Bibi's post-war challenge

The 50-day Gaza war ended with the prime minister facing a host of new problems.

Under threat: Benjamin Netanyahu faces challenges from coalition partner Naftali Bennett (left) and from Gideon Sa’ar. (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
Under threat: Benjamin Netanyahu faces challenges from coalition partner Naftali Bennett (left) and from Gideon Sa’ar.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
FIRST THERE was the question of Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal popularity, down from a 77-82 percent approval rating at the height of the fighting to 38-50 percent at the war’s seemingly inconclusive ending. He also lost ground in government and in his Likud party.
By the time the guns fell silent in late August the prime minister’s already dysfunctional war cabinet had become a hornets’ nest he avoided convening. And his evident failure to deal Hamas a knock-out blow had malcontents in the Likud baying for his ouster.
Netanyahu’s position is further complicated by the fact that he won plaudits for his circumspect handling of the war mainly from the center-left, not his natural constituency.
In the crucial postwar settlement phase, which will influence Israel’s regional and international standing for years to come, he finds himself challenged by right-wing party and coalition rivals striving to make political capital at his expense – mainly by portraying him as weak and indecisive.
As a result, he finds himself severely constrained against making far-reaching regional peace moves. Even if he wanted to go down the peace road, which is by no means certain, he would find it virtually impossible to carry the coalition or the party.
Netanyahu, however, does hold a trump card. Most Israelis see him as the only current politician with genuine prime ministerial credentials. A recent poll by the respected Dialog Institute showed that 42 percent hold him to be the politician best suited to be prime minister, with Labor opposition leader Isaac Herzog a distant second at 12 percent.
Netanyahu’s right-wing cabinet rivals, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) garnered just 11 percent each. And Finance Minister Yair Lapid, the centrist Yesh Atid leader, who Netanyahu fears could in a somewhat contorted political constellation oust him, polled only 4 percent.
Given the constant sniping in government and the strong anti-Netanyahu sentiment in Likud, aides mutter darkly that the prime minister is sorely tempted to break away from the party and/or to form a new center-left coalition designed to promote Israeli- Palestinian and regional peace initiatives.
Indeed, Netanyahu has spoken publicly of major regional developments – “not all negative” – which open up new political horizons. But few pundits believe Netanyahu will take the plunge. They suspect that the same caution that prevented a large-scale ground operation in Gaza will hold him back.
It is still far too early to say whether Netanyahu’s conservative prosecution of the war produced the “major military and diplomatic victory” for Israel he claims it did. He argues that in an age of “postheroic” warfare, in which modern armies prefer to achieve military goals through overwhelming firepower rather than boots on the ground, the IDF was able to hit Hamas hard and reestablish deterrence, without falling into the trap of sending troops deep into Gaza’s tunneled defensive network.
Such a move, Netanyahu insists, would have cost far more lives on both sides, possibly sucked Israel into having to run Gaza, further damaged its international standing, and, in the long run, probably achieved less in real national security dividends than the IDF did from the air.
WITH HEZBOLLAH, the Islamic State IS (formerly ISIS) and al-Qaida on or near the borders, Netanyahu says he made a conscious decision not to risk getting the army “stuck in the Gazan mud.”
There are three main yardsticks to measure the success or otherwise of “Operation Protective Edge”: Deterrence – how long the quiet with Gaza lasts and whether other potential enemies are deterred.
Developments in Gaza – whether Hamas grows or diminishes in stature.
New diplomatic realities – whether the war leads to wider accommodation with the Palestinians and the region – including effective demilitarization of Gaza and the West Bank.
The hawks in his fractious coalition accuse Netanyahu of missing a golden opportunity to destroy Hamas as a fighting force. In Bennett’s view, the way to enhance Israeli security is not through tenuous political agreements but by defeating terrorists in battle and dismantling the terrorist infrastructure. Moreover, he argues that the Gaza experience shows the two-state model for an Israeli-Palestinian peace would pose a totally unacceptable threat to Israel.
“The Palestinian state illusion dissipated in the tunnels of Gaza,” he declares. “In a world of ISIS and Hamas, Hezbollah and PLO, there is no substitute for power, and there can be no forgiveness for withdrawals from territory,” he adds. This kind of tough talk clearly resonates with the Israeli electorate; latest polls show Bennett up from 12 seats in the current Knesset to at least 17 in new elections making his Bayit Yehudi the second largest party in the House.
Bennett’s hard line is geared primarily towards consolidating the settlement enterprise in the West Bank. The danger, according to the center-left, is that if followed through, Bennett-style politics will ultimately compromise the Zionist enterprise in Israel as a whole. Where the center-left sees in the postwar situation a historic opportunity for an overarching deal with the Palestinians, Bennett sees a grave danger to the settlement project that must be averted. He will do all he can to prevent Netanyahu marching to the beat of the region’s Sunni moderates and picking up on their signals of readiness for accommodation with the Jewish state.
Liberman casts his opposition to Netanyahu somewhat differently. “As long as Hamas rules in Gaza, it will be impossible to guarantee security for Israeli citizens and impossible to reach a peace agreement,” he declares. In other words, he is in the peacemaking business – and a necessary, if not sufficient, condition is toppling Hamas.
He, too, accuses Netanyahu of missing a chance to overthrow the terrorist organization and adds that Israel’s failure to do so after seven weeks of tentative sparring could undermine its regional deterrence. “The fact that a 20,000 strong terror group survived for 50 days against the strongest army in the Middle East and stayed in power – bothers me very much,” he told Israel TV.
