Using the word “makot” for blows, a word that in Hebrew also means plagues, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Hamas on Sunday morning of the most forceful makot if Hamas did not stop its violence and attacks against Israel.
Netanyahu’s comments at the weekly cabinet meeting followed another Friday of mass, violent demonstrations along the border fence with Gaza that left seven more Palestinians dead, and as incendiary balloons from the Gaza Strip continued to set alight the forests and fields of southern Israel. His words came even before the two missiles were launched on Israel early Wednesday morning from the Strip, one landing directly on a home in Beersheba, and another off the coast of Bat Yam.
“Hamas apparently has not internalized the message – if they do not stop their attacks and violence against us, they will be stopped by other means and it will be painful, very painful,” he warned, yet again.
“We are very close to action of another kind, action that will include very forceful makot. If they have any sense, Hamas will halt its fire and the violent riots – now.”
Those words brought to mind two vastly different texts, one biblical and the other much less lofty.
The biblical reference is obvious. Netanyahu is no Moses, the Jewish people are light-years away from being slaves in Egypt, and Hamas head Yahya Sinwar has not a centimeter of the power of an Egyptian pharaoh.
But Netanyahu’s threat
of bringing even more forceful blows – and using the word “makot” – on Gaza if it does not stop harming the people of Israel naturally brought up images of the biblical 10 Plagues.
Israel has tried one blow after another against Hamas. It tried the blockade, it tried aerial attacks, it tried a limited ground incursion, it tried targeted assassination (blood, frogs, lice, wild beast ) – and the people of Gaza have suffered mightily under it all. But Hamas’s leadership – like Pharaoh whose heart was stone and who was deaf to the suffering of his people under all 10 Plagues – refuses to let Israel go.
The other text is an insightful comic routine once used by Jackie Mason, a comedian who knows Jews and how they think.
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Mason once joked about a Jew who got into a fight and went on to tell a friend about it:
“One more word, just one more word, and I would have killed him,” Mason quotes the Jew as boasting.
“For 2,000 years, the world has been waiting to hear that word,” goes the punch line.
“What’s that word?”
So what is it going to be now regarding Gaza? Moses or Mason? More forceful makot or more waiting for that one word?
While the media reported late into Wednesday night of a dramatic security cabinet meeting taking place at the Prime Minister’s Office, following IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot cutting short a visit to the US and rushing home for the meeting, much of the country went to bed believing that in the morning they would turn on the radio news and hear of some dramatic step Israel took to respond to the missiles.
But the dramatic step tarries. It doesn’t mean that it will never come, it just tarries.
The menu of responses available to the security cabinet ranges from a “comprehensive confrontation,” something now been touted by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, to retaking the Philadelphia corridor along the Gaza/Egypt border and also splitting the Strip into two, to targeted assassinations of Hamas’ leaders. The IDF top brass is reportedly advocating against a full-throttle confrontation, wanting to give Egyptian and UN mediators another chance at brokering a long-term agreement that might restore the quiet.
CHOOSING ONE of the entrees on the above distasteful menu is no easy task, and made even more difficult because the decision about what steps to take against Hamas in Gaza is complicated by a number of other considerations.
The first consideration, as always, is Iran.
As painful as the situation in the South is, it is not the number one item on Israel’s strategic agenda. In terms of an illness affecting the body, Gaza is a sneeze. An Iranian buildup in Syria is a life-threatening pneumonia. Do you exploit resources fighting the sneeze, or focus on stemming the brewing pneumonia?
Don’t forget that just a month ago Syria downed a Russian intelligence plane, which – in unique Mideast logic – led Russia to blame Israel, transfer S300 anti-aircraft missile batteries to Syria, and make Israeli action in Syria more difficult.
Two weeks ago Netanyahu said he would be meeting “soon” with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the situation amid the hope of reaching a modus operandi, but that meeting has not yet transpired.
In the meantime, after months of weekly – sometimes daily – reports of alleged Israeli action acting Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, not one action has been reported since the Russian plane was downed.
Liberman said this week during one of his numerous interviews that just because you don’t hear something, doesn’t meant nothing is happening. But still, if Iranian or Hezbollah targets were being hit in Syria, chances are that news would be filtering out.
