On the evening of Oct. 18, running on very little sleep due to a late-night meeting of the security cabinet to discuss Israel’s reaction to the flare-up with Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosted the visiting prime minister of the Republic of Vanuatu, Charlot Salwai, and his wife at the official Jerusalem residence. Netanyahu posted a report to Facebook about the auspicious occasion, complete with a photo of himself and his wife Sara alongside his guests.
Vanuatu recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital back in the summer of 2017 — even before the United States — but most Israelis have never heard of the tiny Pacific island nation.
Netanyahu devoted himself fully to this very unimportant visit and completely ignored reports in the media all day long about attacks by the defense cabinet against IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot. According to them, during the dramatic cabinet meeting the night before, which Eizenkot attended, ministers lashed out at Eizenkot and claimed his Gaza policy had led to the latest escalation with Hamas.
Anyone familiar with the political hierarchy in Israel knows the accusation is absurd. Policy on Gaza is made by the political echelon — in this case by Netanyahu and the coterie of defense cabinet members. Leveling such an accusation at the country’s top soldier, especially during such a sensitive time that is perhaps the eve of a war in the south, is an irresponsible act.
As of the morning of Oct. 19, the prime minister had not offered any backing for the commander of the country’s military forces. The only person who did was Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who tweeted, “It is lamentable and outrageous for cabinet ministers to make petty political capital on the back of the chief of staff. It is inconceivable that cabinet members are blaming the chief of staff for the policy they themselves mapped out. This is crossing a red line and damaging state security.”
So why is it that just days before, on Oct. 15, Netanyahu praised Eizenkot warmly after the former coalition whip, Knesset member David Bitan, blamed the chief of staff for the failed policy on Gaza and the loss of Israeli deterrence? “The chief of staff is doing an excellent job,” Netanyahu said. “We are working together, on one front, and we are taking proper care of Israel's security.”
The answer lies in the rocket carrying 200 kilos of explosives fired from the Gaza Strip in the early morning hours of Oct. 17 that scored a direct hit on a house in the southern town of Beersheba. Quick thinking by Miri Tamano, who rushed her three young children to a shelter seconds before the projectile landed, averted a tragedy. At the same time, another long-range rocket fired toward central Israel landed in the sea.
In accordance with the fiery rhetoric by Liberman and Netanyahu in recent weeks, the rocket attacks should have prompted heavy Israeli retaliation, perhaps even a widespread military operation. Instead, after five hours of debate, the cabinet decided to accept a statement by Hamas disavowing responsibility for the rockets. The statement speculated that a lightning strike might have triggered the launches, although Al-Monitor columnist Shlomi Eldar argued there is evidence that Hamas was definitely responsible for the attack.
According to various reports, several of the ministers turned Eizenkot into a punching bag, and Wednesday night’s Netanyahu was no longer the supportive Netanyahu of Monday. From the moment the rocket hit the Beersheba home, the prime minister’s right-wing electoral base expected a reaction to the Gaza escalation. But Netanyahu led the cabinet toward a more moderate decision that gave Egyptian-led efforts to broker a long-term cease-fire with Hamas another chance. Netanyahu likely estimated that his relatively moderate reaction needed a diversion and a scapegoat, so allowed the ministers to blame the chief of staff for the Gaza escalation.
Netanyahu exhibited the same modus operandi in the case of Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot dead a wounded Palestinian attacker in the West Bank town of Hebron in 2016. The prime minister initially backed Eizenkot’s condemnation of the soldier, but two days later, when he realized who his right-wing constituents were siding with, he left Eizenkot holding the bag, exposed to wild attacks from the political right.
With every passing day it becomes more evident that the prime minister would rather call early elections without the complications of a military operation in Gaza. The results of such an operation are largely foreseeable and would likely change nothing and just spill more blood. Netanyahu obviously is not willing to say so outright, certainly not in an election year. Instead, he is letting others divert public pressure away from himself toward the chief of staff and creating a false impression that Eizenkot was the one who led policy on Gaza for the past four years.
The fact is that Netanyahu has been responsible for Israel’s policy on Gaza for almost a decade. Three chiefs of staff served under him and three ministers of defense, with himself charting the course.
Netanyahu’s social network activity is interesting, but it does not tell the whole story. What is missing from his posts is no less interesting than the photos and the statements he publishes. As could be expected, there is no mention on Netanyahu’s Facebook page or his other social network accounts of the Eizenkot affair. His posts consisted of exciting updates about the evening with the prime minister of Vanuatu and an attack against the director of the B’Tselem human rights organization, Hagai El-Ad, that he took the time to post shortly before the festive dinner. Earlier that day, El-Ad delivered a speech at the UN Security Council harshly condemning Israel for its policy in the occupied Palestinian territories, with the Palestinian ambassador to the UN at his side. Not for the first time, El-Ad argued that Israeli policies were reminiscent of South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Netanyahu could not have asked for better timing. El-Ad’s speech came just as Netanyahu was trying to deflect criticism from the right over his decision to ignore the Hamas provocation. “As our soldiers prepare to defend Israel’s security, [the] B’Tselem director chooses to deliver a speech full of lies at the UN in an attempt to help Israel’s enemies,” Netanyahu was quick to state in response.
Netanyahu knows that most Israelis, not only those on the political right, object to El-Ad’s style when he speaks out abroad against his government and siezed the opportunity to butt heads with him. His strategic diversions mean one thing: that Israel’s prime minister has no effective operational solutions to the protracted Gaza crisis.