By Crispian Balmer
JERUSALEM, Nov 22 (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 realise 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 Jan. 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 programme.
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 materialise 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 realise 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 neutralised in some way, then that will determine his legacy more than anything else," said the senior adviser.
(Created by Crispian Balmer)
BEFORE YOU GO
23/11/2012 05:31 GMT
Clinton Warned Netanyahu: Don't Punish Palestinians For U.N. Bid
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during her talks in Israel this week not to take any extreme actions in response to the Palestinian move in the United Nations for recognition as a non-member state. Clinton said such steps against the Palestinian Authority could bring about its collapse. The Palestinians are planning to ask the United Nations General Assembly to vote on upgrading its status from non-member entity on the symbolic date of November 29.
The day after the cease-fire with Hamas took effect, Israel is preparing for the next crisis with the Palestinians, which is scheduled for six days from now. November 29th is the anniversary of the United Nations vote on accepting the Partition Plan in 1947, which led to the founding of the Jewish Sate. It is also the United Nations' International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.
Read more here.
23/11/2012 03:50 GMT
Report: U.S. Urges Israel Not To Build In E-1 Areas
From the Jerusalem Post:
Washington is urging Israel not to allow construction in the area known as E-1 between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim as a possible response to the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition next week at the UN, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Building in E-1, which would create contiguity between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim to the northeast beyond the Green Line, is something various Israeli governments have long wanted to do, but which US opposition has prevented.
Read more here.
23/11/2012 00:01 GMT
Life In Gaza's Courtyards
The New York Times' Jodi Rudoren chronicles displays of pride and sacrifice:
Inside a courtyard, there are faded remnants of “Congratulations from the uncles,” from the April wedding of a son of Ahmed al-Jabari, the commander of the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, whose assassination last week was the beginning of the latest round of intense battle between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
On the wall outside, the colorful Arabic script reads “Welcome hajji, Abu Muhammad,” a reference to Mr. Jabari’s return from a pilgrimage to Mecca last month. Nearby, the freshest paint pronounces a message from the troops: “Rest in peace. The mission has been accomplished.”
Read the full story at the New York Times.
22/11/2012 23:19 GMT
PHOTO: Egypt Tunnel Into Gaza
Egypt Tunnel into Gaza:
An underground tunnel connecting through which I got into Gaza from Egypt. Israel has repeatedly targeted the tunnel network, trying to hinder flow of goods and weapons into the strip. (Photo by Mosa'ab Elshamy via Flickr)
22/11/2012 22:55 GMT
Soldiers Show Frustration Via Viral Facebook Photo
16 soldiers spelled out 'loser' with their bodies to critique Netanyahu and show frustration at not going into battle.
22/11/2012 22:29 GMT
Who Brokered The Ceasefire
The Economist discusses how the ceasefire was achieved and whether it could lead to lasting peace in the region.
Among others coming and going were the UN secretary-general, the American secretary of state and the foreign ministers of Turkey and Germany. But the real bargaining took place behind closed doors at the headquarters of General Muhammad Shehata, Egypt’s intelligence chief. There, in separate rooms, the Egyptians haggled with a legal adviser to the Israeli prime minister, and with representatives from Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that runs Gaza, and a smaller, more radical Palestinian faction, Islamic Jihad.
22/11/2012 21:22 GMT
Israeli Arab Arrested for Tel Aviv Bus Bombing
From the Associated Press:
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's army spokeswoman says an Israeli Arab who is a member of Hamas has been arrested for Wednesday's bus bombing in Tel Aviv.
The bombing injured 27 people near Israel's military headquarters and threatened to scuttle efforts to broker a cease-fire to end fighting between Israel and Gaza.
Israeli military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich reported Thursday on Twitter that authorities had arrested the man who planted the bomb on the bus and identified him as an Arab Israeli from the village of Taybeh. She said he was a member of Hamas.
22/11/2012 20:41 GMT
Arrest Made In Tel Aviv Bus Bombing
@ haaretzcom :
BREAKING: #Israel security forces arrest suspects in #TelAviv bus blast http://t.co/91fS0v48
22/11/2012 20:38 GMT
A Palestinian Boy
A Palestinian boy and militants of the Izzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, attend funerals of five Hamas militants in Mugharka village, central Gaza Strip, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012. Five Hamas militants were killed in an Israeli air strike yesterday, Palestinian health officials said. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
22/11/2012 20:28 GMT
Israel-Gaza Conflict Winners And Losers
While the cease-fire agreement between Israel and Gaza on Wednesday brought an end to the rockets and airstrikes, the political fallout is just beginning. The Associated Press offers a breakdown of who won and who lost as a result of the truce agreement:
Read the full story on HuffPost World.