Analysis

Netanyahu’s Conduct in Asylum Seeker Crisis Hints at How He’d Handle Security Threats

With the prime minister’s vacillation and deficient conduct on the matter, there's no escaping wondering about his judgement capabilities when the pressure rises

Israeli army chief Gadi Eisenkot (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet with senior security officials, February 10, 2018.
Ariel Harmoni/Defense Ministry

The farce surrounding Israel’s deportation of African asylum seekers and the rapid changes in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position raise questions about the quality of future decision-making in security matters as well. These questions become more relevant when a real risk of indictment hovers over Netanyahu while he’s subjected to increasing pressure by his online supporters and coalition partners.

In an interview with Haaretz last week, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said that political flap does not cross the doorway of the cabinet meeting room and that all decisions on security issues are made in a professional and pertinent manner. Until recently, cabinet members often praised what they described as Netanyahu’s almost superhuman ability to separate his legal morass from the levelheaded attention to strategic questions.

But can the prime minister continue doing this for long, even if he is indicted? Netanyahu has already hinted that he intends to stay at his post even under those circumstances. His main advantage in recent years is his seniority and cumulative experience in diplomatic and security issues, in comparison to his rivals’ paltry records in these matters. On the other hand, progress in the legal proceedings against him will consume more and more of his time and attention.

When Netanyahu says one thing and then its opposite less than 24 hours later with regard to the asylum seekers, there is no escaping wondering about his judgement capabilities. It’s likely that even analysts in foreign and defense ministries in the capitals of friendly countries are asking themselves what value there is to anything Israel says.

In the last two years, the prime minister has zigzagged in two security-related matters due to criticism on social media. One was the approach to Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot an incapacitated terrorist in Hebron, and the other was concerning the metal detectors on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. In the coming months he may be facing much more significant challenges: increasing escalation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, wars of succession within the Palestinian Authority, the Trump administration’s peace plan and the growing risk of confrontation with Iran and Hezbollah in Israel’s north.

The dispute over the asylum seekers and Netanyahu’s deficient conduct, as important as it is from a moral standpoint, afforded a very frightening glimpse into what could happen here in matters of life and death. These circumstances underscore the importance of upcoming appointments at the top of the defense establishment and law enforcement agencies.

Next December, Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich’s term will end, and Eisenkot will finish his term a month later. The cabinet approved Alsheich’s appointment for three years. It’s hard to believe that Netanyahu will approve a one-year extension, given the backing the commissioner has given to the investigations against the prime minister. It’s more likely that Netanyahu will wait for some police failure in order to try and get rid of Alsheich. No less critical is the appointment of the chief of staff who will replace Eisenkot. These are two additional yet significant decisions which a government that seems to have lost its way will have to face in the next few months.