The IDF general staff’s primary focus remains on the North, on Iranian entrenchment which – it is hard to believe – suddenly stopped when the Russian S300s reached Syria.
Israel has proven itself strong enough to be able to face two or more fronts at once. But it is not what the army wants. What kind of toll would a “comprehensive confrontation” now with Hamas in Gaza have on its readiness and capabilities in the North? That is one of the considerations that the security cabinet needs to deliberate.
Another consideration is whether it wants to put Israeli lives at risk to coronate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as the new king of Gaza.
Abbas would like nothing more than for Israel to engage in an all-out war in Gaza and dismember his enemy, Hamas. In fact, it can be argued that his policy of cutting off salaries to Hamas, stopping electricity payments for Gaza, and doing whatever he can to thwart a deal being brokered by Egypt and the UN to bring quiet to the South is heavily responsible for the boiling point at which the crisis has now reached.
Abbas knows that Israel has no appetite to re-occupy Gaza, and would – under pressure from the international community – most likely hand it back to him to control. He would, therefore, sit and applaud at the sight of Israeli ground troops fighting and dying in Gaza.
For him this kills two birds with one stone: Israel would deliver a mighty blow to weaken his enemy, and in the process would bleed heavily itself and be crucified abroad for the collateral damage that will necessarily result from any massive offensive.
And the third consideration that is making this decision so difficult is the specter of looming elections. War talk and talk of new elections is a bad mix.
SOME BELIEVE that Liberman’s extremely tough rhetoric this week is the result less of deeply felt beliefs or any long-term strategic plan he has for Gaza once his “comprehensive confrontation” is finished, and more with politics. Indeed, his tough talk this week is at odds with words he used just a few months ago about a need for level-headed thinking in Gaza, and not caving in to the impatience of the public.
For weeks, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Liberman’s political rival, has been hammering the defense minister for what he claims has been Israel’s week response to the riots along the Gaza border fence that have been carrying on since March 29. Bennett has not called for the IDF to once again take over Gaza, but rather to shoot to kill anyone who flies incendiary balloons into Israel, or who cuts the Gaza fence, or crosses over it. By not doing that from the very beginning, he argued, Israel lost deterrence.
While Bennett’s poll numbers are rising moderately, Liberman’s are sinking. In deciding whether to not go to war in Gaza, the rest of the ministers in the security cabinet must weigh the political considerations behind the different scenarios being recommended by the different ministers. Are they real, or guided by political calculations?
And what does this all mean for Netanyahu’s own political prospects. The conventional wisdom is that taking a very aggressive military stance at this time would play well with his right-wing base, and thus be good for his electoral considerations.
But Netanyahu has enough experience – both with elections and with military confrontations – to know that a military campaign is not necessarily good at the polls.
Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.
Menachem Begin most definitely got a bounce at the ballot box in 1981 when the IAF’s daring attack on the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor took place just 23 days before his election victory over Shimon Peres.
Peres himself did not benefit at the polls when he embarked on a 16-day campaign in April 1996 against Hezbollah called Operation Grapes of Wrath. On May 29, 1996, the country went to the polls and elected Netanyahu its prime minister.
And in 2009, Operation Cast Lead in Gaza – a campaign steered by a Kadima-led government headed by Ehud Olmert – ended just 23 days before a new election triggered by Olmert’s resignation. The Right won that election, and Netanyahu – not Kadima’s Tzipi Livni – became the country’s next prime minister.
Military campaigns do not guarantee victory in elections. If they succeed, they probably do; but there is no guarantee of success.
The missile attacks Wednesday morning set in motion something Israel is all too familiar with: intense anger, an instinct to strike fast and strike incredibly hard. There is a sense of unity in the air, even voices in the opposition and in the media clamoring that “something must be done.”
That atmosphere shifts at the speed of light, however, when something goes wrong. And in military campaigns, things go awry. Then the blame game begins. Why was this option not exhausted? Why was this channel not explored? Why the rush? That is not good before an election.
Netanyahu has been around long enough to know not to decide whether to go to war based on the atmosphere in the country after a missile hits a home. And that is also why it is taking him so long decide which script he will be reading from this time: Jackie Mason’s or the Bible.
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