Four years ago, 21 days since the beginning of operation “Cast Lead”, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared that: “the Cabinet has agreed to comply with my offer and order a cease fire”. Last week Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu gave a similar statement in which he declared that a cease fire has been taken into effect. Unlike Olmert, Bibi agreed to a cease fire after 8 days of aerial bombardment, much to the upset of many Israelis who expected a harsh Israeli ground offensive that will give a big blow to Hamas. The two Gaza campaigns share striking similarities, therefore stands the question: why did Netanyahu who is more hawkish and more politically aware than Olmert decided to stop the fighting after one week only?
In his speech at the press conference that ended operation “Pillar of Defense” Bibi explained that “while taking into account all considerations – military and political alike. This is what a responsible government does”. An analysis of the political and military considerations shows that Bibi indeed, maybe for the first time as Prime Minister, acted not just as a bright politician but also as a well calculated statesman.
Looking first at the regional geo-political reality, it indeed demonstrates the biggest difficulty which Israel has to deal with today. At the press conference Bibi explained that: “Since its inception Israel has faced complex situations and challenges and these complexities have increased”. The translation to his diplomatic rhetoric is that unlike the pre-Arab Spring era where stability and decision makers could be predicted, the Middle East today is a volatile, unexpected danger zone that holds higher risk for conflicts or even a regional war. It is difficult to predict what would be Egypt’s, Syria’s or Hezbollah’s response in case of an Israeli invasion to Gaza. Moreover, the one important lesson Bibi learned from “Cast Lead” was that Israel received unparalleled criticism when it launched its ground offensive. In the current operation, the death of the Dalu family by an Israeli air-strike has seemed to turn the tide in terms of pro-Israeli international media coverage. It is likely that a continuation of the operation would result in many more Palestinian civilian deaths and a possible second “Goldstone Report” was taken as another consideration. Finally, Bibi considered maintaining good relations with the US and maybe even getting some promises regarding the Iranian issue rather than disrupting relations with Obama so early in his second term.
Strategic considerations were of course not the only drive behind the ceasefire decision. Bibi did not earned his reputation as an incomparable politician for nothing. Despite and being aware of some of his voters’ discontent with not invading into Gaza, Bibi reckoned that a ground offensive could cost many Israeli casualties and that would have the same effect on his voters as not invading at all. In addition, right wing voters who got disappointed from his decisions could only go far more right – due to his coalition with Avigdor Liberman and he would lose only minimal number of potential votes. Lastly, it is likely that in the next two months until elections, the effect Bibi created just by changing the national agenda from social welfare to security would earn him enough mandates than he would risk in expending the military operation.
In his article in Haaretz newspaper from November 23rd, Yossi Verter quoted Bibi when he was talking to his close advisers These words tell in sum what was his decision making process:
“Sometimes it is hard not to be carried away. I remember what happened to my predecessor (Olmert) at a certain point the events took over his judgment…I know where the public is but I saw the wider picture: we have more and less important enemies. We take care of them according to our priorities. We have neighbors, they are important too. We have others fronts. You must consider the entire picture“.
Bibi learned his lesson. The ground offensive in “Cast Lead” could have cost Ulmert the elections and cost Israel unprecedented condemnation. Adding to the cost-benefit analysis the current fragile Middle Eastern environment, Bibi took the easy way out. This is not to say that under different circumstances he wouldn’t risk negative costs to his actions. A regional war, harming relations with Obama and international condemnation is definitely a risk Bibi or any other Israeli government would consider. However, Bibi’s number one priority has always been Iran and in his words he clearly talks about priorities. Once he is reelected in January, his set of considerations will miss one big electoral element and deciding on the next war against Iran, Hezbollah or once again Hamas will be much easier.