At the beginning of this year, as speculation over whether Israel was preparing to strike Iran’s nuclear program reached something of a crescendo, one of Israel’s most respected journalists sat down with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The journalist, Ronen Bergman, asked Barak about the former political and military figures who had begun to publicly argue against a strike. Barak responded with a reminder about the burden of responsibility he carries along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“It’s good to have diversity in thinking and for people to voice their opinions,” Barak said. “But at the end of the day, when the military command looks up, it sees us — the minister of defense and the prime minister. When we look up, we see nothing but the sky above us.” Barak wasn’t trying to be dramatic; rather, he was making make a point about the historical weight that rests on nearly every major decision made by the Israeli leadership. Many in the press took this as a declaration by Barak that he would always err on the side of the hawks—why take any chances? But in reality, as we saw this week with Operation Pillar of Defense, it can often mean just the opposite. Barak Ravid reports:
At Tuesday’s meeting, just before U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived, it became clear to Israel that the principles for a cease-fire being proposed by Egypt were much closer to Hamas’ positions than to its own. The assumption voiced by intelligence officials at the triumvirate meeting was that, contrary to the situation during Mubarak’s era, the Egyptians are aligning with Hamas and trying to provide it with achievements.
This triggered an acerbic dispute between Barak and Lieberman. The defense minister, opposed to an expansion of the operation, thought Israel should respond positively to Egypt’s proposal for a cease-fire and end the operation. Barak said at the meeting that the precise wording of the Egyptian draft is not important since the end of fighting and Israel’s power of deterrence would be tested by the reality on the ground.
Despite a clear lack of trust in their Egyptian counterparts, Barak argued for, and Netanyahu accepted, the merits of ending the conflict without a ground incursion into Gaza. Netanyahu, as we’ve written here before, bears almost no relation to the caricature painted of him in the Western press. The journalists who have spent the last year or two republishing rumors of an imminent Israeli attack on Iran that never materialized too often believed their own spin. Netanyahu, they said, was a warmonger who would order risky comprehensive military operations over the objections of the Israeli public. But in fact, as we learned this week, the Israeli public opposed the cease-fire that brought an end to Operation Pillar of Defense—by a wide margin.
They tended to agree with Avigdor Lieberman, that Israel’s deterrence had not yet been restored. And this wasn’t coming from the peanut gallery sitting on the sidelines. As the Times of Israel reports, there was noticeable and vocal dissent within the military—soldiers who were called up just in case and expressed vehement disappointment that they were never ordered into Gaza.
Netanyahu’s acceptance of the cease-fire is certainly popular outside Israel, especially among his fellow diplomats and heads of state. But there is some risk here too; Netanyahu’s counterparts abroad don’t care what the terms of the deal are, and they don’t much care for Israel’s deterrent capability. They want, more than anything, for Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to look like a pragmatic dealmaker, to assuage Western fears that a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt will side with Hamas, which has its roots in the Brotherhood as well, rather than with Western interests.
And any goodwill Netanyahu earns will dissipate almost immediately; “Bibi the Peacemaker” runs counter to the narrative the media constructed and from which they seem constitutionally incapable of deviating. They told us Netanyahu was launching this conflict to shore up his reelection prospects. That it seems to have done the reverse—he is still favored, but looks to be somewhat weakened by the cease-fire—is an example of the difficult position in which Israel finds itself. Israelis prove time and again that their state can uphold both democracy and national security—two things increasingly unimportant to the Jewish state’s critics abroad.