Addressing his cabinet yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu said that Israel does not want a war in Gaza. One of Netanyahu’s aides said, “There’s a sensitive situation in the Middle East, which is one big boiling pot; there’s the international arena; [and] there’s the Palestinian move in the United Nations in September… On the other hand, if we locate a terrorist cell en route to launching rockets or carrying out an attack on the [border] fence, we won’t hesitate to strike at them.” Assuming the aid’s comments truly reflect Bibi’s thoughts, the prime minister has made a very wise decision.
Israel reserves the right to defend its people and territory and should continue to go after those in Gaza caught launching mortars and rockets, regardless of who they are and any cease fire put in place. However, a full-scale invasion, which some Israeli politicians and citizens are calling for, would be ill-advised. The Middle East is a different place than when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead. Unlike in 2009, Egypt, who is now trying to be the unofficial mediator for all things related to the Palestinians, would likely break off formal ties with Israel as a result of any kind of invasion. Turkey would probably follow suit. And what if Hezbollah got involved in attempts to boost its popularity? For the sake of regional stability, Israel cannot afford an invasion. It also cannot allow itself to fall into even deeper isolation than it already has. Instead, it should continue to work on its security around the Sinai, including offering assistance to help Egypt with its Bedouin problems; continue to develop more batteries for Iron Dome, and continue its attempts to mend relations with both Egypt and Turkey.
Returning to Bibi, his aid’s comments reflect several things. First, Bibi has thought about and understands what I wrote above. Second, he doesn’t want to give the Palestinians any political ammunition going into their push for UN recognition in September. And third, on a more individual level, he is well aware of the potential domestic repercussions of a botched or merely unsuccessful invasion. Unless substantial amounts of rockets continue to hit and paralyze massive amounts of Israel’s population in the next week or two, an invasion of Gaza will lead many to accuse him of trying to further distract the public from their social protests. Bibi’s seat as Prime Minister is more than warm and there is already talk of early elections. The unnecessary death of Israeli soldiers, in the wake of social protests, would all but guarantee the end of his premiership. Currently, the only reasonable argument for an invasion would be to secure the power of deterrence. At the moment, however, this shouldn’t be a priority, especially because it’s clear that the enemy is far inferior militarily.
Regardless of what the overriding factor was in Bibi’s decision to play it cool, it was the right move. The hope is that by putting away some pride in the short term, Israel will benefit in the long term. But, as the world has seen over the last year, things can change in the Middle East in the blink of an eye.