Analysis

Israel's Early Elections: How Trump Accidentally Exposed Netanyahu's Bluff

Netanyahu said only a few weeks ago the security situation in the north was too dangerous for Israel to head to an election. Now, suddenly it isn’t

Benjamin Netanyah shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump, during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March 5, 2018.
Bloomberg

WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria will have ramifications across the Middle East, but on Monday, at least one of them was already made evident in Israel: Trump’s decision exposed the bluff behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s use of security considerations to justify the timing of Israel’s upcoming election.

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Just a month ago, Netanyahu was facing a political crisis inside his religious, right-wing coalition: Avigdor Lieberman, who was his defense minister, resigned in protest of the government’s policy on Gaza, and Netanyahu decided to keep the defense portfolio for himself – despite the fact that he is already foreign minister, health minister and, until Sunday, also the immigration absorption minister.

As a result of that decision, Ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party threatened to resign from the government and force a new election, unless the defense portfolio was given to Bennett. Netanyahu, who views Bennett as an electoral threat from the right, refused to accept their demand, and convened a news conference in which he warned that Israel was facing a severe security situation on its borders, one that would make going to new elections an irresponsible decision.

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“We are in a particularly complex security situation. In times like these, you do not topple a government. It's irresponsible,” Netanyahu said. "We are in an intensifying battle, and in the middle of a battle we don't abandon our posts. In the middle of a battle we do not play politics. The security of the nation is beyond politics, and the security of the nation is also beyond personal concerns," he added.

Netanyahu’s speech put Bennett and Shaked in a bind. They were afraid that if they would go ahead with their threat and dismantle the government, Netanyahu would accuse them of hurting Israel’s security because of political considerations. As a result, they made an embarrassing about-face, and reluctantly accepted Netanyahu’s self-appointment as defense minister.

A month has passed, and on Monday, Netanyahu suddenly changed his tune and announced that it was time for Israel to go to a new election. Perhaps coincidentally, his decision to suddenly embrace the election he had previously warned against came just days after it was leaked that senior officials in the Justice Ministry recommended that the attorney general indict Netanyahu on at least two charges of bribery.

Suddenly, the serious security threats that justified not going to elections last month were no longer relevant. Netanyahu again convened a press conference, and this time he explained that an election was inevitable. His narrow coalition, with a razor-thin majority of 61 members of Knesset (out of 120), made governing too difficult, he stated – even though the exact same coalition existed last month, when he said there was no reason not to let it stay in place for another year.

A fighter stands next to U.S. humvee at a U.S. troop's outpost on a road leading to the front line between Syrian Manbij Military Council fighters and Turkish-backed fighters, March 29, 2018.
Hussein Malla,AP

Netanyahu, aware of how his “security first” statement from November would look in retrospect, tried to justify his sudden call for elections by saying that the Israel Defense Forces' efforts against Hezbollah’s cross-border tunnels in the north was moving ahead, and that’s why it was no longer dangerous and irresponsible to send Israel into an election cycle. This, despite the fact that just weeks ago senior Israeli officials warned that the effort against the tunnels could continue for months, and that the northern border would be on high alert for a long period of time.

Netanyahu's developing narrative regarding security and the elections could perhaps enjoy the benefit of the doubt if it wasn’t for Trump’s surprising announcement last week that he is withdrawing all American forces from Syria.

There is a debate in Israel on how bad the American withdrawal will be for Israel’s security, but except for a few fringe voices on the far-right, no one thinks it will somehow improve Israel’s security situation. The consensus among security experts is that it will either be bad, or very bad, since it will embolden a number of actors – Iran, the Assad regime, Erdogan’s Turkey – all of whom are all hostile to Israel.

Yet despite this real and concerning security deterioration that happened just last week, Netanyahu's concerns for the security situation have somehow dissipated. Suddenly, even a serious situation like the one Israel is about to face by itself in Syria was not important enough to overcome Netanyahu’s own political (and legal) calculations.

Netanyahu’s twists and turns over the last month proved once again that he is the most sophisticated tactician in Israel’s political scene, always a step ahead of his rivals on the left, the center and the right. But thanks to Trump’s withdrawal from Syria, Netanyahu was also exposed as one of the most cynical among Israel’s politicians – someone who doesn’t hesitate to use the supposedly sacrosanct issue of national security for purely political purposes. When it suits him, threats on Israel's security are important enough to delay an election; but when it doesn’t, security considerations are cast aside – and his own political interests guide the government’s policies.