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Major Lessons from Minor Events

December 23, 2018

Last month, Israel engaged in a military operation that did not escalate into a war, resulting in a coalition crisis that did not bring down the government. Non-events, in the global scheme of things, right? But despite the limited scope of both episodes, they revealed two more significant trends with longer-lasting implications. One was the Israeli public reaction to the Gaza ceasefire. The other was Prime Minister Netanyahu’s surprising caution and moderation.

The military clash began on November 11, when an Israeli officer and 7 Hamas leaders were killed in a shootout after a botched IDF intelligence-gathering mission in Gaza. In response, Hamas launched 460 rockets at southern Israel, and Israel targeted Hamas infrastructure in Gaza, including tunnels and its TV station. After a single day of fighting, Hamas announced a ceasefire.

The public and political fallout were swift and revealing. Israelis across the ideological spectrum strongly opposed the ceasefire. And Israel’s defense minister resigned in protest, calling the move “surrender to terror.”

Residents of southern Israel, fed up with living under the constant threat of rockets and mortar fire from Gaza, burned tires and blocked roads. Teenagers marched on the capital. Schoolchildren took to the streets. Community leaders expressed “mounting anger over the truce with Hamas.” So much for the conventional wisdom that people—all people—want peace, while their cynical and warmongering leaders escalate conflict for their own political purposes. In this case, at least, the people of Israel demanded more forceful action than their government was willing to deliver.

Americans are accustomed to anti-war demonstrations—against U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s and ‘70s and in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent decades. But how often do we see massive protests against a truce—yes, pro-war? A public that is urging its government to deploy its formidable military might, to engage the enemy more forcefully? That’s what happened last month in Israel.

Israeli political leaders, in a rare display of cross-partisan consensus, also swiftly condemned the ceasefire. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners harshly criticized the restraint. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned in protest, calling the government’s response to Hamas “drastically inadequate” and “capitulation to terrorism.” Education Minister Naftali Bennett ominously warned of a “security confidence crisis” and a “defeatist mindset in dealing with terrorism.”

Left-wing opposition leaders were no less outspoken. Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid accused Netanyahu of “forsak[ing] Israeli deterrence.” Labor leader Avi Gabbay said Netanyahu had “abandoned residents of the.” Former Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak said that the prime minister had “caved in to Hamas under fire.” Opposition leader Tzipi Livni called the ceasefire “a colossal security failure,” and fellow Zionist Union Knesset members labeled it “an accord of weakness” and “a dead end.” Only far-left Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy called Netanyahu—admiringly—“a prime minister who again prevented a war.”

Israel’s prime minister is often described as a “hardliner,” a “hawk,” and even a “notorious warmonger.” Following his 2009 election, a Guardian profile called Netanyahu one who “prefers the politics of confrontation.” And yet in this case, he proved to be a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Criticized from the left, from the right, and especially from the south for his restraint, Netanyahu is the anti-war prime minister, a pacifist in disguise.

The prime minister was the most cautious and moderate member of his right-wing coalition. Netanyahu was denounced by the true hardliners, both within his own Likud party (including environmental protection minister Ze’ev Elkin), and coalition partners Jewish Home (education minister Ayelet Shaked and “far-right” Bennett) and, of course, Yisrael Beiteinu (defense minister Avigdor Lieberman), which withdrew its support from the government, precipitating speculation of early elections (since averted). On Gaza and security, Netanyahu is the dove among hawks, cautious and moderate. Like the anti-ceasefire Israeli public, the prime minister defies his public image.

So the next time you assume that politicians drag reluctant citizens into conflict, or hear that Prime Minster Netanyahu is a “hardliner” or “warmonger,” keep in mind the evidence to the contrary from November 2018. Be skeptical of stereotypes. Things are not always what they seem.


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Your feedback is always welcome and actively solicited. Please contact me with your reactions, additions, and rebuttals.

Also published at The Times of Israel, December 24, 2018:

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