Gaza is Benjamin Netanyahu’s recurring nightmare - analysis

Why hasn’t Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the last 10 years as prime minister to topple Hamas like he promised in 2009?

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with soldiers on top of an IDF tank close to the Gaza Border January 23, 2019 (photo credit: GPO)
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with soldiers on top of an IDF tank close to the Gaza Border January 23, 2019
(photo credit: GPO)
WASHINGTON – Almost exactly 10 years ago, Israel found itself in the same situation it is in today. It was the end of 2008, and while Hamas rockets could not yet strike Tel Aviv, the threat from the Gaza Strip was growing. Israel decided to take action.
The operation that was launched – Cast Lead – was the first large-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip since Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in the summer of 2005. The campaign lasted three weeks and saw IDF troops cut the coastal enclave in half to prevent Hamas from freely moving weapons.
Like today, Israel at the time was in the middle of a general election, sparked by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to resign due to the criminal probes that were closing in on him. Benjamin Netanyahu was the head of opposition. He was the one criticizing Olmert and Tzipi Livni – his successor as head of Kadima – as not being tough enough on Gaza.
“The only way to remove this threat is to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza,” Netanyahu said at the time, criticizing Kadima and the government for halting the operation before the job was done. “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.”
But that was 10 years ago. Today it is Netanyahu who is facing criminal investigations, who is in the middle of an election campaign and who is facing political rivals – Benny Gantz and Naftali Bennett in particular – who claim he is not being tough enough, and that his policy of trying to contain the situation in Gaza has not only backfired, it has now destroyed a home just north of Tel Aviv.
So why hasn’t Netanyahu used the last decade as prime minister to topple Hamas, as he promised in 2009? Because while that might have been a nice campaign promise, he knows that a fourth war with Hamas would likely end in the same way that it began. It is true that Hamas would be weakened and likely more deterred than it is today, but the challenge Gaza poses to Israel would not be solved. It would just be pushing the problem down the road until the next escalation – perhaps a year or two later.
This time though, Netanyahu may not have a choice but to respond aggressively. While some people read into his decision to cut short his trip to the US as a sign that Israel is going to launch a major offensive, that is not necessarily the case. Netanyahu is not just Israel’s prime minister; he is also the defense minister. One of the two needs to be at the security cabinet meeting on Tuesday when Israel’s response is decided. Since he is both, there is only him.
Due to the elections, Netanyahu finds himself in an even more complicated situation. When deciding to launch Cast Lead in 2008, Olmert was not running for reelection, and so he knew that there would not be a direct political price one way or another – whether he was seen as being too weak on Hamas, or too aggressive.
That is not the same right now. Netanyahu is up for reelection, and traditionally avoids large-scale military operations especially when close to elections. Having the population hunkered down in bomb shelters as the IDF invades Gaza could come at a major political price. On the other hand, being perceived as too restrained and tolerant provides his political rivals with the opportunity to attack him.
As difficult as it might be, Netanyahu will likely try to find a middle ground. Hamas needs to pay a price and understand that rocket attacks like the one on Monday will not be tolerated. Israel will need to strike back hard from the air, and possibly from the ground as well. How Hamas answers Israel’s response will set the tone for what comes next.
But as the last 10 years have shown, the Gaza issue is not simply going away. And while a long-term solution will one day need to be found, that won’t happen in the two weeks left before the April 9 elections. For now, force will be met by force.