Bibi's restraint wins him friends abroad - and enemies at home

By Anshel Pfeffer, July 17, 2014
Netanyahu: cautious but firm

Netanyahu: cautious but firm

One description you don't usually hear of Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is "risk-averse". But in recent days, in the Israeli media and the upper echelons of the defence establishment, in Knesset corridors and even among foreign diplomats who rarely have a good word to say about Bibi, this label has been regularly attached to him.

The reason? He has - as of going to press - resisted pressure to launch a ground offensive.

While the rockets are still being launched against Israel, it is difficult for a prime minister to hold out against three-pronged pressure from the military, the coalition and public opinion. But that is what Mr Netanyahu has done.

The IDF has been given the authority to call up to 40,000 reserve troops, and brigade combat teams have been deployed with full complements of tanks and armoured vehicles - but the order to go in has not come.

During the three short years of Ehud Olmert's premiership, Israel embarked on two major ground offensives - in Lebanon and Gaza.

Mr Netanyahu has been prime minister now for five-and-a-half years (and three years in his previous term in the 1990s) but has always chosen to use air-strikes and small special-forces raids rather than risk launching large ground formations. This reluctance led him to end the November 2012 operation in Gaza without a ground offensive.

Surveys indicate that a majority of the Israeli public is in favour of entering Gaza now and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been loudly calling for a ground offensive.

Mr Netanyahu could sack his foreign minister but without Mr Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu he will not have a coalition.

By contrast, when Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon on Monday described the government's willingness to reach a ceasefire with Hamas as "a slap in the face to all Israeli citizens", he was summarily fired.

"Netanyahu is gaining points now for his inaction" said one senior diplomat in Jerusalem. "We hope he won't exacerbate the situation by sending in ground troops. If only he wasn't so inactive when it came to the peace process."

At a rare press conference last Friday, Mr Netanyahu said that Israel has to make sure it does not "have another Gaza in Judea and Samaria" and that under no circumstance and under no diplomatic agreement can Israel "relinquish security control of the territory west of the Jordan river". Last month, he made clear that any future Palestinian state would not have security control over its territory.

That is a different kind of risk - one that the Israeli prime minister is unwilling to take.

Last updated: 2:31pm, July 17 2014