Analysis

On Election Battlefield, Netanyahu Blurs Line Between Security and Propaganda

Netanyahu's confirmation that Israel struck Syria was in keeping with the hysteria that has taken hold of Likud's election campaign

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands near an Iron Dome missile defense system during a tour of a missile boat at a navy base in Haifa, Israel, February 12, 2019.
\ POOL/ REUTERS

The Israeli army has been seeking recently to restore the ambiguity over Israel's policy regarding its attacks on Syria. Senior officers refused to answer questions about an incident near the Golan Heights border on Monday night, when Israeli tanks reportedly fired at a site linked to Hezbollah. 

After the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad recaptured the Syrian part of the Golan last summer, Hezbollah resumed building terrorist networks in the area, despite an explicit Russian promise to Israel to keep Iran and Shi'ite militias associated with it at least 80 kilometers (50 miles) away from the border.

The fog over Monday's incident prevailed for less than a day. On Tuesday evening, somebody briefed the press and provided new information about the attack, just in time for the Channel 12 evening news. Two hours later, as he was about leave for the Middle East summit in Warsaw, it was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself who openly spoke about the strike. "We operate every day, including yesterday, against Iran and its attempts to entrench itself in the region," he said in answer to a question.

>> Read more: Thousands of skiing Israelis saw missiles on the Syria border. But it's still a secret

This was the second time in a month that Netanyahu has done something like this. In mid-January, after an Israeli attack on Iranian storage facilities at Damascus airport (and after outgoing Israeli army Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot commented in detail on Israel's policy of attacks in an interview with the New York Times), Netanyahu claimed credit at the beginning of a cabinet meeting for the operation.  

Arguably, the policy of ambiguity isn't that important and its goal is a lost cause from the outset in any event, when one considers that the fog has been lifted time and again in recent years. After all, Tehran and the Hezbollah leadership know perfectly well when Israeli forces are acting against them and when they are not. 

The major problem is something else. Netanyahu can't have his cake and eat it too, first barring the army from talking and, almost immediately after that, letting the cat out of the bag himself, with such obvious electoral considerations as a backdrop.

Netanyahu's remarks on Tuesday night were in keeping with the hysteria that has taken hold of the entire Likud election campaign. Here is a partial list from the past two weeks: 

A questionable quote from Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani leaked to a newspaper in the Persian Gulf – a newspaper about which in the past it has been claimed that it serves as a propaganda channel on behalf of Netanyahu – and then immediately finds its way into Likud election propaganda; Netanyahu threatens to destroy Iran in response to similar threats from Iran against Israel; Netanyahu films himself on the way to a visit at an Israeli navy base complaining about mysterious figures ("they") who are barring him from publicizing pictures of himself with soldiers (and then released several pictures in any event); and his official social media accounts are spreading a wild and false attack on his rival for the premiership, Benny Gantz, claiming that the former chief of staff "abandoned wounded at Joseph's Tomb." 

And now he has lifted the ambiguity in Syria.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with soldiers during a tour of a missile boat as part of his visit to a navy base in Haifa, Israel, February 12, 2019.
\ POOL/ REUTERS

The most important thing one can say to Netanyahu's credit is that in the nearly ten straight years that he has been at the helm, when it comes to the security front, particularly the northern front, it has been managed cautiously and responsibly for the most part. The prime minister has maintained Israel's interests, and although he has sometimes come dangerously close to the cliff's edge, he has been careful not to embroil the country in an unnecessary war, despite the massive shakeup that the Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria have caused. 

It appears, however, that in the heat of the battle against Gantz and the effort to portray the election campaign as a "strong right wing against a weak left," and perhaps also under the approaching threat of an announcement by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit regarding criminal charges against the prime minister, the boundaries between security and election publicity are blurring for Netanyahu. 

Politically, it’s possible that it’s a gamble that could still prove itself. It has in previous elections. From the perspective of security, however, this could be a dangerous game, both in the form of accumulating damage caused by conflicting messages that the politicians have given the military and in the repeated provocations in Iran and Syria.

Israel is saying, and it seems to be pretty accurate, that so far it has managed to stymie Iran's hope to entrench itself militarily in Syria. As far as is known, in Tehran they don't always know the true extent of the damage the Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops have sustained from the Israeli attacks. But constantly boasting about these attacks could be what convinces the Iranians that they have to respond again, as they tried to do when they fired a missile from Syria that was intercepted over Mount Hermon in late January.