In his press conference discussing the heavily criticized cease-fire agreement with Hamas, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu recalled a soldier he met while visiting an army base in southern Israel. The soldier lamented, “If only the unity would remain after the fighting.” In recalling those words, Netanyahu was not referring only to the feeling of goodwill among citizens in times of national crisis, but the political unity behind the leadership of the prime minister that he rarely receives.
In Israel and elsewhere, wars (or large-scale military operations, as the case may be) are usually characterized by such political unity, at least at the outset, and especially within the government prosecuting the war. Operation Protective Edge, however, featured what was perhaps one of the most openly fractured governments in the history of Israeli warfare.
Throughout the operation, Netanyahu was criticized overtly and implicitly, by members of the opposition and ministers in his own cabinet, including members of his own party.
Netanyahu responded by firing the deputy defense minister (Danny Danon) for his criticism of the initial cease-fire with Hamas, but could do little to silence his more powerful coalition partners, Avigdor Liberman and Naftali Bennett.
Those two may have been less personal in expressing their disagreement with the prime minister, but were no less vocal than Danon. Because of their position within the government, their public statements did more to reveal the extent of the differences of opinion within the cabinet. All Netanyahu could do to them and other coalition members was respond in kind by publicly demanding silence from ministers, even pointing to his own behavior as opposition leader during Operation Cast Lead as an example to be followed.
Despite his understandable frustration, Netanyahu himself bears a large portion of the blame for his unruly cabinet.
Since resuming the post of prime minister in 2009, Netanyahu has utterly neglected his political party, which should be the base of his political power. Since then the party as an organization has been utterly inactive in country’s political life, with the exception of internal jockeying and various Likud politicians’ personal campaigns.
The Likud’s last election campaign was practically non-existent. Instead of leading the party forward in an aggressive political campaign to win more Knesset seats, Netanyahu chose to merge the Likud’s Knesset list with that of Yisrael Beytenu in order to secure his leadership against the non-existent threat of a united Left under former prime minister Ehud Olmert. That led to the loss of seven Knesset mandates for the Likud (currently eight). As a result, Netanyahu now leads a discontent Knesset faction of only 19 seats.
With this unstable base of support, Netanyahu appears to have discarded coalition partners during the operation, who complained about votes and cabinet meetings that were not held and that he bullied the cabinet into accepting his policy. If these accounts are to be believed, he acted like a president, when he is in fact a prime minister in a proportional-parliamentary system whose party controls only about 16 percent of the parliament.
Instead of recognizing this political reality and exercising his diplomatic skill to pacify his colleagues behind the scenes, he forgot that even the president of the United States often has to compromise with other high-ranking politicians, if only a little, to keep them in line.
Netanyahu also overreacted to the problem.
Most of the ministers did not publicly criticize Netanyahu personally or suggest that he was unfit to lead. Rather, they called for greater action against the enemy. Unlike criticism from the Left, such calls in no way threatened the country’s resolve to sustain the operation.
Netanyahu could have allowed these ministers to play bad cop, but instead publicly decried their behavior, showing the extent of the disagreement within the government.
Most importantly, throughout the operation Netanyahu ignored the will of the people. The public sought more than yet another round of explosions and declarations from various government and military officials about “restored deterrence,” Hamas’s “suffering a severe blow” or “receiving the message.” Poll after poll showed that the people wanted an expanded operation, even Hamas’s destruction.
Instead Netanyahu committed Israel to cease-fire after cease-fire. Even if other right-of-center ministers wanted to remain quiet about that policy, doing so would carry a great political cost.
Whether Netanyahu likes it or not, in the past two elections, he failed to win a mandate to run the country unchecked. The criticism of his “quiet for quiet” policy from within his own cabinet reflected what the public wanted when it chose other parties over Netanyahu and the Likud. For that and the lack of cabinet harmony that has followed, Netanyahu carries just as much of the blame as his rambunctious colleagues.
The author is a Likud Central Committee member and an attorney.