• The Washington Post


The domestic criticism started pouring in almost as soon as Israel’s ceasefire with Hamas was inked Wednesday night. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had waved a white flag and left the job unfinished, the opposition howled. A snap poll on TV found a large majority of the public did not support the Egypt-brokered truce.

Even so, many Israeli analysts said that for Netanyahu, a hawkish and shrewd politician who is seeking re-election in two months, the abrupt end to the eight-day hostilities in the Gaza Strip carried as many political benefits as risks.

Although he has long vowed to safeguard Israel from terrorism, the Gaza Strip was never Netanyahu’s battle. If the ceasefire holds, he now has several weeks to turn domestic and international focus back to his signature security issue: Iran.

The Israeli operation did not destroy Gaza’s Hamas rulers and even emboldened them regionally, and there is broad agreement in Israel that the offensive lasted too long to accomplish a fairly narrow mission of stunting Gaza militants’ ability to launch rockets at Israel.

But analysts and officials said letting it drag out further would only benefit Iran. A lingering, bloodier war probably would have distracted the international attention Netanyahu has worked almost obsessively to center on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and eroded European and U.S. support. The ceasefire, Israel seemed willing to bet, might inject good will into Israel’s shaky alliance with Egypt and Netanyahu’s chilly relations with U.S. President Barack Obama.

“This is what a responsible government does, and it is what we did here: We made use of our military might while applying political considerations,” Netanyahu said Wednesday, after the ceasefire was announced.

Throughout the operation, Israel appeared motivated to avoid the international censure that clouded its last Gaza operation four years ago. It launched about 10 times as many airstrikes this time but caused about 10 times fewer Palestinian deaths.

In an interview Thursday, a senior Israeli official argued that the Gaza offensive defied impressions of Netanyahu as a warmonger unconcerned about sparking regional conflict — the depiction of an array of former Israeli security officials opposed to an Israeli strike on Iran — and instead showcased “a responsible group leading the country through a major crisis . . . . You didn’t see a group of extremists.”

Writing in the Jerusalem Post on Thursday, commentator Herb Keinon pronounced that as “the likely theme of (Netanyahu’s) campaign — military might with diplomatic prudence, restoring quiet, albeit temporarily, while retaining international legitimacy.”

Although a ceasefire collapse could change his fortunes, Netanyahu is still viewed as the favorite in the upcoming elections.

During the Gaza operation, some Israeli observers surmised that it was launched partially to clear the decks for an attack on Iran by destroying weaponry Hamas might use to defend its longtime sponsor and by testing Israel’s U.S.-funded missile defense systems.

The idea was echoed by a senior Israeli military official Wednesday, before the ceasefire took hold, who told reporters the offensive “was not only an event between us and Gaza. All the neighbors are looking . . . what is the Israeli performance here?”

Yet several analysts said the Gaza offensive accomplished little practical prep work for a potential war with Iran and was not intended to do so. Israeli officials said they destroyed a significant number, but by no means all, of the more than 10,000 rockets they believed were in Gaza, including the Fajr-5s that the commander of Tehran’s Revolutionary Corps boasted this week were supplied by Iran. They also said many rocket launchers, weapons factories and arms-smuggling tunnels were razed.

And while the more than 80 percent success rate of Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile system soothed the Israeli public and might have served as a show of force to Tehran and its heavily armed Hezbollah allies in Lebanon, the system’s performance says little about Israel’s ability to handle volleys of long-range missiles from Iran. A different, untested antimissile system would be deployed to deflect those.

“The general lesson is that missile defense is effective, it can work,” said Uzi Rubin, the former head of Israel’s missile defense program. “But Iron Dome has nothing to do with threats from Iran.”

When it comes to Iran, retaining diplomatic legitimacy throughout the Gaza operation was most important to Netanyahu, analysts said.

At the United Nations in September, Netanyahu suggested the window for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities was open until spring or summer, and Israel has recently given more credence to the idea that sanctions might pressure Tehran to negotiate.

The Israeli security establishment and public are strongly against an Israeli attack on Iran without U.S. backing, such that the idea is “more and more discredited,” said Meir Javedanfar, who teaches Iranian politics at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.

Even more important, Javedanfar said, is that Hamas, an Islamist movement that Israel and many Western countries label a terrorist organization, has moved away from Tehran over the latter’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad. By backing a ceasefire brokered by Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, Israel and the United States endorsed the Egypt-Israel alliance and Hamas’s pivot away from Iran’s Shiite bloc and toward a widening Sunni orbit in the post-Arab Spring Middle East.

“It’s bad for Iran if Hamas is turning to Egypt and not to Iran,” said a White House official.

As Israel emerges from a rally-around-the-flag week and resumes a backbiting campaign season, Netanyahu is likely to face criticism for the ceasefire and securing what are by no means long-term gains against Hamas.

Already, Shaul Mofaz, who heads the Kadima opposition party, said Hamas “got stronger,” while another opposition candidate, Yair Lapid, accused the government of “weakness.”

Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser and retired major general, said that what looks like a victory for Hamas might not be bad for Israel and Netanyahu if the rockets in southern Israel stop.

Even the vaguely worded ceasefire agreement of “opening the crossings and facilitating the movement of people” — an apparent reference to easing Egypt and Israel’s partial blockades on the strip — might lead to more Egyptian monitoring of weapons flows into Gaza and foreign investment in the coastal enclave. Investment from overseas would give Hamas reason to restrain smaller militant factions and avoid confrontations with Israel.

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