"We shall not stop, not until the very last tunnel.”
“The war on terror has no end date. The ‘quiet for quiet’ formula is no longer on the agenda.”
“We care about Gaza’s children more than they do.”
Those words, spoken at various junctures since the start of Operation Protective Edge on July 8, were not uttered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the right-wing Likud party, but by Israel’s most powerful centrist, and in parliamentary terms its most powerful dove, Finance Minister Yair Lapid.
Lapid has vowed to leave the current coalition if peace talks with the Palestinians are abandoned (he remained after they stalled, but argued that the Palestinian Authority, not Netanyahu, was responsible for their failure, and urges their resumption). Yet over the past month, he has been one of the government’s most articulate spokesmen for the continued Gaza operation – second only, perhaps, to the coalition’s most dovish dove, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.
“This is the time for us to unite around the understanding that terror must be fought. This is a tough war, but a necessary one,” she said on July 20.
And on July 27: “I visit [our wounded soldiers], try to comfort them and promise that the deaths [of their comrades] were not in vain, that the IDF will continue [the Gaza war] until the goals are achieved and the operation is completed, until security and long-term quiet is achieved for us all. This truth is the little I have to offer them.”
No decision about the current pace of operations – the decision to launch the air war on July 8, the decision to send in ground troops on July 17, the acceptance of three truces, and the angry rejection of the last American-proposed ceasefire – none of these were decisions taken by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alone. All were brought to a debate and a vote in the security cabinet, and the centrist doves Lapid and Livni have been as eager as any of the coalition’s most outspoken hawks to see this war continue — at least until, as they have characterized it, Hamas is dealt a painful deterrence-restoring blow.
On Tuesday, a BBC World anchor asked this reporter on the channel’s live broadcast where the Israeli “peace camp” has gone, why the rallies that once drew hundreds of thousands in support of peace and Palestinian independence now attract perhaps one percent of that number, even as children die in Gaza.
The answer is that the majority of the left, and even many on the far left, avidly and wholeheartedly support the operation in Gaza, at times more eagerly than the right.
A study conducted by the left-leaning Israel Democracy Institute found that nearly all Israeli Jews – 96%, 92% and 97% in three July polls that were part of the study – believe the Gaza operation is just. Such high figures necessarily include peace activists, a majority of Meretz voters and most of the rest of the staunch left.
The eight members of Israel’s security cabinet hail from all five parties of the coalition: from Likud — Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan; from Yisrael Beytenu — Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch — from Yesh Atid, Finance Minister Lapid; from Jewish Home, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett; and from Hatnua, Livni.
Eight people, each with a vote on whether Israel expands the war or seeks a ceasefire, whether the infantry moves deeper into Gaza City in pursuit of Hamas leaders’ bunkers, or remains on the outskirts with the more limited mission of ferreting out the tunnels that penetrate into Israel.
And the members of this cabinet committee have not been shy about expressing their views publicly.
On July 7, Liberman angrily announced he was breaking up the joint Likud-Yisrael Beytenu Knesset list over Netanyahu’s refusal to go to war in Gaza – a day before Netanyahu, with the unanimous backing of the security cabinet, did so. It was a moment of political grandstanding that probably backfired on Liberman, who has struggled in the polls since his party united with Likud for the Knesset elections of 2013 and voters found it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two parties.
Bennett, too, has called for Israel’s response to be an aggressive one. “Hamas can be defeated and disarmed from its rockets and tunnels,” he said on Sunday. “[Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah is watching. [Islamist group] Da’ash is watching. Iran is watching. The Arab world is watching. Europe and the US are watching. The people of Israel are watching. Everyone is waiting to see if Israel possesses the courage to defeat Hamas once and for all.”
These sentiments — Liberman’s accusations and Bennett’s promises that a triumphant victory is plausible — are predictable. They match the parties’ platforms and past rhetoric.
But it is the stance of Livni and Lapid, the two most senior Israeli politicians who still see their political future as at least partly dependent on the continued viability of the two-state solution, that offers a window into the way this war is perceived within Israel and into the deeper trends of Israeli political life.
For these two centrists of the coalition, the war in Gaza isn’t only about Hamas in Gaza, but also, emphatically, about Abbas in Ramallah.
Unlike Bennett or Liberman, Livni has articulated the war’s purpose as part of a long process of weakening the anti-peace tendencies on the Palestinian side, which she believes must be accompanied by greater Israeli engagement of those among the Palestinians who reject Hamas’s strategy of permanent confrontation.