Analysis from Israel

Usually, a war with so few gains would cost the PM public support. This time, the opposite occurred

Even back in the middle of last week, when it still seemed as if Hamas might actually have ceased its fire, only a minority of Israelis thought Israel had won the war. In three different polls, sizable majorities – ranging from 59 percent to 78 percent – termed the war at best a draw, and perhaps even an Israeli defeat; only 21% to 41% deemed it an Israeli victory. Thus, one would expect Israelis to be angry at the prime minister who presided over this fiasco. Instead, Binyamin Netanyahu’s handling of the war was approved by 59% of respondents in one poll and a whopping 77% in another.

Analysts as diverse as the centrist Shmuel Rosner and the left-wing Haaretz’s Yossi Verter explained this anomaly as reflecting a recognition that defeating Hamas isn’t possible, so a tie was the best that could be achieved. Yet that explanation doesn’t jibe with another poll finding: A majority of Israelis wanted to continue the operation rather than ending it. That makes no sense if they actually thought the operation had achieved the maximum possible; who in Israel would want IDF soldiers to continue dying in Gaza for nothing? Indeed, respondents even told pollsters which additional goals they wanted achieved: eliminating Hamas’s rocket capabilities, topping Gaza’s Hamas government, targeting Hamas leaders.

Thus a more plausible explanation stems from the epiphany produced by one of the war’s defining moments: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s July 25 cease-fire proposal. This proposal, which incorporated most of Hamas’ demands but none of Israel’s, was rejected by Israel’s entire political spectrum in an unprecedented display of unanimity.

Four days later, a Channel 1 television report reinforced this epiphany: It described an angry phone call in which U.S. President Barack Obama demanded that Netanyahu declare an immediate, unilateral cease-fire and then let Turkey and Qatar negotiate a more permanent truce. When Netanyahu protested that Qatar and Turkey aren’t honest brokers, but Hamas’s main patrons, Obama replied that he trusts them, and Israel is in no position to choose its mediators.

Both men’s spokespeople denied the report, but many Israelis found it credible, because the message it sent was identical to that sent by Kerry’s cease-fire proposal: In this war, Washington was effectively siding with Hamas against Israel. That Israelis indeed reached this conclusion is evident from another shocking poll finding: By a margin of more than 2-1 (65% to 29%), Israelis don’t “trust the U.S. in the negotiations with Hamas.” By contrast, they do trust Egypt, by almost the same margin (66% to 23%). In 27 years in Israel, I can’t remember another time when Israelis trusted any country more than America, much less an Arab one. After all, the U.S. has long been Israel’s staunchest friend and ally – and still is, where the American public and Congress are concerned.

But in late July, Israelis were forced to face the unpleasant truth that Obama is not – and that consequently, for the first time since the 1956 Sinai Campaign, Israel was fighting a war in which the White House actively backed its enemies. Certainly, other U.S. presidents have opposed Israeli military operations and tried to limit their achievements. But Obama sought an actual Israeli defeat: a deal that would satisfy Hamas’s demands instead of Israel’s.

Once having recognized this, Israelis also recognized that Netanyahu may have done the most anyone could have in a nearly impossible situation. True, he was visibly loath to take any military action against Hamas at all, and once pushed into it, he seemed to have no effective military plan; merely destroying 32 tunnels is a pathetic accomplishment for a month-long battle against a terrorist group with only a fraction of IDF’s firepower and manpower. Thus under other circumstances, Israelis would have criticized him for wasting a golden opportunity to defeat Hamas. After all, they remember quite well that the IDF defeated terror in the West Bank just a decade ago, so while they understand that defeating Hamas would be harder and entail more casualties, they don’t buy the argument that it’s impossible.

But with the White House on Hamas’s side, the lengthy war necessary to actually defeat Hamas simply wasn’t an option. Even extracting enough leeway for the limited task of destroying the tunnels required consummate diplomatic skill. So despite deploring the war’s meager military achievements, Israelis gave Netanyahu full credit for his adroit handling of its diplomatic side – credit he will retain as long as he refrains from accepting a bad cease-fire deal that lets Hamas rearm and rebuild its tunnels.

This, ironically, is the exact opposite of what Obama intended, as evidenced by his New York Times interview last week. In that interview, Obama declared that given Israel’s military capabilities, he doesn’t “worry about Israel’s survival.” But he does worry about Netanyahu having too much public support, because if the prime minister “doesn’t feel some internal pressure,” he’ll be “too strong” to be forced into making the massive concessions to the Palestinians Obama wants. In other words, Obama isn’tbothered by the prospect of an empowered Hamas capable of launching even more rockets and building even more cross-border attack tunnels; what bothers him is the prospect of an empowered Netanyahu.

Thus to Obama, siding with Hamas against Israel must have seemed like a twofer: It would advance his goal of rapprochement with Hamas’s long-time patron, Iran, while also weakening Netanyahu. After all, prime ministers who preside over unsuccessful wars usually lose public support. But as usual, Obama completely misunderstood the Israeli public. A classic example is the serial fights he picked with Netanyahu over construction in Jerusalem: He hoped Israelis would blame their premier for endangering the precious U.S. alliance, but by attacking a core Israeli interest, he instead forced even the left to rally behind Netanyahu. And now, he has done it again by siding with Hamas against Israel.

For he thereby gave Netanyahu the only possible legitimate excuse for what would otherwise be an inexcusable failure to finally eliminate Hamas’ ability to terrorize Israel.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post

Subscribe to Evelyn’s Mailing List

Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

Read more