Three weeks ago, Israel quietly commemorated the second anniversary of the end of the 2014 Gaza War, officially called “Operation Protective Edge.” There were very few public events paying tribute to this milestone, and the local media didn’t give it much coverage, since political infighting at home and an unbelievable election abroad have been dominating the headlines. And yet, this quiet can be misleading: The war from two summers ago might not be the center of the public’s attention, but it certainly is on top of the agenda of Israel’s decision-makers, and could lead to dramatic developments on a number of fronts in the near future.
In my previous column, I wrote about the constant stream of background briefings offered lately by Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to dozens of journalists from all corners of the Israeli press. In most of these briefings, Protective Edge has been the issue to which Netanyahu has devoted the largest amount of time. Unlike with other matters discussed in the briefings, Netanyahu doesn’t just talk about Protective Edge—he also shows a detailed PowerPoint presentation. It seems very important for him to convince the journalists filing in and out of his office that the war in 2014 was well handled, and that in contrast to the claims raised by his political opponents of all stripes, there was no major failure on his watch.
The war is currently being investigated by Israel’s state comptroller, who is set to release a detailed report about it in the coming weeks. An early draft of the report had already been sent to the leading individuals and institutions covered in it, including Netanyahu and his office, the Defense Ministry (and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon,) the military, Shin Bet, and others. The state comptroller’s office is now going over the responses coming from all those parties, before editing and then publishing the final report. Once that happens, the current government could experience a serious shake-up, and so could the ranks of Israel’s leading Bibi-challengers.
Netanyahu’s main rivals in the fight over the war, as in many other cases, don’t come from Israel’s left-wing parties, but rather from within his own political camp on the Right. First and foremost is Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who was the strongest and most outspoken critic of Netanyahu’s conduct during the war (he was then Minister of Economics)—leading the Prime Minister more than once to consider firing him. Bennett accused Netanyahu and Ya’alon, as well as the leadership of the IDF, of managing the war in a way that was too soft, slow, and hesitant. His main complaint has been about the handling of the tunnels dug by Hamas into Israel’s territory. These tunnels were used to send terrorists across the border, threatening Israeli communities close to Gaza.
According to Bennett’s version of events, the tunnel threat wasn’t seriously discussed in Israel’s security cabinet during the entire year leading up to Protective Edge. During the 51 days of fighting, 32 tunnels were discovered and destroyed by the IDF, some of them only after they had already been used to kill Israeli soldiers (no Israeli civilians were hurt in any of these events). In Bennett’s telling, this is a major failure, and the blame for it rests with Netanyahu, who was ultimately responsible for holding security cabinet discussions on the matter, and for demanding concrete solutions from the military.
Bennett’s claims are seconded by Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist opposition party Yesh Atid, who during the time of these events was Netanyahu’s Minister of Finance. Lapid in recent months has been carefully tacking to the Right of the political map, in an attempt to position himself as Netanyahu’s leading challenger in the next elections. Together with Bennett, he is trying to portray the current Prime Minister as a disorganized and irresponsible executive, who didn’t do what was necessary to prepare Israel for that bloody summer two years ago.
Netanyahu fervently rejects this line of criticism. In his briefings with the press, he presents a completely different version of events, insisting that there were indeed numerous discussions about the tunnel threat before the war broke out, and that despite what Bennett and Lapid say, he personally demanded the IDF to prepare an anti-tunnel plan of action, and then supervised the military’s progress in operationalizing it. The most fascinating aspect of this debate is that Netanyahu is basically calling Bennett an unflinching liar (without directly using those words). The distance between their two versions of the events is so wide that there is no way to build a political bridge by declaring “words were taken out of context.” If Netanyahu is right, then Bennett is telling lies to the public, and vice versa. And yet, Bennett continues to serve as a senior minister in Netanyahu’s current government, and is also a member of the secretive security cabinet.
Up until a few months ago, Netanyahu had one important partner in his fight against Bennett and Lapid: Ya’alon, his loyal and trustworthy Defense Minister. But this past May, after weeks of spats between the two, Netanyahu fired Ya’alon and replaced him with Avigdor Lieberman, who, ironically, was just as critical as Bennett of Netanyahu’s conduct during the war, and could easily decide to stab Netanyahu in the back on this issue if he comes to the conclusion that it serves his political interests.
