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In Israel, war is only for the weak

Why did Prime Minister Netanyahu avoid a bigger fight in Gaza this month?

A round of violence near the Gaza border earlier this month began when Hamas fighters discovered an elite Israeli military unit operating undercover in Gaza. A battle ensued. Seven Palestinian fighters were killed, and Hamas responded predictably: by firing rockets into Israel.

But then things took a less predictable turn when Hamas initiated another attack, and then another. Hundreds of rockets were fired into Israel; Israelis had to hide in shelters. Houses were hit; there were wounded people. One person was killed by a rocket attack.

The Israeli public wasn’t pleased. Many people wanted to see more effective deterrence measures against Hamas. The defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, thought that the public had a point. He asked that the cabinet approve heavier bombing and possibly even the use of ground forces to teach Hamas leaders a lesson. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though, rejected this position. Instead, he initiated a cease-fire.

In the eyes of many Israelis, Mr. Netanyahu’s choice was both humiliating and dangerous. Hamas had fired hundreds of rockets at Israel and gotten away with it, weakening the perception of Israeli resolve. Polls taken after the cease-fire went into effect showed that more than 70 percent of the public did not approve of Mr. Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis.

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Mr. Lieberman was frustrated with the outcome, and he sensed a political opportunity. He quit his job as defense minister and pulled his party out of the governing coalition, rocking the foundations of one of Israel’s longest-serving governments.

It’s not every day that politicians go against an overwhelming sentiment of the public. And yet, Mr. Netanyahu did just that. Why he did isn’t entirely clear. He argued that there were facts that he wasn’t able to share with the public. Speaking at the 45th memorial for David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu compared himself to the founding father: “In times of trial, Ben-Gurion made fateful decisions. Sometimes he did so contrary to popular opinion, but over time, these decisions turned out to be correct,” he said.

If he is still in office this spring, Mr. Netanyahu’s tenure will surpass Ben-Gurion’s, making him the longest-serving Israeli prime minister since Israel’s birth. Mr. Netanyahu has been able to pull this off because he is an adept politician. And it was that skillfulness that was on display when he decided to offer the cease-fire in Gaza, despite Hamas’s provocations and Mr. Lieberman’s complaints.

When rockets fall or buses explode in terror attacks, launching grand military operations, even going to war, is an easier decision for Israeli politicians than exercising caution. That’s because over many years, Israelis have learned to mistrust diplomacy and fancy arrangements and instead to put their faith in the one thing that rarely seems to fail them: Israel’s military.

So military action is popular. And that’s why using force is what relatively weak prime ministers tend to do. History shows this: In 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak did not restrain the forcesresponding to riots that became the Second Intifada. In 2006, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert launched a war in Lebanon in response to Hezbollah attacks on Israel’s northern border. Mr. Barak was a lame duck with no parliamentary majority when violence broke out. Mr. Olmert was an accidental prime minister who had stepped into office just half a year earlier, as an uninspiring replacement for the ailing Ariel Sharon.

Stronger leaders, on the other hand, take their time as they ponder their options. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who led one of the most right-wing coalitions in Israel’s history, resisted the pressure to respond militarily to missile attacks during the Persian Gulf war. Mr. Sharon, who did not have much need to convince the public that he was tough, waited more than a year, amid growing criticism, until launching a comprehensive counterattack in the West Bank to thwart the Second Intifada.

And now, it was Mr. Netanyahu’s time to show restraint. Like Mr. Shamir’s coalition, the current coalition is hawkish. Like Mr. Sharon, Mr. Netanyahu has already waged a war in Gaza, so no one ought to wonder whether he has the spine to fight when necessary. In short, Mr. Netanyahu’s forbearance was neither because of fear of war, nor because of fear of political ramifications.

Was restraint the right call? It’s hard to say, of course. The public — or, for that matter, a columnist — never knows everything about why a prime minister does what he does, what intelligence and military plans he has access to. And so, as with all security decisions, there’s a leap of faith involved. The public has to trust that the prime minister is the right person to handle the situation, even if it does not know what, exactly, the situation entails.

Mr. Netanyahu seems to understand something that some of his colleagues, like Mr. Lieberman (with Education Minister Naftali Bennett playing second fiddle), fail to grasp: A right-wing Israeli leader has to gain the people’s trust, and he must do that by demonstrating that he is cautious and considerate. That’s precisely what Mr. Netanyahu did by not rushing into a new conflict in Gaza.

It’s quite likely that someday — maybe only after he is re-elected, possibly earlier — the prime minister will again face the need to send troops to battle. When this happens, Mr. Netanyahu will have a better case to make. When this happens, it will be easier, even for some of his foes, to trust him to make a call based on merit, not political calculation.

COVER PHOTO: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, center, in a cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem this month.CreditCreditPool photo by Abir Sultan, via Associated Press

Shmuel Rosner (@rosnersdomain) is the political editor at The Jewish Journal, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and a contributing opinion writer.

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