Looking at his record as prime minister, it’s hard to pin Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu down.
While totally refusing to enter serious peace
negotiations with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu has
shown a firm pragmatic tendency in other areas.
He implemented a 10-month
freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank; released 1,027 terrorists in
return for Gilad Schalit and called a halt to Operation Pillar of Defense before
sending the ground troops into Gaza in return for a non-paper negotiated with
Hamas under the supervision of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed
Quite a contrast to the Netanyahu of 2009 who, a few days after
Operation Cast Lead ended, launched a blistering attack on Ehud Olmert’s
government after a Hamas missile hit Ashkelon. “We won’t stop the IDF,”
Netanyahu said then in a stump speech, “we’ll cause the collapse of the
But then words are cheap, particularly close to
elections, and perspectives change once a politician switches from being leader
of the opposition to prime minister. As Ariel Sharon was fond of saying once he
finally assumed the premiership: “What you see from here, you don’t see from
And what’s now clear to all is that far from destroying the Hamas
government in Gaza, Netanyahu has actually strengthened it. Although the IDF
destroyed a large percentage of the organization’s rockets, removed Hamas’
military commander from the equation and restored Israeli deterrence, Hamas
didn’t crumble under attack. It even succeeded in firing missiles at Rishon
Lezion and sending the population of Gush Dan to the shelters.
negotiations to end Operation Pillar of Defense, in which US President Barack
Obama played a major role, meanwhile served to turn Hamas from a boycotted
terrorist organization into an internationally recognized
Netanyahu, however, does deserve genuine praise for the way he
conducted the Gaza offensive. By not setting extravagant goals at the beginning
of the operation, the prime minister did not allow himself to become boxed in or
feel the need to seek a victory photograph. This enabled him to seek a
cease-fire after a round of fighting that caused far fewer casualties – on both
sides – than Operation Cast Lead and which ended without a Goldstone Report to
haunt Israel in international forums.
Nobody is deceiving themselves that
Hamas is suddenly going to turn the Gaza Strip into Switzerland but, for the
moment, there is a good chance that the residents of southern Israel will be
able to go about their daily lives without fear of coming under rocket attack.
Expectations along the lines of Netanyahu circa 2009 that Israel can invade the
Gaza Strip, overthrow its government, ignore world opinion and still maintain
relations with an Egypt led by a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood are
As Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in an interview
with Yediot Aharonot over the weekend, Hamas’ rule in Gaza is a fact, and Israel
needs to recognize this, and even re-assess its policies concerning the border
crossings and blockade of Gaza.
But more importantly, Israel has to
re-assess its policies toward the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Mahmoud
Abbas. Of all the players involved in the Israel-Palestinian relationship, it is
Abbas who has been the real loser in this latest round of fighting between
Israel and Hamas.
The PA leader recently went on Israeli television to
insist there would be no third intifada on his watch, that Palestinian violence
was a mistake and that he, personally, renounced his right of return to Safed,
the town of his birth. All he received in response was a cold shoulder from
Israel’s leadership and demonstrations against him in both the West Bank and
In contrast, through launching missile attacks on Israel,
Hamas has seen its prestige increase among both the Palestinian population and
wider Arab world. If the cease-fire does result in a loosening of the border
crossings as Barak has suggested, then Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh will
also have a tangible gain to show his people from this month’s round of
Operation Pillar of Defense has created a new status quo, but
past experience shows that these periods of calm are only temporary. In the long
term, Israel needs to break out of these cycles of calm punctured by violence
through seeking a peace agreement with the wider Arab world along the lines of
the decade-old Saudi peace initiative.
This week Netanyahu will be tested
again as Abbas goes to the United Nations on Thursday to bid for Palestinian
non-member observer state status. Earlier this month Foreign Minister Avigdor
Liberman threatened that Israel would retaliate harshly against this initiative
and listed a number of punishments Israel could apply, including stopping the
transfer of tax money Israel collects for the PA, canceling the Oslo Accords, or
canceling the Israeli work permits of thousands of Palestinian workers, even if
this risked toppling the Palestinian Authority.
Will Netanyahu follow
through on the tough rhetoric of his foreign minister and risk introducing even
more instability into the region at this sensitive time, or will we see, yet
again, his pragmatic side? With Netanyahu, one never knows.
The writer is
a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.