Bibi's First War

Why Benjamin Netanyahu Has Never Liked Military Conflict

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a graduation ceremony for naval officers in 2012. (Courtesy Reuters)

The best description of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political style is that he is risk-averse. His entire career has been defined by careful calculation, caution, and a steadfast commitment to the status quo. Few in Israel seem to love him, but they do regard him as safe and reliable. And that has been a remarkably effective formula for staying in power in a country whose governments rarely serve out their full term.

Yet suddenly, Netanyahu has found himself well outside of his comfort zone. His government has been sucked into a major conflict with Hamas and other extremists in Gaza, and it has no clear strategic goal or even an obvious exit strategy. Netanyahu is thus in the very position he's least at ease with: he is at the mercy of events and other actors outside his control. He might hope that when tensions calm he will end up where he wants to be -- the familiar status quo that he has always found politically comfortable. But that status quo, characterized by occupation and radical inequality in the Palestinian territories, is unsustainable and exceptionally dangerous for Israel, Palestine, and the region as a whole.

Netanyahu's remarkable rise to prolonged political power in Israel, particularly in his extended second term, has been based on his impressive ability to position himself between Israel’s two poles: those who want peace with the Palestinians and those who want to consolidate control over the occupied territories. He is a supporter of the settler movement, but not a rabid one. Settlers and their leaders have frequently accused him of "silent" or "de facto" building freezes, and his government has demolished a number of wildcat settlement outposts (although it has also recognized many others).

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