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

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Israel’s unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

The biggest problem isn’t that many important issues will perforce go unaddressed, though that’s inevitable given the compromises required when neither bloc can govern on its own. Nor is it the risk that the government will be dysfunctional even on “consensual” issues like rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis, though this risk is real, since both sides’ leaders will have veto power over every government decision.

Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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