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For Netanyahu, diplomacy is more dangerous than war

Even if a military conflict erupts, Netanyahu is unlikely to be the one who initiates it. His bigger problem could be a new diplomatic initiative by the Palestinian Authority and growing isolation.

By Amos Harel | Mar. 20, 2015 | 7:32 PM
Netanyahu Jordan Valley GPO 8.3.11
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is accompanied by female IDF soldiers during a tour of the Jordan Valley, March 8, 2011. Photo by Moshe Milner / GPO
In the wake of Likud’s election victory and the right-wing government likely to be established in its wake, a relatively clear picture emerges of how Israel will deal with the political-security situation, at least for the next year or two.

The fourth coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu will have fewer internal contradictions than its predecessor, in which competing ideological camps vied for supremacy. Although Moshe Kahlon looks to be the most moderate member of the next government, he too is not so far ideologically from Netanyahu.

Israel’s security challenges will not necessarily be different under the new government. Here’s a rundown of the major issues.

1. The next war: A common reaction by Israeli left-wingers to the election results – in addition to checking whether their passport is valid and declaring the imminent demise of the country – concerns a possible looming war. They maintain that a government led by Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman will definitely lead the country into a war – with the Palestinians, with Iran, with Hezbollah or with all of the above together. In practice, Netanyahu’s record in his three previous governments has reflected a different approach.

Only at the beginning of his first term in office, in 1996, did the premier show security adventurism. After he opened the Western Wall tunnel, a move that led to the first extensive confrontation with the Palestinian Authority, and after the failed attempt to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, which led to the release of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin from prison – Netanyahu became cautious. So much so, that he even signed the Hebron agreements and Wye agreements, in which he committed himself to further withdrawals in the West Bank.

In his second and third terms, Netanyahu launched two military operations in the Gaza Strip, but only under obvious duress. He only authorized Operation Pillar of Defense, in November 2012, on the eve of the previous election, when Hamas tried to change the status quo along the border with the Strip by force, volleys of rockets had struck the Israeli communities near Gaza, and Netanyahu was attacked in the media for abandoning the residents of thos communities to the mercies of Hamas. Even so, he limited the operation to eight days and refrained from launching a ground assault.

Last summer, in a war that he continues to insist on referring to as an “operation” – a description that doesn’t reflect its scope – Operation Protective Edge – Netanyahu did all he could to avoid being dragged into ground warfare. But just as it was Hamas that deliberately escalated the situation in an attempt to breach the Israeli-Egyptian siege of the Gaza Strip, the continued firing of rockets by the Islamist organization and its dispatch of terrorist squads into the Negev through attack tunnels forced Netanyahu to order a limited ground operation, 10 days after the fighting began. However, neither Netanyahu nor Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon even considered the option of reconquering the Gaza Strip and toppling the Hamas government. They made do with an incursion of one kilometer from the border to deal with the tunnels.

Looking at Netanyahu’s combined nine years in office as prime minister, one can only conclude that a large disparity exists between his grimly determined public rhetoric and his deeds in practice. He is more cautious than his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, in the use of military force, preferring to avoid broad confrontations as long as he is not forced into them by political constraints.

The danger of another war lies in the impossible circumstances of the current Middle Eastern reality: multiple conflicts and the presence in the region of a large number of local factions that are mutually hostile but share a hatred of Israel. The erosion of the traditional deterrent equation in the face of the regimes of the neighboring states increases the probability of an exchange of hostilities that could eventuate in war. However, Netanyahu’s response will not necessarily differ from the responses of Olmert, Ariel Sharon or (in the fantasies of the left) Isaac Herzog.

2. Personnel appointments: Likud’s decisive victory over the left heightened Netanyahu’s bargaining power in the negotiations with his relatively small coalition partners. The election results make it most likely that Ya’alon will continue to hold the defense portfolio. Ya’alon is loyal to Netanyahu and usually keeps things quiet on the security front, except when he lets slip an insulting comment about the U.S. administration. Netanyahu will also decide alone on the two major appointments in the security realm during the next two years: new chiefs for the Shin Bet security service and the Mossad.

3. Palestinian front: This is where the main threat to Netanyahu lies in the near future. It will start with Palestinian membership in the International Criminal Court in the Hague, which is scheduled to take effect on April 1, but will certainly not end there. “France is expected to submit a renewed motion for the end of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank at the United Nations, through the Security Council. The United States will reconsider its policy of casting a veto whenever blatantly anti-Israel resolutions come before the council. The European Union will be quicker to condemn all construction that’s uncovered in the settlements. This time around, the danger looms that Israel will pay a higher price in the form of diplomatic isolation, expanding boycott initiatives and even some economic harm.

