On Sunday, the heads of Israel’s opposition party went to the Gaza border to make a point about the failure of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government. But rather than complain about his alleged failure to advance the dead-in-the-water peace process or his feuds with the United States and the United Nations, the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni were there to sound the alarm about the threat of terrorism from Hamas-run Gaza. Attacking Netanyahu from the right may strike his liberal American critics as absurd, but Herzog and Livni are responding to the needs of Israelis who are living under siege in a stabbing intifada that remains unchecked and the possibility of a new Islamist terror offensive.
Unlike the Obama administration, UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon and the Jewish left on this side of the Atlantic the majority of Israelis are not railing at Netanyahu for perpetuating the status quo with the Palestinians, much as they’d like to change it for the better. Rather, they worry about the possibility that Netanyahu may be too concerned with international opinion to do something about the tunnels being dug in Gaza before it is too late.
Herzog and Livni, both of whom have, over the course of the last seven years, carried the hopes of the Obama administration in unsuccessful election duels with Netanyahu, went to the border to highlight the fact that residents of the area claim they can hear Hamas terrorists digging tunnels. The terror tunnels constituted the one limited strategic success of Hamas during the 2014 summer war with Israel since the Jewish state wasn’t sufficiently prepared for the Islamists to be able to use them to cross the border to conduct kidnapping and murder raids. It was the existence of a tunnel network that forced the Israel Defense Forces to launch a ground offensive into Gaza that year, rather than content itself with air strikes aimed at suppressing the firing of several thousand rockets at Israeli cities, towns, and villages.
But, while the IDF claims it has the situation under control, Netanyahu’s opposition is skeptical about the government’s assumption that Hamas doesn’t want another war. Herzog and Livni say Israel shouldn’t wait, as it did in 2014, to be attacked before doing something about the tunnels. That surrenders the strategic initiative to the Palestinians and allows them to start a war at a time of their choosing. Meeting with local officials, Herzog said, “Hamas brags and we are idle.” While Israelis hope their army is prepared this time and has been monitoring the digging in such a way as to forestall the use of the tunnels, there is reason for worry. Reports claim that Hamas is working non-stop to build and lengthen new tunnels and a recent collapse that took the lives of seven terrorists shows that they aren’t proceeding cautiously.
The escalation of the conflict in the West Bank is just as worrisome. An attack this week in which a Palestinian Authority policeman shot three Israeli soldiers, including two seriously, at a checkpoint, was a shocking reminder of what happened at the start of the second intifada. At that time, the same Palestinian security force that was supposed to be cooperating with the Israelis in the fight against terrorism turned on the IDF and joined the terrorists in open warfare. While this was, at least for the moment, an isolated incident, it’s a sign of possible trouble that can’t be ignored as well as an indication of how dangerous the PA’s incitement of hate against Jews and honoring of terrorists can be.
The question is what can Netanyahu do about any of this?
From the point of view of the U.S. and the international community, what he ought to be doing is offering more unilateral concessions to the Palestinians about territorial withdrawal. But from an Israeli perspective, such gestures would get nothing in return from the Palestinians since settlement freezes and pullbacks have been tried before and rewarded with more terror. The notion of further withdrawals from the West Bank is completely discredited in Israel because of what happened in Gaza after Ariel Sharon evacuated every last soldier and settler in 2005.
So long as the Palestinian public opinion remains convinced that all of Israel — and not just West Bank settlements — is illegitimate, a two-state solution isn’t, as even Herzog recently conceded, viable. No Israeli government is going to go in that direction.
But that leaves Israelis pondering whether their government is being prevented by worries about international criticism from doing what is necessary to forestall attacks.
Despite his international reputation as a hard-liner, Netanyahu has been remarkably cautious about ordering military strikes during his years in office. Indeed, the Gaza ground offensive in 2014 was undertaken reluctantly and only after Hamas had not only used the tunnels but also had refused cease-fire offers. For him to order a strike on the tunnels before they have been used would seem to go against his instincts.
It would also bring down on his government new attacks from the U.S. and Europe just at a time when Israel is struggling to hold off new diplomatic initiatives from France and the Palestinians that may provide President Obama with one last chance to stick it to Netanyahu. If Israel had good reason to worry about Obama abandoning Israel at the UN now, then what would be the chances that the U.S. would stand by the Jewish state if it initiated combat with Hamas rather than sitting back and waiting to be hit. After all, if Obama had frozen the resupply of needed munitions to Israel during the 2014 Gaza war and pressured it to halt the offensive before the tunnels existing at the time were destroyed, it’s likely he would be even tougher if Israel were branded the aggressor. Moreover, there’s little doubt that Netanyahu is being sent that message by the Americans lest he have any doubt about their willingness to countenance Israeli action.
Of course, Herzog knows this is part of Netanyahu’s calculation, but his saber rattling at the border probably struck a nerve with most Israelis. He wants Israel to imitate Egypt, which has sought to bomb and flood smuggling tunnels between the Sinai and Gaza. As the Times of Israel reports:
“One day, we’ll wake up and discover that, once again, we underestimated the seriousness of the threat,” Herzog warned. “It will cost us in blood and terrible sorrow.
“Why are we waiting? For terrorists, with their weapons drawn, to emerge in a kibbutz or a moshav? The prime minister and the defense minister must provide an answer to the citizens.”
Netanyahu is in an impossible position. If he acts now, he may blow up Israel’s diplomatic situation and worsen relations with the country’s sole superpower ally at a time when Obama is clearly itching for another fight. But if he does nothing and the tunnels are used successfully by Hamas, he will rightly stand accused of being derelict in his duty.
Netanyahu’s innate caution may make Israel slow to respond to the tunnel threat and to hope that the situation with the PA doesn’t veer out of control. He’s also hoping that Hamas realizes that it has more to lose than to gain by another go round. But with a newly prosperous Iran ascendant in the region and Israel seemingly more isolated from the West in the wake of the nuclear deal, it’s possible that the terrorists may not be operating under different assumptions than the ones ascribed to them by Israeli or U.S. intelligence.
That means at some point during the course of the year, Netanyahu will be faced with the choice that Herzog outlines. If so, then it is inevitable that he will be compelled to strike at Gaza before more Israeli lives are needless lost due to excessive caution and fear of international criticism. When that happens, the usual chorus of liberal critics decrying his behavior will need to think back on this moment and ponder why it is that those that are seeking to punish Israel for failing to make suicidal concessions were unprepared to support preemptive strikes on Hamas’s terror tunnels.