Benjamin Netanyahu began his statement from the Defense Ministry on Sunday night with a long and detailed account of the five years he spent in the military, as a soldier and officer in the IDF’s most elite of units, Sayeret Matkal. He spoke of how he had almost died on a dark night, in the waters of the Suez Canal, during a commando raid in the War of Attrition. Of how he was wounded (he omitted the fact that it was from friendly fire) in the rescue mission on the hijacked Sabena airliner in 1972 – and of course he mentioned his brother Yoni’s death in Entebbe.
The prime minister didn't only need to emphasize his combat record because he was entering – for the first time in his long political career – the Defense Ministry as its new minister (in addition to his other roles as prime minister, foreign minister and health minister), but because this was his first election speech of the 2019 campaign.
Not that he’s willing to concede publicly yet that the elections are actually happening. He insisted that there doesn’t have to be an election for another 12 months and that in such “a complex security period” it would be “irresponsible” to hold an early election. But the implication of his decision to add defense to his portfolios is clear: It means that Habayit Hayehudi's leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, will now be forced to go through with his ultimatum to resign and support the Knesset dissolution bill, which will be presented to the Knesset on Wednesday, if he doesn’t get the coveted job.
Netanyahu didn’t explain why this week suddenly constitutes a more complex security period than any other period; why it was the right thing for him to call early elections in 2015, cutting his previous government short by three entire years, just because of the first reading of the law which would have forced Sheldon Adelson’s freesheet Israel Hayom to actually charge a minimal fee; why throughout most of this year, when he himself was trying to get his coalition partners to agree to early elections, which would have preempted the expected corruption indictments against him, it was the responsible thing to do.
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Instead of giving any reasons, Netanyahu managed to say in four different ways – within the space of two minutes – that as the leader, he makes decisions based on confidential intelligence and that the Israeli public just has to trust him on it. There was a word missing there: “Gaza.” Netanyahu didn’t mention Gaza, or the controversial cease-fire with Hamas. But it was clear he was trying to repair his tough-guy image, which was damaged last week when he insisted Israel rush into a truce with Hamas.
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The non-election election speech was aimed at changing the narrative from the weak and war-shy prime minister to that of Israel’s ultimate security chief. As the statement ended, he loftily waved away the reporters’ forlorn attempts at questions – “I’m going to work,” he dismissed them curtly.
Netanyahu is not the first prime minister to hold the defense portfolio as well. In fact, for long chunks of Israel’s history, it was the accepted practice. David Ben-Gurion did most of his time in power. Levi Eshkol did it, until on the eve of the Six-Day War he was forced to appoint Moshe Dayan as warlord. Menachem Begin did it for a short while. Yitzhak Rabin in his second term and Ehud Barak of course, did the same.
Despite Netanyahu's deep belief that no one can do a better job than he can, at anything of any consequence, the prime minister has never shown an inclination to be defense minister as well. He sought instead to create a strong National Security Council in the Prime Minister’s Office and to control the defense establishment from afar. It fits in much better with the “presidential” fashion he always tried to force on Israel’s parliamentary system.
That hasn’t changed. But wounded by the Gaza debacle, Netanyahu urgently needs to prove his security credentials in the next few months as Israel goes to elections. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. He prefers running campaigns on his record as Israel’s senior statesman and the captain of its prosperous economy. And besides, he has rarely got on well with the IDF generals, who he has always viewed as too powerful and too left wing.
But Netanyahu now knows that by the end of the week the election campaign will have officially begun and Israel will almost certainly be going to the polls in March. This campaign has begun disadvantageously for him and he needs the aura of the one office he never felt he needed before, the one that gives him an excuse for being seen in the company of soldiers in the field twice a week, to give him a boost in these crucial months.