Martin Kramer
on Israel and the Middle East

How Hamas deterred Netanyahu

He electioneered on a promise to topple Hamas, but abandoned the pledge when casualty forecasts made it too politically risky
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, November 18, 2012. Kobi Gideon, Government Press Office.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, November 18, 2012. Kobi Gideon, Government Press Office.

When the history of Israel’s policy toward Hamas is investigated, one question will loom large: why did Israel allow Hamas, an implacable enemy, to grow alongside its jugular?

This development occurred almost entirely during Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure. Hamas rose to power in Gaza in June 2007, and Netanyahu emerged as prime minister from elections in February 2009, a position he has occupied for 13 of the last 14 years.

The promise

During the 2009 election, Netanyahu criticized Tzipi Livni, the leader of the rival Kadima party then in power, for failing to bring down Hamas. On February 3, he visited the southern city of Ashkelon following a rocket attack from Gaza. Israel had concluded Operation Cast Lead against Hamas a few weeks earlier, and the Knesset elections were just a week away. Netanyahu recorded the following video message:

We’re here at the entrance to Ashkelon. This morning a Grad rocket landed here. That says it all. By chance, by a stroke of luck, there was a miracle, and the children who showed me the shrapnel weren’t harmed.

But we can’t rely on miracles. We need action to eliminate the threat. Only one action will do this, and that’s to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza.

I’ve sounded the alarm regarding Hamas for several years now, cautioning that rockets would be fired from Gaza towards Ashkelon. Tzipi Livni and Kadima scoffed at the idea. They downplayed these warnings, accused us of being alarmists and of instilling fear in the populace. It turns out that we foresaw what they, in their short-sightedness, could not.

And not only did they not see the danger. When it became evident, they showed weakness. They practiced restraint, they agreed to a truce, they allowed Hamas to arm itself with more and more rockets. Ultimately, when they finally took action (and the IDF did an outstanding job), Tzipi Livni and the Kadima government halted the IDF before it could finish the mission.

So I want to say here and now, we won’t stop the IDF, we’ll complete the task. We’ll topple the regime of Hamas terror, we’ll restore security to the residents of Ashkelon, Ashdod, Sderot, Be’er Sheva, and Yavne. We’ll restore security to all the inhabitants of Israel.

Neutralizing Hamas didn’t seem like a difficult proposition in 2009. The group had very limited capabilities at the time, and its performance against Israeli forces during Operation Cast Lead proved to be lackluster. “They are villagers with guns,” said an Israeli soldier to a reporter. “We kept saying Hamas was a strong terror organization, but it was more easy than we thought it would be.”

Netanyahu won the election and became the prime minister, yet he made no attempt to topple Hamas once in office. This stance can be partially understood by reconstructing some of Netanyahu’s rationales, as evidenced in his widely available memoirs, Bibi: My Story, published in 2022. These memoirs reveal that Hamas effectively deterred Netanyahu from carrying out his promise, even as he declared that he had deterred Hamas.

‘Bigger fish to fry’

Netanyahu first faced an expectation to keep his promise of bringing down Hamas in November 2012, during Operation Pillar of Defense, an air offensive against Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Early on, Israel killed Ahmad Jabri, a leading commander in Hamas. Hamas launched barrages of rockets on Israel, leading to an exchange that culminated in a ceasefire. Netanyahu’s thinking during this crisis is revealed in his memoirs::

Since we had achieved our major objective, knocking out the top Hamas commander Jabri right at the start of the campaign, there was no point in continuing. But ending these kinds of operations is much harder than starting them. The public invariably expects the government to continue the battle and “flatten Gaza,” believing that with enough punishment the Hamas regime would collapse.

Yet that would only happen if we sent in the army. The casualties would mount: many hundreds on the Israeli side and many thousands on the Palestinian side. Did I really want to tie down the IDF in Gaza for years when we had to deal with Iran and a possible Syrian front? The answer was categorically no. I had bigger fish to fry.

‘You’re the political echelon, I’m not’

The operation bought time, but by 2014 the situation in the south had deteriorated. In a security cabinet meeting on January 19, Netanyahu authorized a “strategic discussion devoted to the possibilities of toppling Hamas in Gaza.” However, when the cabinet reconvened on February 16, he shifted the focus to operational matters, excluding strategy. This met with resistance from both the chief of staff and the national security adviser, who argued that operations were inherently linked to the overarching strategy. Acknowledging this, Netanyahu committed to addressing strategic goals in a future meeting.

In the cabinet meeting of March 13, several cabinet members complained to Netanyahu that they still hadn’t discussed a long-term strategy. Gilad Erdan, home front minister, complained that “over the year that I’ve been a member of this cabinet, I haven’t gained even a shred of information that would enable me to make decisions about long-term policy.” Netanyahu promised that a discussion of strategy toward Gaza would take place at the next meeting.

In the discussion held on March 23, three options were considered: gradual escalation, a large-scale but limited military operation, and toppling Hamas. Reflecting on this a year later, Yair Lapid, then the finance minister, stated that the purpose of the discussion was “to show why it wasn’t worth it to conquer Gaza.” The head of the IDF’s operations directorate commented on the session: “It wasn’t really a strategy discussion, because it set no strategic objectives.”

