Spare a moment to reflect on the hardship of being Binyamin Netanyahu this week. Actually, don’t. He’s a very powerful man and deserves none of our emotional support. Still, the position he finds himself in is quite instructive, far beyond the impact of the present news cycle.
As a leader of the opposition Netanyahu routinely taunted the government by promising that when he returned to power he’d act decisively and effectively against Palestinian violence. Israeli social media is full of his erstwhile plans for Hamas in Gaza, which he promised to rout once and for all. Yet here he is, starting the week by authorizing the transfer of millions of dollars from Qatar to bolster the rule of Hamas in Gaza, then sending the IAF to carefully bomb a series of pre-marked targets in Gaza, then accepting a cease-fire with Hamas, then watching his coalition crumble. His political allies and rivals will use all this to attack him for his indecisiveness.
Part of this is that Netanyahu truly dislikes sending soldiers to their deaths. I once saw this close up, . Yet there’s an important structural explanation which needs elucidating, and that is the darker and often overlooked side of the vaunted “managing the conflict” policy.
Arguably, this policy has been the central plank of Israel’s behavior since the failure of the Oslo Process. If one assumes the most Israel can offer the Palestinians is considerably less than the minimum they demand in return for ending the conflict – or, vice versa, the most the Palestinians can offer Israel is less than the Israelis demand to hand over full control to a sovereign Palestinian State – then there’s no chance of peace. Or at least, there’s no chance until one of the sides changes its fundamental position. The goal then becomes managing the conflict with a minimum of violence, not trying to end it. Most Israelis, with the exception of the political extremes, subscribe to some version of this policy. It may well be that a majority of Palestinians also accept it, probably hoping that someday Israel will tire and waver. Well-meaning foreigners such as Barack Obama and John Kerry keep on hoping to break this model, and they keep on failing.
But there’s a snag: managing means you don’t make a dash towards peace, which is unachievable. It also means, however, that you never convincingly defeat your enemy. Managing is predicated on the enemy’s permanence. You can’t reach an agreement that will make the enmity go away; but nor can you take military measures that will make the enemy go away. As Netanyahu knows, the IDF could conquer Gaza and kill most of the leaders of Hamas. And then what? Would Hamas’ ideology of hitting Israel until some day it collapses, also go away? It wouldn’t. Would a new chapter of Israeli rule in Gaza do anyone any good? Most certainly not.
And so Netanyahu the Prime Minister does the opposite of what Netanyahu the opposition leader said he would. He tries to contain Hamas and limit its harm, while bolstering Hamas so that it bears responsibility for Gaza; better they than we. His gamble is that most Israelis understand what he’s doing and grudgingly agree: and they’ll give him yet another electoral victory sometime in 2019.