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article imageOp-Ed: Is Benjamin Netanyahu a weak leader?

By Paul Iddon     Nov 22, 2012 in Politics
Israel's decision to accept a ceasefire with Hamas coupled with an upcoming election there signals an apt time to evaluate whether or not Netanyahu is a weak leader.
'Bibi loser' was how what sixteen Israeli soldiers lying on the ground angled their bodies to spell in Hebrew. This photograph, which has gone viral, was aptly described as “a deft physical critique of Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu's failure to send ground troops into Gaza during the just-ended Operation Pillar of Defense.”
It also raises the question of whether or not Netanyahu is, as those soldiers implied, a weak leader. It is noteworthy to point out that this latest operation in Gaza was Israel's first war with Netanyahu as Prime Minister. It is also worth noting that it was his predecessor Ehud Olmert who claimed last month that Netanyahu's "government is all talk; at least I acted.”
Olmert was clearly referring to the two wars Israel fought while he was Prime Minister. The first one was 2006 Lebanon War against the Hezbollah, which ended after three weeks of fighting with a ceasefire. The second one was the 2008/2009 Cast Lead operation in Gaza, which also ended with a ceasefire after some three weeks fighting against Hamas.
While Netanyahu on the other hand served his first term in office, back in the 1990s, just before the outbreak of the Second Intifada and just after the 'Grapes of Wrath' campaign in Lebanon. He strove at that time to ensure that negotiations with the PLO didn't lead to the formation of what he potentially saw as a 'terrorist state' alongside Israel. He had also throughout the 1990's warned of the imminent danger of the Iranian regime acquiring a nuclear weapons capability by the year 2000. A claim he recently reiterated (with a slightly amended and updated schedule of what he sees as an imminent nuclear breakthrough) in front of the United Nations with a cartoon bomb with some percentages written on it that illustrated when he believed the Iranians would have 'the bomb', and, where 'the line' should be drawn in accordance with that intelligence.
However, unlike Olmert, it cannot be said of Netanyahu that he hasn't served and fought for his country. His brother, the famous Sayeret Matkal commander Yonathon Netanyahu who died whilst rescuing Israeli hostages in Entebbe, Uganda is by all accounts a legend in the Israeli military establishment. The younger 'Bibi' was in the same elite unit and served in the War of Attrition and was involved in the hostage-rescue special forces mission of the hijacked Sabena Flight 571 in 1972. During the Yom Kippur War Benjamin was involved in special forces raids along the Suez Canal as well as the leader of a commando mission that operated deep in enemy Syrian territory. One could therefore argue that Netanyahu knows the risk of war and is acting in accordance with his own experiences on the battlefield. Olmert on the other hand, while he did lead Israel to war on the two aforementioned occasions never did full military service, instead he undertook an arranged journalist job with the army so he could have it on his resume.
The manner in which Israel's present ceasefire with Hamas is being carried out is similar to how those previous two wars ended. Hamas is once again left in power, whilst its military ability has been significantly reduced (the extent to which I'd wager we need more time to evaluate) and it has afflicted far less casualties and damage to Israel it is still claiming victory. As was the case with Hezbollah in 2006, Hamas, merely through the fact that it survived the war is declaring victory, claiming that it faced down the Israelis and will ultimately come out triumphant in the long term.
Support for the ground invasion wasn't very strong in Israel throughout the operation. Many psyched up Israeli soldiers doubtlessly were ready to risk their lives and go into Gaza to confront head on the terror threat their fellow citizens faced from Hamas. Nevertheless, from Netanyahu's position one suspects that he may have been doubtful if public opinion would support such an invasion with a risk of heavy casualties. As well as this he must have realized that if he was going in they would have had to completely root out Hamas. Not only would dead Israeli soldiers reflect badly politically on his re-election campaign, but sending 70,000 Israeli troops into Gaza without a clear plan of action could have resulted in an even longer war, one that the public may not have supported for very long -- if at all from the beginning.
Ari Shavit outlined the other day what he saw as a good course of action to take, and recommended that Israel not spoil the small victory it had won over Hamas. Hence the destruction of its long range rockets and several other such weaponry along with the targeted assassination of the key Hamas leader. Shavit, quite rightly, pointed out that:
just as in 2006 and again in 2008, Israel did not stop in time. Israel did not quit while it was ahead. And so, over the past three days, the impressive achievements of Operation Pillar of Defense have faded away while the operations negative consequences have become more clear-cut. Israel's ability to strike at Hamas militants from the air was significantly reduced, while the harm it caused to innocent civilians significantly increased.
An attempt by the Israelis to root out Hezbollah fighters at the end of the last Lebanon War saw to a poorly planned and rushed ground operation that wasn't properly executed before the Security Council Resolution that brought about a ceasefire and the end of the war was implemented (one incident, the 'Battle of Wadi Saluki' saw several Israeli Merkava tanks, without air or artillery support, ambushed by Hezbollah fighters sporting anti-tank missiles that they used to successfully kill 12 Israeli soldiers when they hit eleven of their tanks). That ill-organized campaign needlessly endangered many Israeli soldiers lives and has rightfully been surmised as a microcosm of that wars mistakes.
A long and protracted ground war in Gaza is not what Israel needs right now. It has achieved a short term tactical victory in Gaza, since they survived, Hamas is obviously going to loudly proclaim that they are victorious, that was to be expected. But in the broader scope of things and given the volatile situation on its borders and beyond, Israel may be facing greater dangers in the future. Say what you want about Netanyahu, but he is clearly looking at the bigger picture, and if an existential threat to his country emerges that needs to be confronted Israeli morale will be essential in doing so. Being mired in a ground occupation of Gaza with the strong possibility of incurring casualties and inadvertently afflicting them on the civilian population in Gaza, whilst fighting Hamas in the narrow urban confinements of Gaza City, is something that is bound to garner international condemnation. These are factors that will serve to gradually erode Israeli morale and may in turn weaken the resolve of the country's citizenry in the long run.
So I would contend that this ceasefire was a sign of careful calculation on behalf of Netanyahu as opposed to weakness and indecisiveness. A short and decisive blow to Hamas' military capabilities in eight days of fighting was perhaps as far as Israel should have for all intents-and-purposes logically went. Netanyahu arguably believes in his worldview that this was enough for the moment. As a leader he needs his forces ready, morally and mentally to have the resolve and reserve to face down and if need be, be prepared to fight any adversary and prevail.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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