“Security” and “strength” are the two most commonly used words in every political campaign run by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 1996, it was “forging a secure peace”. In 1999, it was “A strong leader for Israel’s future.” In 2006, “A strong Likud, a secure Israel”; in 2009 “Strong in Security; Strong in Economics”; and finally, in 2013, “A strong Prime Minister, a strong Israel”. Nonetheless, as the current operation in the Gaza Strip suppresses its predecessors in casualties and length, Netanyahu could have serious difficulty using the same security-rhetoric in his next election battle; a battle which is likely to come soon after the cannons are silenced.
Operation Protective Edge is the broadest military campaign led by Netanyahu after more than eight years as Israel’s prime minister. As such, many Israelis view the operation as Netnayahu’s first real test in terms of translating his deep rhetorical commitment to “security” and “strength” into tangible security results.
As it looks right now, the majority of Israelis are at least suspicious regarding Netanyahu’s performances in this regard. Thus far, Netanyahu has been praised mainly by Zionist-leftist opposition for his “restraint” and “careful judgment” in managing the operation. Most notably, the left applauded the Prime Minister’s efforts to contain rocket fire in the days leading up to the recent escalation, using the “calm for calm” formula. The main opposition Party, Labor, officially supports the limited ground offensive, which infiltrated only 1-2 KM into the Gaza Strip, in order to dismantle the threat of offensive tunnels crossing into Israel. According to reports, the IDF’s top echelons and Defense Minister Yaalon side with Netanyahu in opposing plans to infiltrate deeper into Gaza City itself.
But at the same time, Netanyahu faces considerable criticism from his own rightist political allies and core constituencies. First was Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who publicly expressed his view that the purpose of any offensive should be the complete elimination of Hamas, not just the tunnels. He was then echoed by Minister of Economics and leader of national-religious “Jewish Home” Party Naphtali Bennett, who called for a decisive victory over Hamas. These statements were followed by similar, yet unusually stinging rhetoric from numerous Likud ministers who strongly condemned efforts by the Prime Minister to reach a swift ceasefire.
At this point, the attitudes of Israeli Jews seems torn between Netanyahu’s acceptable conduct thus far, and concern about ending the war prematurely. In recent polls regarding the Gaza Operation, Bibi’s approval rates were around 70%, but at the same time polls revealed an 85%-92% support for the continuation of a ‘limited’ ground offensive, which could be interpreted as a rejection of the premier’s previous ceasefire efforts.
At any rate, the majority of Israelis cringe at the idea of another temporary ceasefire, which in their view would only enable Hamas to further boost its capabilities ahead of the next round. Many of Netanyahu’s own supporters are disappointed at what is generally perceived as hesitation and lack of leadership. Others cannot understand how “Mr. Security” had to be provoked into war in order to thwart the game-changing tunnel threat, instead of initiating it.
It is too early to eulogize “Mr. Security’s” political status, mainly due to the fact that the war isn’t over yet. To be sure, whether Israel has succeeded in its efforts to restore deterrence vis-a-vis Hamas could be judged only from a time perspective. This was the case with the 2006 Lebanon war, which drew unprecedented domestic criticism immediately after its conclusion, but in the long run proved to deter Hezbollah and preserve calm on Israel’s northern border. In this sense, if Netanyahu wants to maintain his image as the protector of Israel’s security, what he needs more than all is time: time to prove that it was all worth it.
Unfortunately for the premier, time is one thing he does not have. When the war eventually ends, the Prime Minister will find himself in the same place he started; with the same divided coalition, pushing him at two opposite directions on peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni will not tolerate the absence of negotiations with President Abbas for long, and may leave the coalition, dragging the far more crucial Yesh Atid party with her. Moreover, any truce agreement which boosts Abbas’s role in Gaza will serve as a justification for her to demand Netanyahu’s return to the negotiation table. Bibi could do that, but would then risk fierce opposition from his right-wing counterparts, strongly opposing the two state solution. On top of these hurdles, there is the 2015 state budget, which will likely see additional cuts in public spending, further undermining public support for the government and Netanyahu personally.
Under these circumstances, Bibi’s ability to buy a sufficient amount of time until his next political battle seems highly questionable. If Israelis are not convinced that the latest Gaza Operation was a success, he will face not only a socioeconomic alternative from the center-left, but also a security-oriented, more hawkish alternative from the right, especially from Bennett. And when he is no longer Mr. Security, Israel’s second longest serving Prime Minister is heading the toughest political battle of his career.