Back in 2009, Israel was festooned with election campaign banners that read, “A Strong Leader for a Strong Nation.” They were Benjamin Netanyahu’s banners, which, even if he had them in stock today, he would not dare use.
We have reached the Morning After, and this is an unhappy, dissatisfied, wounded and worried country. Israel is not feeling strong. And Israelis know that in this neighborhood, if you are not strong or do not appear strong, you simply cannot survive. Makor Rishon, a center-right daily, ran a front page article this morning quoting Iranian officials as saying that these are Israel’s final years.
The political right smells blood. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who coupled his Yisrael Beitinu (“Israel is our Home”) party to Netanyahu’s Likkud for the January 2013 elections but has since insisted he would not do so again, has demanded that the Israeli Defense Forces retake the Gaza strip. Few Israelis wanted to do that – the losses would have been extremely high (some estimates projected 500 to 1000 soldiers killed), and it wasn’t clear how Israel would eventually extricate itself or bear the international condemnation. Still, in the Morning After, some Israelis who thought that Lieberman was behaving like a thug who are now muttering: “Maybe he was right.”
No new polls have been taken since the cease-fire went into effect Tuesday night (there have already been 11 cease-fires broken or rejected in this conflict, it should be noted, so there are no guarantees that the war is really over), but it would be shocking if Lieberman’s popularity has not risen.
The other likely winner on the right is Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, whose Habayit Hayehudi (“The Jewish Home”) party was a surprisingly strong player in recent elections. There has always been bad blood between Netanyahu and Bennett (some attribute it to Netanyahu’s wife detesting Bennett), and Bennett, like Lieberman, had also urged the use of much greater force. Bibi not only ignored him, but publicly smacked him down for creating a wartime rift in the Cabinet. It’s virtually inconceivable that Bennett will not try a little jujitsu after that humiliation; he, too, is almost guaranteed to climb in the polls.
With Hamas celebrating in the streets, and Israelis who live near Gaza still insisting they’re too afraid of rockets and tunnels to go home, the potential for Bennett and Lieberman to challenge Bibi has never looked better. Ironically, Hamas may have just ushered in a much more hard-line Israeli government.
But the political left is equally unhappy. Israel bombed Gaza into smithereens for seven weeks, killed thousands of people – many of them terrorists, but many of them civilians, women and children (as was inevitable, given that Hamas stationed itself in neighborhoods, mosques and hospitals). To do all of that without having achieved victory, the left insists, is a moral and political catastrophe.
Haaretz, Israel’s left-leaning paper of record, led Wednesday morning with an opinion piece noting that after Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, Netanyahu castigated then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, saying that Hamas should have been toppled and security restored to Israel. Bibi insisted that only he could do it, which was when that “A Strong Leader for a Strong Nation” mantra re-appeared. “Reality is a bit more complicated, isn’t it?” Haaretz derisively castigated him Wednesday morning.
In the center, YNet wrote that this may have been a tie, while David Horovitz warned in this morning’s Times of Israel that “if, under a long-term deal, Hamas is able to replicate Hezbollah’s strategy in Lebanon – to retain full or significant control of Gaza, to re-arm, to build a still more potent killing mechanism – then its claims of victory, appallingly, will be justified.”
No one here is happy, and no one feels secure. True, it remains to be seen whether the cease-fire holds, and yes, Israel could still carve out a slightly better deal in the negotiations with Hamas that will begin in a month.
When Israelis feel this way, they usually “take out the trash.” Golda Meir was forced to resign after the 1973 Yom Kippur War debacle, even though Israel ultimately emerged triumphant. Menachem Begin resigned after the Sabra and Shatilla Massacre, for which he wasn’t personally responsible, in part because Israel was mired in the costly Lebanon War he had unleashed. After the 2009 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, which was shorter and much less costly than Operation Protective Edge, Olmert was forced out of office and Netanyahu picked up the spoils.
It’s Morning After in Israel, and a country that is usually politically divided is suddenly in agreement: “This did not go well, at all.” Wednesday morning, with the guns silenced, Bibi Netanyahu’s problem is no longer Hamas. Today, he is worried about the Israelis.
Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jersualem. He is the author of “Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul” and “The Promise of Israel.”