By appointing Lieberman, Netanyahu turned Ya’alon from someone who had every reason in the world to support the Prime Minister’s account of the Gaza war as a well-handled operation into a political enemy who will probably do his best to pin the responsibility for any failures on his former boss, whom he now aims to replace. Ya’alon was the closest person to Netanyahu during the nine long weeks of the war; indeed, one of Bennett’s main complaints has been that Netanyahu and Ya’alon together excluded the security cabinet from consequential discussions and ran the entire show by themselves. If anyone holds information that could damage Netanyahu regarding his management of the war, it’s Ya’alon. Then again, their previous partnership is a double-edged sword, because the same goes for Netanyahu, who could try to make Ya’alon a scapegoat, shifting the responsibility from himself to his partner-turned-rival.
Netanyahu’s best line of defense, however, won’t be to lay the blame on someone else, but to try to convince the public that there is no failure to point to in the first place. He touts the fact that since the end of the war there has been significant population growth along Israel’s border with Gaza, where communities are running out of vacant homes to sell to interested families. As a resident of one of these communities, I can attest that this is true. The place where I live, Kibbutz Nahal Oz, suffered a tragic loss during the war when a mortar fired from Gaza killed four-year-old Daniel Tregerman. After that event, 17 families left the Kibbutz; two years later, however, almost twenty new ones have arrived—meaning the overall number of Kibbutz members has grown.
Netanyahu also mentions the fact that the past two years were the quietest along the Gaza border since 2002. While there have been more than two-dozen rocket launchings since the end of the war, none of them caused any actual harm, and that number is relatively low compared to previous years. As for the tunnels, Israel is close to finding a technological solution to them, at least according to recent reports in the media. The IDF has invested hundreds of millions of shekels in testing different systems, and could make it much harder for Hamas to use cross-border digging in a future round of fighting.
But all of those accomplishments could become meaningless if another war breaks out. While Israel’s politicians are busy fighting over the ramifications of the previous conflict, Hamas is already preparing for the next one. Tunnels are being dug, with the rumors of an Israeli technological solution actually creating a sense of urgency for some within Hamas, which wants to use its signature weapon while it’s still available. A few weeks ago, the IDF bombed more than thirty Hamas targets in Gaza following the launch of a rocket into Israel, reminding residents on both sides of the border that not much has actually changed since the summer of 2014.
In Gaza, the situation is as dire as it’s ever been. The pace of the coastal enclave’s reconstruction has been painfully slow, with too many countries hesitating to donate their taxpayers’ money for building materials that could turn into rubble within seconds the next time fighting breaks out. Unemployment, desperation, and poverty have reached unprecedented levels, especially among younger people. Israel is aware of all that, and some officials would love to see a change, but feel helpless.
A few months ago, I asked a senior IDF officer who is responsible for the Gaza region what his largest cause for concern was: the tunnels, or Hamas’s rocket arsenal?
“Neither,” he replied, to my surprise. “We are working on solutions to these two problems. My biggest worry is actually water.” According to some assessments, a drinking water crisis could break out in Gaza within a few years. “We can destroy a tunnel or eliminate a rocket launching position,” the officer told me, “but what will we do if, god forbid, thousands of thirsty people start walking toward our border?”
One bright spot in this dark picture is the reconciliation deal recently signed between Israel and Turkey, which could pave the way for further action on improving living conditions in Gaza and averting a water crisis. There is talk of setting up a desalination plant—but then again, such “talk” has been going on since at least 2006. Another initiative that’s currently being discussed is the construction of a gas pipeline from Israel to Gaza, perhaps with the help of certain European countries. Israel is also trying to use its growing network of clandestine relationships in the Arab world to find new solutions for Gaza’s failing economy.
If all of that happens, it will be good for everyone involved. Overall, it’s clear that Israel can afford a political “war” over the consequences of Protective Edge, but it certainly doesn’t want a real war to break out just two years after the previous one.