Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been under heavy fire from left-wing opponents, often rightfully so, for his settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and making combative remarks regarding Palestinian leaders. Nevertheless, many of Netanyahu’s critics both in Israel and abroad fail to recognize that Netanyahu has been one of the most restrained Israeli Prime Ministers when considering using force and has judiciously utilized the Israeli Army even after repeated Arab provocations. In this regard Netanyahu deserves credit— without his restraint the situation between Israel and its neighbors could be far worse.
European leaders have been critical of Netanyahu with the foreign minister of Luxemburg Jean Asselborn exclaiming, “Netanyahu’s refusal of peace based on the 1967 lines is arrogant…. If Israel continues its obstinacy” then Europe will consider sanctions.
While quick to condemn Netanyahu, these same leaders tend to ignore Netanyahu’s restrained security policy. On three separate occasions in 2013, rockets were launched from the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt at the southern Israeli city of Eilat, prompting the closure of Eilat’s airport and disrupting the tourist season. This fire was a clear violation of Israel’s sovereignty and targeted innocent civilians. Nonetheless, Netanyahu was sensitive to the complex security situation in Sinai with the Egyptian government. After militants in Sinai attacked Israel with rocket fire on August 12th, Netanyahu did not respond against the Egyptian military or strike terrorist cells within the Egyptian territory. It is doubtful that America or other Western countries would have acted with such restraint following an attack on their sovereign land.
Militants in southern Lebanon further tested Israel’s patience last week by launching four rockets into northern Israel. It is important to recognize that the area where the rockets landed is not occupied territory and is recognized by virtually the entire international community as a part of Israel. This unprovoked attack would naturally invite a harsh response from Netanyahu. However, instead of launching what could have been a more vicious attack, the Israeli military carried out a judicious air strike targeting militant cells in Lebanon and not even causing a single casualty. Although the Lebanese government is technically in control over the entire country and Hezbollah is also a dominant force in southern Lebanon, Israel refrained from targeting these two forces. Instead of intensifying the conflict after its citizens were attacked, Israel focused on minimizing future confrontation.
In addition to the chaos originating from Lebanon and Egypt, Israel also has been facing threats on a third front: Syria. The Syrian civil war has been raging for the past two years and repeated mortar fire has landed in the Israeli controlled Golan Heights. Since Netanyahu has vowed that Israel wishes to remain outside of this ongoing conflict, he has only authorized pinpointed strikes against Syrian targets following multiple mortar fire from Syria. Netanyahu has not received enough credit for preventing Israel from getting dragged into this bloody war.
Netanyahu has shown similar restraint in the Palestinian territories responding to security threats with more caution than his left-wing predecessor, Ehud Olmert. Since the beginning of Netanyahu’s term in 2009 slightly over 500 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces. In contrast, during Olmert’s reign of only three years, Israeli forces killed three times as many Palestinians. Furthermore, one must not forget that Olmert launched two lethal wars, in Lebanon and Gaza, while Netanyahu has restrained the Israeli military and only began one relatively contained military operation in Gaza after repeated rocket fire into Israel.
Those who criticize Netanyahu’s settlement policies and other actions that inhibit the peace process are correct. Yet, they often ignore his laudable record on security issues and his determination to reduce reducing conflicts in the region. If tensions do rise in the coming weeks, we should remember which countries are inflaming hostilities in the region and which country is doing its best to reduce them.
Aaron Magid is an M.A. candidate at Harvard University in Middle Eastern Studies. He is a staff writer for the Jerusalem Review of Near Eastern Affairs. His work has previously appeared in the Daily Beast, Jerusalem Post, and the Forward. He can be reached via Twitter @AaronMagid