‘In the morning, a Katyusha rocket landed at the entrance to Ashkelon. Luckily, no one was hurt but we cannot rely on luck. The only way to remove this threat is to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza… the government stopped the IDF before it was able to finish the job. I want to be very clear: We will not stop the IDF. We will topple Hamas’s terror regime and we will restore security to the residents of Ashkelon, Ashdod and Sderot and to all of Israel.”
Who said this? Yair Lapid, who mocked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s weakness after this week’s round of violence? Tzipi Livni, who accused the prime minister of undermining Israel’s deterrence in the face of Hamas’s missile onslaught? Or Avigdor Liberman, who resigned as defense minister in the wake of what he called a “capitulation to terrorism?”
The answer: None of the above.
The comment was made by Netanyahu himself on February 3, 2009, two weeks after the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in the Gaza Strip had ended in another internationally mediated ceasefire. Netanyahu was then head of the opposition, and he was running for prime minister against Livni, the new head of Kadima in place of outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert.
It is interesting to watch the 10-year-old video of Netanyahu promising to topple Hamas, and then think about the wars and rounds of violence Israel has fought with Hamas in the Gaza Strip in the decade since. There was Pillar of Defense in 2012, an eight-day operation that ended in a ceasefire, and the Gaza War of 2014, 50 days of fighting that ended the same way. Over the last half a year since Hamas started the border protests, Israel and the terrorist group have engaged in a number of rounds of violence, culminating in this week’s 72 hours of rocket attacks and air strikes.
Is Hamas still standing? Yes.
Has it been toppled as Netanyahu promised 10 years ago it would be under his premiership? No.
The question is, why? Why was toppling Hamas the objective 10 years ago, but not for the last decade since Netanyahu has been in office? What changed?
The truth is, probably not that much. In 2009, Netanyahu had already served for three years as prime minister, in the late 1990s. He knew the limitations of power and what a conventional military like the IDF was capable of doing in Gaza. Operation Cast Lead, which he was criticizing, succeeded in creating quiet for three years, no different than the time that passed between the 2014 war that he oversaw as prime minister and these last few months of nonstop border clashes and rocket attacks.
At the same time though, he was also running for office in 2009 and was trying to get elected prime minister. He played petty politics and told the public what it wanted to hear, no matter that it was unrealistic. The last 10 years with him as prime minister show just how cynical was that 2009 declaration.
On Wednesday, Liberman gave Netanyahu a dose of his own medicine when he resigned and slammed the cabinet decision to agree to a ceasefire with Hamas. Liberman has been defense minister for two-and-a-half years, and sat in Netanyahu’s cabinet as foreign minister in the last government as well. He knows perfectly well the price that would be paid for a large-scale incursion into Gaza. But he also needed to think about his political future.
Getting out of the government now, and distancing himself from the unpopular decision to agree to that ceasefire, has the chance of paying off at the polls in the next election. That would only be true though if elections are held sooner rather than later. If the elections are postponed, the public is unlikely to remember why or when Liberman bolted the government in November 2018.
The truth is that it is easy to criticize the cabinet for agreeing to a ceasefire after nearly 500 rockets and mortars rained down on Israel, with the price Hamas seemed to pay relatively low. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis were stuck in bomb shelters for nearly three days, while in Gaza, air strikes hit empty buildings. An advanced Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missile hit a bus just moments after it dropped off dozens of soldiers, and Hamas buses continued to drive worry-free on the streets of Gaza City. A commando operation went wrong and a top IDF officer was killed, but again, Hamas barely paid a price.
Nevertheless, and despite all of this, the ceasefire was the right decision.
It was the right decision because Netanyahu and his ministers know that a war with Hamas would end with both Israel and Gaza in pretty much the same place they are in now. It is true that Israel can cause extensive damage to Hamas and kill thousands of Palestinians if it wants to, but Hamas can also cause damage to Israel. In 2014, nearly 70 soldiers were killed alongside six civilians. What’s the point in going to a war when you know ahead of time that it is going to end the same way as the last one? Without a clear exit strategy and plan, nothing will really change.
What’s happening now is politics. Each politician needs to save face. Netanyahu explained how only he could withstand the political pressure to avoid war and that is what leaders need to do, while Liberman claims Israel has lost.
Sadly, that is the reality along the Gaza border as long as the status quo continues. That doesn’t mean Netanyahu is not responsible for this. He has been the prime minister for the last 10 years, and under his tenure nothing has changed on the Gaza front. Why, for example, didn’t he use the last 10 years to come up with innovative ideas of how to change the reality?
For the situation to really change, both of the following ideally need to happen: the first is for the Palestinian Authority to return to Gaza and take over some measure of control of the Strip, either by folding Hamas into it (unlikely), or by reaching an agreement that allows the terrorist group to retain its independence. Israel, of course, would not accept such a deal that would leave Hamas with all of its weapons and Gaza in a similar state to Lebanon, where there is a puppet government effectively controlled by Hezbollah.
The other change that needs to occur, one that Israel has long spoken about, is to initiate a massive economic plan for Gaza that would entail some calculated risks but could help change the situation on the ground.
No one argues that Gaza is a hopeless place. Unemployment is over 50%, and is especially problematic among young people in their twenties and thirties. Clean water is hard to come by, electricity is infrequent, and sewage is being pumped directly into the Mediterranean Sea.
For years we have heard about plans to build a port for Gaza, either in Cyprus or on an artificial island. We’ve heard about ideas to allow Gazans into Israel for work, to let them export their goods to Europe, and for factories in Israel to buy products from the Gaza Strip.
I, too, am skeptical that any of these ideas will work; but the question we need to ask ourselves is why is no one suggesting anything new. Why do we keep on trying the same plan and expect a different result? If anything, the last 10 years should show us that the results are not going to change. That is why agreeing to a ceasefire was the best of the bad options placed on the cabinet’s table.
Part of the reason an economic plan has not been adopted is because Israeli security forces are afraid to take risks that could end up blowing up in its face; the other part is that concessions to Gaza are unpopular politically. With elections looming, we are unlikely to see politicians taking unpopular risks that would give opponents the opportunity to brand them as “leftists.”
Under these circumstances, Netanyahu made the right decision to avoid war this week. Israel should only go to war as a last resort, but also only when it has a clear strategy of where the war will take us and how it will change the reality for the good. Sadly, despite 10 years since that morning in Ashkelon, the strategy is still missing.
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