Netanyahu Owes a Hearty Thanks to ISIS

The Israeli prime minister is about to win another term thanks to the rise of Islamic terror — and the paralysis of the center-left.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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A screenshot of Netanyahu's campaign ad, February 14, 2015.
A screenshot of Netanyahu's campaign ad, February 14, 2015.
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

I cannot remember any election campaign period as lackluster and devoid of hope as the one we are witnessing now. Many commentators have pointed out that this election seems to be about nothing except Mr. Netanyahu’s breakfast, cleaning and repair expenses and his wife’s appropriation of the rebates on water bottles from the Prime Minister’s Residence. These scandals certainly generate headlines and are pressuring Netanyahu, but have so far failed to inject real vigor into this election. In any case they do not expose real corruption, but just corroborate what most of us knew anyway, namely that Netanyahu’s judgment is severely deficient.

Some have called upon Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni to finally take the gloves off and start a campaign worth the name, and they have indeed hired Reuven Adler, an experienced strategist who used to work with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. And while Adler may be able to produce a few ripples, no campaign trick will make this election come alive.

The reason is simple: Israel’s center-left has well nigh abandoned the great questions regarding Israel’s long-term strategic decisions. It knows that the Israeli public has become allergic to talk about peace, which most Israelis regard as a science fiction scenario that only elitist leftists, completely disconnected from reality, can even dream about. As a result, Herzog and Livni are running a toothless campaign on the themes the 2011 social protest movement put on the agenda: the cost of living and housing, the suffering of Israel’s middle class (important topics in their own right) – and, once in a while, on Netanyahu’s tasteless waste of public funds.

The reason for this lack of bite in Israel’s liberal camp can be seen spread out on the front pages of the world press. The Middle East has been evolving along the lines of the darkest scenarios outlined by Israel’s right. The Arab Spring has turned into a nightmare that has led to the reestablishment of a brutal military dictatorship in Egypt, but is mostly creating a reality of failed states ruled by warring factions, including Al–Qaida and Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL).

Islamic State has been particularly successful in making it to the world media’s front pages and home pages every few days. When beheadings no longer seemed to shock the world sufficiently, ISIS posted the carefully produced video of the burning alive of a captured Jordanian air force pilot – and now they made sure to find a new angle by shooting 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya.

ISIS has succeeded in generating a widespread fear that it is everywhere, and gaining ground in a huge swath stretching from Afghanistan to Algeria, way beyond its core territory in Syria and Iraq. The organization seems indeed to be very effective in attracting ever-growing numbers of youngsters who want to join what seems to them to be the winning Islamist team that is succeeding in keeping the world on its toes.

It is also approaching Israel geographically. Sunni rebels in Syria, including Islamic State, together with reinforcements from Hezbollah, keep fighting with troops loyal to Assad for control of the Golan Heights bordering Israel. The nightmare of radical Islamist organizations that make Hamas look harmless establishing a powerbase along Israel’s border is no longer a paranoid fantasy, but a geopolitical reality.

This is, of course, grist for the mill of Israel’s political right. Rightists often make fun of Israel’s left, whichwas willing to hand back the Golan to Syria in the 1990s. If the left had had its way, they argue, we would now have Al-Qaida and Islamic State sitting on the shores of the Kinneret, certainly not a very comforting image.

This raises an unsettling question that is on most Israelis’ minds: Even if we assume that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is a trustworthy partner for peace (which I do), how can we know that the State of Palestine established after a final status agreement is reached will not be infiltrated by organizations like Islamic State and Al-Qaida? If that happens, these organizations, always looking for the next spectacular act of terror, will be more than happy to shoot down passenger planes flying over Ben-Gurion Airport, effectively closing off Israel’s civilian airspace.

Herzog and Livni are careful not to touch these questions, and are ceding the ground of Israel’s security to Netanyahu, which has led a leading political commentator to dryly conclude that while Herzog is a decent and experienced man, even if he were to form the next government, which seems unlikely, he wouldn’t bring either an agreement with the Palestinians or peace.

The most likely outcome of this election is therefore that Bibi, unloved even by his own constituency, will become the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history; that he will further deepen Israel’s isolation and steer the country in a direction that will boost the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. And he may well do all this in a unity government in which Herzog and Livni continue to provide a center-left fig leaf for Netanyahu’s and Bennett’s further colonization of the West Bank.

The general climate of fear and hopelessness concerning developments in the Middle East serves Netanyahu, the master of fear, phenomenally well. And the center-left has not had the energy and the political will to come up with alternatives that would require creative thinking.

Such alternatives exist. As the last year has shown beyond doubt, the threat of radical Islam is creating a coalition of moderate Middle Eastern regimes that share interests with Israel. Joining such an alliance would require engaging with the Arab League’s 2002 peace initiative, which former Saudi chief of intelligence Turki Al Faisal recently reaffirmed in an article in Haaretz, and working towards cooperation with the Arab world.

The 2011 Israeli Peace Initiative — a response to the Arab Peace Initiative by a group of public figures identified primarily with the Israeli left — proposes a regional approach which could end the current stalemate and create conditions for at least an interim agreement, not just with Palestinians but also with large parts of the Arab and Islamic world – an approach endorsed by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.

But this requires thinking out of the box, which is notoriously difficult when fear rules – and fear has always been Netanyahu’s best friend. Because of the region’s instability and the rise of ISIS, most of Israel’s center-left policy makers are currently paralyzed when it comes to the country’s existential issues. Netanyahu should therefore send letters of thanks to Islamic State, whose members are about to secure him another term in the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.

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