows better than to make such grandiose statements.
In the press statement released at the beginning of the ground offensive last week, Netanyahu set a deliberately low key objective for the operation: “To restore quiet and safety to Israelis for a long time to come, while significantly harming the infrastructure of Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip.” There was no talk of crushing Hamas or promising a period of unending peace and stability because, unlike his critics on the Right, Netanyahu knows that such talk is illusionary.
Without a full-scale peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, backed by the whole Arab world, there will never be 100 percent quiet on Israel’s borders.
The most Netanyahu came aim for at the moment is the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip, and the hope that a significant international aid package for rebuilding Gaza and bringing its infrastructure into the 21st century will provide Gazans the incentive to throw out the Hamas leadership. Reconquering Gaza along the lines suggested by Liberman and the like will only entrench Hamas and further fuel the fires of hatred.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.