Talking tough, Netanyahu walks cautiously in Gaza conflict
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Just hours after a bomb exploded on a Tel Aviv bus, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to a truce with the very people his government blamed for the blast -- the Islamist Hamas rulers of Gaza.
Wednesday's decision to pull back from the brink of a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip despite the attack, which wounded 15 people, belies Netanyahu's international image as an uncompromising, bellicose hardliner.
Indeed, the eight-day campaign against Hamas militants in Gaza was the first major military operation he had ordered after seven years in power -- a remarkable record in a country that has repeatedly gone to war in its 64 year history.
"People don't realize that Netanyahu is trigger unhappy," said Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"He is very cautious and very restrained. You could see that this past week. He set very well-defined boundaries and was very careful not to go wild," he added.
Opposition politicians were swift to portray this discretion as a failing, hoping that it will cost Netanyahu votes at a January 22 general election, which all opinion polls prior to the Gaza conflict had said he would win.
"The government displayed weakness and hesitancy in implementing its goals and the promise of achieving complete calm for the residents of Israel," said Yair Lapid, a television personality-turned-politician running in the January ballot.
Israeli daily Maariv also stuck the knife in, printing a cartoon showing a glum-looking Netanyahu carrying an object under his arm marked "backbone for rent".
A group of 16 soldiers marked their disdain by writing out "Bibi (is a) Loser", with their bodies and posting the photograph on Facebook. The image went viral and the army is investigating.
Despite the derision, it is unlikely the decision to avoid a potentially bloody land invasion of the densely populated Gaza Strip will cost Netanyahu the forthcoming election.
No opposition leader in the race comes close to Netanyahu in terms of experience or international stature, and Israel's biggest perceived security threat is still far from resolved -- Iran and its contested nuclear program.
IRAN IN FOCUS
Israel and its Western allies believe Iran is seeking to build nuclear weapons. Iran denies this, but Netanyahu says it is an existential issue for Israel and has promised to resolve the matter if he is elected to a third turn in office.
Known universally in Israel by his childhood nickname 'Bibi', Netanyahu has been so focused on Iran that critics at home said he had lost sight of the more immediate problem -- rising rocket fire out of Gaza and into southern Israel.
The Israeli military said Islamist militants had launched more than 700 missiles from Gaza in the first 10 months of the year. With elections looming, Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak could not ignore the problem any longer.
The warplanes were sent in, killing Hamas's top military commander in an initial strike and targeting the group's large weapons arsenal thereafter. Some 162 Palestinians, including 37 children, and five Israelis died in the clashes.
"Both Netanyahu and Barak would have preferred not to go on this operation and only did so when the public made clear that enough was enough," said Einat Wilf, who sits on the Israeli parliament's foreign affairs and defence committee and is a member of Barak's Atzmaut party.
While Barak donned his black bomber jacket and toured the Gaza border lands to see the huge army mobilisation being readied for eventual invasion, Netanyahu stayed in his business suit and avoided eye-catching photo calls near the front line.
"This was deliberate. Netanyahu knew this would not end in the crushing defeat of Hamas because that wasn't ever the goal. He wanted to pose as the responsible adult at the top of the pyramid," said Washington Institute analyst Yaari.
This stance is likely to have helped ease relations with the leaders of both the United States and Egypt.
The Arab Spring that brought an Islamist government to power in Cairo has raised concerns in Israel, which signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979.
Netanyahu has had famously testy ties with U.S. President Barack Obama and he was accused by some Democrats of trying to undermine Obama's re-election bid.
Dire predictions in the media that Netanyahu would suffer payback did not materialize during the conflict, with Obama fully endorsing what he called Israel's right to self-defence.
When Obama later said it was "preferable" to avoid an escalation, Netanyahu swiftly adopted the same language to show there was no daylight between the two leaders.
Likewise, his decision to rule out an invasion prevented a potentially disastrous diplomatic showdown with Cairo. Instead, he has got Egyptian backing as a guarantor of Hamas's ceasefire.
"There was no decisive victory here, said Giora Eiland, a former National Security Adviser. "But the situation was managed in the right way and it was clear that Israel enjoyed certain international support."
His lowkey handling of the conflict, peppered by regular meetings with key ministers, showed how Netanyahu has developed into a more consensual leader than in his first term in office from 1996 to 1999, when he lurched from one crisis to another.
"He is a policy wonk. He isn't a natural politician," said one of his close advisers, who declined to be named. "But he has come to realize that you need to listen to people and not just pretend. He has become a much more inclusive leader."
If, as expected, he secures a third term in January at the head of another rightist coalition, Netanyahu will once more push Iran to the top of the international agenda, with Gaza returning to its old position as an annoying irritant.
"If the Iranian threat is not neutralized in some way, then that will determine his legacy more than anything else," said the senior adviser.
(Created by Crispian Balmer)