Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared Hamas to ISIS earlier this week and said that there was no diplomatic solution for the conflict, but also said that war should be a last resort, and Israel will do what it can to avoid it. The responses were not particularly accepting. Yet the cabinet’s decision – or lack of a decision – on Tuesday seemed to follow that reasoning.
There was no vote in the cabinet on what to do next, since no ministers put up a fight against security officials’ suggestions, which Netanyahu strongly supported – Israel should follow a “quiet for quiet” formulation, meaning that it will hold its fire as long as Hamas does.
A strange thing happened almost immediately after sources briefed reporters that the cabinet unanimously decided to accept a ceasefire with Hamas: ministers began denying it.
Netanyahu defends Gaza ceasefire during annual memorial for Ben Gurion, November 14, 2018 (GPO)
First, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, then Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin. No one publicly defended the ceasefire for hours.
Liberman and Bennett have been publicly squabbling over who is a bigger hawk on Hamas for months, so there is no surprise that they would not admit to supporting a ceasefire – which is unpopular with their voters.
Broadly speaking, the residents of southern cities vote for the Right, while those in the agricultural communities vote for the Left. Soon after news of the ceasefire was released, tires burned in the entrance to Sderot, a firmly right wing city. Demonstrators were heard saying, “Bibi, we’re done with you!” On Wednesday, they plan to block roads in Tel Aviv.
Messages on social media were no different. For example, Channel 20’s Diplomatic Analyst Shimon Riklin, known to be Netanyahu’s greatest defender, tweeted: “It was reported that the cabinet unanimously voted for a ceasefire with Hamas. I just want to make a correction that the vote was really to surrender to Hamas, and they all agreed.”
Meanwhile, the opposition sounded more right wing than the coalition. “Netanyahu abandoned the residents of the South and Israeli deterrence,” Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid lamented. “The IDF has the tools, including targeted assassinations.” Opposition leader Tzipi Livni called the situation “a colossal security failure...and a fatal hit to our deterrence capabilities.”
Pundits contrasted the decision with the Likud’s slogan in 2006 which was “strong against Hamas,” and Netanyahu’s 2009 campaign promise to overthrow the Islamic terrorist organization that still controls Gaza.
In other words, Bennett, Liberman and the rest sought to distance themselves from what they knew would be an unpopular decision.
For Netanyahu, a ceasefire has even fewer political benefits. The 2013 and 2015 elections both happened shortly after military operations in Gaza, he was re-elected both times. In 2015, the Likud won by a six-seat margin. And historically, the Right does better when the security situation is tense.
Netanyahu, however, pushed ahead despite the political ramifications in what is widely thought to be the last few months before an election is called. He clearly thinks that a war with Hamas will not change anything, and would be simply risking lives in vain.
At the same time, Housing and Construction Minister Yoav Gallant, former head of the IDF’s Southern Command, defended the ceasefire on Channel 2 News and said: “Whoever thinks there’s life without paying a price is mistaken.” In other words, there’s no way to totally avoid the loss of Israeli lives when Hamas is constantly attacking.
He also hinted that there could be surprises on the way. The way Gallant explained it, the current ceasefire is a way of not letting Hamas gain control and decide when there is violence and when it stops. Israel will decide for itself.
Whether that’s foreshadowing a plan that hasn’t yet been leaked from the Security Cabinet, or is just smart politics – talking tough to counter accusations of weakness – remains to be seen.