Reality Check: What is Netanyahu’s plan?

Will the PM follow through on the tough rhetoric of his FM? With Netanyahu, one never knows.

Netanyahu 370 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
Netanyahu 370
(photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
Looking at his record as prime minister, it’s hard to pin Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu down.
While totally refusing to enter serious peace negotiations with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu has shown a firm pragmatic tendency in other areas.
He implemented a 10-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank; released 1,027 terrorists in return for Gilad Schalit and called a halt to Operation Pillar of Defense before sending the ground troops into Gaza in return for a non-paper negotiated with Hamas under the supervision of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi.
Quite a contrast to the Netanyahu of 2009 who, a few days after Operation Cast Lead ended, launched a blistering attack on Ehud Olmert’s government after a Hamas missile hit Ashkelon. “We won’t stop the IDF,” Netanyahu said then in a stump speech, “we’ll cause the collapse of the terrorist government.”
But then words are cheap, particularly close to elections, and perspectives change once a politician switches from being leader of the opposition to prime minister. As Ariel Sharon was fond of saying once he finally assumed the premiership: “What you see from here, you don’t see from there.”
And what’s now clear to all is that far from destroying the Hamas government in Gaza, Netanyahu has actually strengthened it. Although the IDF destroyed a large percentage of the organization’s rockets, removed Hamas’ military commander from the equation and restored Israeli deterrence, Hamas didn’t crumble under attack. It even succeeded in firing missiles at Rishon Lezion and sending the population of Gush Dan to the shelters.
The negotiations to end Operation Pillar of Defense, in which US President Barack Obama played a major role, meanwhile served to turn Hamas from a boycotted terrorist organization into an internationally recognized player.
Netanyahu, however, does deserve genuine praise for the way he conducted the Gaza offensive. By not setting extravagant goals at the beginning of the operation, the prime minister did not allow himself to become boxed in or feel the need to seek a victory photograph. This enabled him to seek a cease-fire after a round of fighting that caused far fewer casualties – on both sides – than Operation Cast Lead and which ended without a Goldstone Report to haunt Israel in international forums.
Nobody is deceiving themselves that Hamas is suddenly going to turn the Gaza Strip into Switzerland but, for the moment, there is a good chance that the residents of southern Israel will be able to go about their daily lives without fear of coming under rocket attack. Expectations along the lines of Netanyahu circa 2009 that Israel can invade the Gaza Strip, overthrow its government, ignore world opinion and still maintain relations with an Egypt led by a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood are simply unreasonable.
As Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in an interview with Yediot Aharonot over the weekend, Hamas’ rule in Gaza is a fact, and Israel needs to recognize this, and even re-assess its policies concerning the border crossings and blockade of Gaza.
But more importantly, Israel has to re-assess its policies toward the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas. Of all the players involved in the Israel-Palestinian relationship, it is Abbas who has been the real loser in this latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas.
The PA leader recently went on Israeli television to insist there would be no third intifada on his watch, that Palestinian violence was a mistake and that he, personally, renounced his right of return to Safed, the town of his birth. All he received in response was a cold shoulder from Israel’s leadership and demonstrations against him in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In contrast, through launching missile attacks on Israel, Hamas has seen its prestige increase among both the Palestinian population and wider Arab world. If the cease-fire does result in a loosening of the border crossings as Barak has suggested, then Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh will also have a tangible gain to show his people from this month’s round of fighting.
Operation Pillar of Defense has created a new status quo, but past experience shows that these periods of calm are only temporary. In the long term, Israel needs to break out of these cycles of calm punctured by violence through seeking a peace agreement with the wider Arab world along the lines of the decade-old Saudi peace initiative.
This week Netanyahu will be tested again as Abbas goes to the United Nations on Thursday to bid for Palestinian non-member observer state status. Earlier this month Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman threatened that Israel would retaliate harshly against this initiative and listed a number of punishments Israel could apply, including stopping the transfer of tax money Israel collects for the PA, canceling the Oslo Accords, or canceling the Israeli work permits of thousands of Palestinian workers, even if this risked toppling the Palestinian Authority.
Will Netanyahu follow through on the tough rhetoric of his foreign minister and risk introducing even more instability into the region at this sensitive time, or will we see, yet again, his pragmatic side? With Netanyahu, one never knows.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.