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Netanyahu's ‘Mr. Security’ Campaign Pitch Is a Tough Sell

A single terrorist in Jerusalem or a rocket launcher in Gaza could determine the prime minister's political future.

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Netanyahu during a press conference in Eilat, while Iranian-supplied rockets seized on the Klos C displayed behind him.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Alongside the angry accusations of disloyalty thrown at his now-former coalition partners Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni in his early-election speech on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to an issue that has served him so well in so many election campaigns: the security threats facing Israel and their effect on Israelis’ sense of personal security. This was not the heavy-handed fear-mongering of campaigns past, but he nonetheless hit all the usual talking points, as he had in last week’s address to the main claims were presented once again, both in that speech and in the one he made last week in the Knesset: The Middle East is filled with dangers, from Hamas and Iran to the Islamic State, and only he can take them on because the only thing the Israeli left can do is to evacuate settlements.

A series of suicide bombings on Israeli buses in the winter of 1996 sealed Netanyahu’s first election victory — by just fractions of a percent of the vote — against Shimon Peres. His return to power in 2009 was built on former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s failure in the Second Lebanon War (and on Netanyahu’s promises to be “strong against Hamas,” after Olmert failed to decisively defeat the organization in the Gaza Strip in Operation Cast Lead, on the eve of the election). Netanyahu’s victory in the 2013 election, which came despite the widespread social protests in the summer of 2011, was achieved mainly due to his winning card: relative calm on the security front, despite the enormous upheavals in the Arab world. Yair Lapid rode the wave of social protest to 19 Knesset seats for his Yesh Atid party, but when it came to defense matters it seemed most Israelis still put their stock in Netanyahu.

The picture going into the election this time is much less in Netanyahu’s favor. The great shock was last summer, in a 51-day war with Hamas that ended with no clear victor. Volleys of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip sent half of Israel’s population running to shelters, as occasional rockets were lobbed into northern and southeastern Israel from over the Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian borders. As soon as Israel and Hamas reached a binding cease-fire, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, expanded its horrific activities in Syria and Iraq and began gathering support closer to Israel. On top of all this, about a month ago Jerusalem and the West Bank were hit with the worst series of terror attacks since the second intifada, killing 11 Israelis. In a single 24-hour period this week, three Israelis were wounded in two stabbing attacks in the West Bank and an Israeli man died after he was presumably thrown from his car onto a West Bank road. His death is being investigated as a murder involving the theft of his car, but it could turn out to have been carried out as a terror attack.

While Netanyahu’s conduct in Operation Protective Edge was responsible and restrained, overall, he will be hard-put now to run in his usual “Mr. Security” persona. Netanyahu damaged this reputation for his right-wing voters back in 2011 when he was dragged into the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap deal, in violation of his declared principles, freeing 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the abducted Israeli soldier. To Netanyahu’s centrist voters, the war against Hamas exposed the gap between his tough talk and his difficulties in navigating the real world. Neither Netanyahu nor Israel’s security agencies have found the solution to the recent string of terror attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank, most by independent actors rather than terror organizations.

The defense establishment, meanwhile, has not backed up the repeated claims by Netanyahu and cabinet ministers from Likud and Habayit Hayehudi that the Palestinian Authority is responsible for these attacks. The head of the Shin Bet security service, Yoram Cohen — a Netanyahu appointment — even declared, just after last month’s massacre at a Jerusalem synagogue, that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was not behind the latest incidents.

The Gaza Strip is heating up again, in the meantime. Only an agreement brokered by the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry (described a few months ago by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman as anti-Israel), recently allowed the resumption of supplies of construction materials to the Strip, heading off a new confrontation with Hamas. In light of Egypt’s demonstrated reluctance to reach a real agreement, a repeat round against Hamas again seems like a realistic long-term scenario. To some extent, Netanyahu’s political fate could now be said to rest in the hands of a single knife-wielding terrorist in Jerusalem or a rocket operator in Gaza.

The continued crisis in Jerusalem’s relations with Washington further weakens Netanyahu’s claims in the security department. Opinion polls (the most recent of which was conducted this week by Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies) regularly point to the great stock Israelis put in the strategic ties with the United States. While Israeli voters may be critical of the Obama administration’s policies in the greater Middle East, they will still find it difficult to ignore Netanyahu’s contribution to the decline in relations with Washington. President Barack Obama’s cold shoulder, in response to what Washington sees as Netanyahu’s interference in domestic politics, was felt for the duration of the war in Gaza, when the White House was in no hurry to fulfill Israeli requests for critical rearmament.

The Iranian question, too, is always hovering in the background. While Netanyahu invokes the Iranian nuclear menace less frequently in his speeches these days, it remains his main argument for staying in office. He genuinely believes he is the only Israeli leader who can save the nation of Israel from the threat of a second Holocaust, which will occur swiftly if the Iranian leadership carries out its plot to manufacture nuclear weapons. His achievements in this area to date are partial only. Since his reelection he has labored to build a viable Israeli military threat to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Tehran is not quite convinced, but Washington is.

That Israeli threat is what spurred the Obama administration to apply the battery of sanctions that paralyzed Iran’s economy, led to the election of the relatively moderate President Hassan Rohani and produced the interim agreement between Tehran and the P5 + 1 powers, which was recently extended until July. The bottom line is that Netanyahu has helped to postpone, but not remove, the Iranian nuclear threat — and that’s too long and complicated for a 60-second campaign ad.

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