The conflict with Hamas continued to escalate, culminating in July in Operation Protective Edge, a fifty-day clash between Israel and Hamas. Israel entered the battle without a long-term strategy. This frustration became immediately apparent in the security cabinet on July 8, the first day of the operation. The following quotes from the protocol, as detailed in the State Comptroller’s report on decision-making during the operation, illustrate the cabinet’s frustration:

  • Yair Lapid (finance minister): “We never even held a discussion on whether we want the Hamas regime in Gaza to continue.”
  • Yuval Steinitz (minister of strategic affairs and intelligence): “We focus on tactics and run away, time after time, year after year – it’s already nine years that we’re running – from the strategic reality that’s forming right before our eyes.”
  • Yossi Cohen (national security adviser): “I define the problem for you, you should define the goal. You’re the political echelon, I’m not. It’s your job to define the goal.”

‘Not worth it’

This time the open calls for toppling Hamas came from coalition partners, especially cabinet ministers Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman. In his memoirs, Netanyahu recalled that Bennett in particular,

advocated a full-scale ground invasion to “conquer Gaza.” That could only be done with the wholesale destruction of Gaza, with tens of thousands of civilian deaths. After destroying the Hamas regime, Israel would have to govern two million Gazans for an indefinite period. I had no intention of doing that, especially since I had my gaze fixed on Iran, a much greater threat.

Netanyahu needed backup against such formidable political rivals, so he called in the troops:

Midway into the conflict, I convened the cabinet and asked the chief of staff to lay out the invasion plans and assess the toll in lives. Then I asked the Defense Ministry to assess the resources needed for the postwar administration of Gaza.

The briefing, which was leaked within a week, portrayed toppling Hamas as the worst possible option. It predicted the deaths of hundreds of soldiers and thousands of Palestinian civilians, and the abduction of other soldiers. Peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan might be jeopardized. The occupation of Gaza would cost Israel tens of billions of shekels annually, and eliminating 20,000 Hamas fighters and their arsenal would likely take no less than five years. (Whether the prime minister’s office influenced the content of this briefing warrants further investigation.)

Some cabinet ministers reportedly found the briefing unduly “pessimistic,” but Netanyahu made the call:

I believed the cost in blood and treasure was not worth it. My clear impression was that all the cabinet ministers agreed with my assessment, though they were reluctant to say so publicly.

He then gave himself points for standing up to “hypocrisy”:

In war, people expect their leaders to make the right decisions. Yet some allow themselves to irresponsibly take contrarian positions which they know are wrong. I decided against a full-scale ground invasion.

Who deterred whom?

Although an investigation might turn up more evidence, it doesn’t seem that toppling Hamas ever returned to the agenda after Operation Protective Edge. Occasional flare-ups ended in standoffs, Israel claiming each time that it had restored deterrence.

On December 12, 2019, a radio journalist asked Netanyahu whether refraining from toppling Hamas was a mistake. “We are preparing,” he said. “When you are a commander, you have to decide how to conduct the war. I won’t begin it one minute, even one second, before conditions are optimal.” He didn’t explain what constituted “optimal” conditions, which apparently never materialized over fourteen years.

It is important to note the motive that Netanyahu did not offer. He did not provide the grander strategic rationale of building up Hamas as a counterweight to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Over the years, some of his supporters and critics have claimed that leaving Hamas in place constituted an ingenious or diabolic strategy to avoid negotiations with the PA. But Netanyahu himself never said so.

In his memoirs, he speaks instead about Israeli casualties (“many hundreds on the Israeli side,” “the cost in blood,” “the toll in lives”), the burden of occupation (“tie down the IDF in Gaza for years,” “govern two million Gazans for an indefinite period,”), and the cost in Palestinian lives and property (“many thousands on the Palestinian side,” “the wholesale destruction of Gaza, with tens of thousands of civilian deaths”), for which Israel would be condemned.

In short, to judge from his memoirs, Netanyahu only strategized over Iran (the “bigger fish”). Hamas was a distracting sideshow; toppling it wasn’t part of the grand Iran strategy, and “not worth” the cost “in blood and treasure.” This is classic deterrence, and Hamas achieved it, even as Netanyahu boasted that he’d deterred Hamas.

Courage vs. caution

David Ben-Gurion will always be synonymous with May 14, 1948, the day he declared Israel’s independence. On that Friday, he displayed extraordinary political courage. Ben-Gurion was determined to overturn the status quo and create a state. Despite warnings against declaring independence from the United States and his generals’ assessments that the chances of victory were only fifty-fifty against Arab armies, Ben-Gurion took that chance. He forged ahead regardless of the cost. Israel’s very existence today is a testament to his unwavering resolve, demonstrated under circumstances far from “optimal.”

Benjamin Netanyahu will always be synonymous with October 7, 2023. His approach was one of political caution, aiming to maintain power and the status quo with minimal cost. He promised to topple Hamas when it appeared electorally advantageous, but abandoned this pledge when it seemed politically risky. When his generals painted a pessimistic picture, he readily embraced it. His associates may even have leaked it, to justify his restraint. Netanyahu’s belief that leaders should wait for “optimal” conditions before taking decisive action effectively became an excuse for inaction.

Now he has been forced to wage a war he did everything to avoid, following the worst catastrophe in the annals of modern Israel. “This is our second War of Independence,” Netanyahu has declared. He has secured his place in history by undoing a small part of the first one.

Election banner, 2006: “Strong Against Hamas: Only the Likud [and] Netanyahu.”
About the Author
Martin Kramer is a historian of the Middle East at Tel Aviv University and the Walter P. Stern fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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