It’s a harsh fact of life in a tough neighborhood like Israel’s, so Israelis will tell you, that when somebody hits you, even a little, you have to hit back hard. Otherwise the blows will keep coming until they do real damage.
It doesn’t matter how puny today’s foe might look. If you let it slide, you’ll encourage other, bigger enemies who are just waiting to see how tough you are. So you hit back, not merely to stop today’s attacker but to send a message to the others: Don’t even try.
That’s why Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided July 15 to sack his deputy minister of defense, the right-wing firebrand Danny Danon. The ostensible aim was to discipline an insubordinate upstart. The real target was a growing rebellion among senior ministers and coalition allies.
Danon’s misdeed was denouncing the prime minister for his embrace of Egypt’s Israel-Hamas cease-fire proposal. The security cabinet had approved the cease-fire that morning at Netanyahu’s urging. Danon spent the day running from one microphone to the next protesting. By the time Netanyahu fired him that evening, the cease-fire had been a dead letter for hours, spurned by Hamas. The prime minister’s problem was elsewhere: mounting pressure from his right flank for a ground invasion of Gaza.
Netanyahu strongly opposes a ground campaign. Other than his defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, most of his backing on the issue comes from liberals who rarely side with him on anything else. His own Likud base is increasingly impatient with him for going soft. His closest allies, including even the fiercely loyal strategic affairs minister Yuval Steinitz, were openly pressing for all-out war with Hamas. Danon’s firing, it seems, was a warning to them.
Danon has been a thorn in Bibi’s side for months. Just 43, in the Knesset since 2009, he’s emerged as a leader of the young hard-liners who oppose peace talks and press for anti-Arab and anti-liberal legislation. Last year he got himself elected chairman of the party’s two top governing bodies, the convention and central committee. He’s used both posts to tie Netanyahu’s hands at key moments. Bibi must have relished the opportunity to demote him.
But timing is everything. Bibi could have dumped Danon at any moment in the past year. Doing it now makes Danon a martyr to the cause of smashing Hamas. It doesn’t strengthen the prime minister politically. On the contrary. It was one of those moments for which Netanyahu gets too little credit: putting the national interest first.