Surprisingly, the hawkish Liberman expresses readiness to accept the Saudi Peace Plan of 2002, the forerunner of the Arab Peace Initiative offering Israel peace with all 57 Arab and Muslim states in return for withdrawal from the occupied territories and a mutually agreed solution to the refugee issue. At first glance, Liberman seems to be playing both sides of the political divide. But there is a more subversive theory doing the rounds.
Since Liberman severed his party’s alliance with the Likud in early July, he and Yesh Atid’s Lapid have become close – and there is talk of Lapid and Liberman, with 31 Knesset seats between them, joining up with Labor, Hatnua, Kadima, Shas and United Torah Judaism (41 seats together) in a vote of constructive no confidence against Netanyahu. But this is easier said than done. Who would they suggest as the agreed alternative prime minister? Lapid? Liberman? Labor’s Herzog? How would Lapid and the Haredim sit together in the same government? And would Liberman really commit to sweeping regional peace moves?
NETANYAHU ALSO faces leadership challenges inside the Likud, where Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar is trying to position himself as the likely successor. To preempt the competition, the prime minister has three political options – depending on how far he wants to go on the Palestinian track. He can try to soldier on in the Likud using the public perception of his prime ministerial attributes to stamp his authority on the party, while keeping the current coalition intact. In this case he would make peace noises to keep the international community happy, but do very little to advance the process.
He could opt to change his coalition, bringing in Labor and the Haredim for Bennett and Liberman in the context of real peace moves. Or he could break away from the Likud, taking around half the Knesset faction with him and sparking new elections, hoping to win decisively given the public perception of his leadership qualities, and freeing himself to adopt whatever course he sees fit on the Palestinian and regional peace tracks. For now, it seems, Netanyahu is almost certain to choose the first, non-peacemaking option.
In late August interviews on all three Israel national TV channels, he said he was “looking into” the possibility of conducting a “responsible peace process” – in other words, nothing soon and nothing dramatic.
Netanyahu also reiterated a string of Israeli conditions: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would have to “choose between peace and Hamas,” that is sever the recent reconciliation agreement between the main Palestinian factions – a move he is unlikely to make. Abbas would also have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, something he has so far been unwilling to do.
Moreover, Netanyahu would continue to make uncompromising security demands because Israel cannot afford to have “another Hamastan in the West Bank.” In other words, Netanyahu seems to be playing the same old game that helped scuttle the Americanled peace process last April – making what seem to be reasonable demands he knows the Palestinians can’t accept. He hopes to build on the moderate Sunni states’ fear of radical Islam to strengthen Israel’s ties with them.
But without a viable Palestinian process this is unlikely to go very far.
Israeli failure to pick up on the postwar opening for movement on the Palestinian track could have dire consequences. In a late August interview with Foreign Policy magazine, Martin Indyk, a leading member of the now defunct American negotiating team, painted a bleak picture: strains in USIsrael ties, with Democrats and younger people no longer automatically supporting a non-liberal occupying Israel; China, India and Russia proving no substitute for the US as some right-wingers in Israel seem to think they might; the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) gaining traction; Palestinians in the territories dropping the two-state model and pushing for equal rights in a unitary state; Israel under increasing international pressure to end the occupation or grant occupied Palestinians full civil rights.
This leaves the center-left with hard choices. Lapid is pressing for a regional conference that, besides Arab states and the Palestinians, would include the US, European donor countries and Israel, with one key goal: consolidating the principle of reconstruction for Gaza in return for demilitarization. Lapid confidants warn that unless the government supports them on this, Yesh Atid will “reconsider its position in the coalition.” But if Yesh Atid bolts, Netanyahu could simply replace them with the Haredim. And its other threats, pressing for rotation of the premiership now that it and Likud (minus Yisrael Beytenu) both have 19 seats, or ousting Netanyahu with a vote of constructive no confidence, seem far-fetched.
Hatnua leader Justice Minister Tzipi Livni argues that Abbas has emerged from the war as a peace partner of stature, and Israel should not miss the chance to cut a deal with him.
In her view, Israel should insist that there be no political gains for Hamas from the war, and that everything on the Palestinian side, including reconstruction, goes through the PA. Livni, the minister in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians, wanted a UN Resolution enshrining the principles of peace for Gaza, for example, reconstruction through the PA and demilitarization in the context of a wider deal with Abbas. She claims she had US and European support for this, but that Netanyahu allowed the initiative to peter out.
A rare optimistic view on the center-left comes from former Meretz leader Yossi Beilin. He claims to have spoken to both Netanyahu and Abbas and that they agree on a plan he outlined for settling the conflict in stages: First, a Palestinian state would be established in temporary borders, with the contours of permanent statehood agreed and underwritten; Gaza could be brought in on condition that it agrees in principle to demilitarize; state-to-state talks on a permanent peace treaty in a limited time frame would start immediately.
Labor opposition leader Herzog is far less upbeat. He maintains that the war proved a drain on Israel’s limited diplomatic capital, and that Netanyahu is about to exacerbate the situation by missing a historic opportunity for peacemaking.
There is, however, very little the centerleft can realistically do about it. Polls show that in the wake of the war, the country has veered sharply to the right. According to the Dialog poll, if elections were held now, Likud would win 26 seats, Bayit Yehudi 17 and Yisrael Beytenu 11 for a total of 54, 11 seats more than they hold in the current Knesset; Labor would win 14, Yesh Atid 12, Meretz 7, Hatnua 4 and Kadima 0 for a total of 37, 11 less than in the current Knesset.
Herzog intimates that all they can do is sit it out until the dust settles and the public begins to realize the consequences of postwar diplomatic failure. Unless Netanyahu surprises them and finds a way to make significant peace moves. Or they surprise Netanyahu – and themselves – with a constructive no-confidence vote that turns everything on its head.