In the next government, Netanyahu will no longer have Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni to act as partial validation for his policy in the eyes of the international community. It’s also unlikely that even the delaying tactics of attorney Isaac Molho, Netanyahu’s representative to the peace negotiations, will be able to persuade the international community of the premier’s good intentions – all the more so after he retracted support for the two-states-for-two-peoples vision under the pressure of the the election campaign’s final days.

In these circumstances, the Palestinians do not necessarily need a third intifada to advance their cause. It’s enough for them to exert political and diplomatic pressure – but they are threatening more than that. Jibril Rajoub, the former head of the Palestinian Preventive Security Force and now deputy secretary of Fatah’s Central Committee, said on Wednesday, after the election results were known, that the place of the 1994 Paris accords (in the economic realm) and of security coordination with Israel is “in the garbage heap of history.”

4. Iranian nuclear project: Israel’s influence is now apparently quite limited on this issue. Instead of trying to add his input to the agreement of principle being worked out between Iran and the major powers, Netanyahu opted for a frontal clash with the United States, peaking with his speech to Congress. If a full agreement is reached by the end-of-June target date, the prime minister can be expected to adopt a highly critical stance toward it. That is unlikely to be translated into use of the military option, however. At the moment, it looks as though Netanyahu missed that particular boat toward the end of his second term, in 2012.

In the meantime, Iran is altering its balance of power with Israel by means of intervention in the neighboring states. For the first time, the presence of personnel from the Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah combatants on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights has created a kind of common border between Iran and Israel, stretching from the northern Golan Heights to Rosh Hanikra on the Mediterranean.

This week it was reported that the annual report of the U.S. intelligence community does not include Iran and Hezbollah on the list of threats to U.S. security interests. The Iranian news agency Fars, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard, reported this development enthusiastically, claiming that it was proof of the improvement in Iran-U.S. relations, due in part to the negotiations toward a possible agreement on the nuclear project. We’ll have to wait and see, but new times are definitely at hand in the region.

5. Ties with the U.S.: Netanyahu has derailed relations with Washington more than any Israeli prime minister before him. But it’s likely that President Barack Obama, as a politician, is able to analyze and evaluate correctly a demonstration of strength by another politician, as in the case of Netanyahu’s sweeping victory in this week’s election. It remains to be seen how far the president will use his remaining year and 10 months in office to make the premier’s life miserable. There is quite a bit on the agenda concerning the two countries, apart from the question of the Security Council veto.

A critical question concerns the speed with which the United States will stand behind Israel in the event of another military confrontation in the region. Much of the might attributed to Israel by its neighbors is related to the strong American backing Israel enjoys. Israeli deterrence is dependent on this. And in this connection, it’s worth recalling that the current defense aid agreement, which gives Israel $3.1 billion a year from American-taxpayer funds, concludes in 2017. The two sides are expected to discuss the terms for a new agreement in the coming months.

6. Whither the IDF?: Netanyahu’s declarations in the past two years indicate that he believes the defense budget should be increased, given the regional tumult and the dangers developing on Israel’s borders. Those declarations will have to meet a practical test, due to the necessity of addressing the housing crisis and the other social-welfare issues with which the next government will have to cope. Within the Israel Defense Forces, there is increased awareness of the limitations that were revealed in Israel’s military capability during last summer’s war, and of what can be gleaned from this in regard to a possible new confrontation, this time in the northern arena.

However, to bring about far-reaching structural reforms, the new chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, will need the backing of the prime minister and the defense minister. Neither Netanyahu nor Ya’alon is considered an innovator in the security realm. The danger is that the two will persuade themselves that what happened last summer was, in general, acceptable and doesn’t call for a more serious overhaul.

The composition of the new coalition could also impact on military planning in the personnel sphere. Under pressure by Lapid and his Yesh Atid party, the previous Knesset passed a law mandating an equal “sharing of the burden.” Within that framework, a somewhat more rigid draft model was imposed (declaratively, though not yet in practice) on the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim; it was also decided to shorten the length of compulsory service for all men drafted beginning in August 2015. The Haredi parties in the coalition will seek to annul the criminal sanctions stipulated by the law (a demand to which Netanyahu is responsive), and the IDF will certainly exploit the first sign of security escalation to request a reconsideration of the abridgement of service. In both cases, the changes introduced in the last Knesset might be annulled.