Analysis

Israel Gears Up for Elections: Netanyahu’s Strongest Advantage Over His Challengers

Netanyahu will find it difficult to fashion his preferred underdog image, when all the polls predict victory by a large margin. The persecution complex he needs to bring voters to the polls will be dominated by something new

Netanyahu at the scene of the attack at Givat Asaf, December 2018
Tomer Applebaum

The sensitive security situation turned out to be only a temporary excuse. Just over a month has passed from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s warning speech (“sacrifice will be required from all of us”), with which he stopped Habayit Hayehudi from bolting the government, and the dissolution by consensus of the coalition on Monday.

During this time, the reason emerged for the sensitive situation that the prime minister had relied on – the discovery of attack tunnels dug by Hezbollah under the Lebanese border. But in that same period of time the extent of the danger those tunnels posed also became clear. The Israel Defense Forces had prepared itself for the possibility of a major escalation, but the engineering work to demolish the tunnels, all carried out within Israeli territory, has been going on without real interference from the Lebanese side.

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Now, with political maneuvering at an impasse due to the military draft bill, the power of the security argument has been deflated. The sensitive military period will continue, but the connection to elections is weak and in any case it shouldn’t influence the decision regarding their timing.

This is also a good lesson with regard to the next security arguments that will be brought up by Netanyahu and his rivals in the months to come. During the campaign, more than ever, these arguments should be treated with the skepticism they deserve.

Netanyahu has won three election campaigns in a row, thanks to a somewhat paradoxical mix of messages. On the one hand, the prime minister tells voters that the security situation is good and their lives have hardly been effected by the upheaval that gripped the Middle East for eight years now. On the other hand, Netanyahu is constantly signaling that he is the main protection against a dangerous flare-up; his leadership, we are told, is the human wall separating us from a disaster the likes of the civil war in Syria.

The main difficulty of Netanyahu’s rivals in the center and on the left is in persuading voters that they can also pass the test that Hillary Clinton, and after her Ehud Barak, a decade ago called “the 3 A.M. phone call” – that they too can handle a tough security situation if one should break out.

Netanyahu is approaching the upcoming elections in quite a different situation. He will find it difficult to fashion his preferred underdog image, when all the polls predict victory by a large margin over his rivals. And the persecution complex he needs to bring his voters in droves to the polls will be provided this time by crime news, not security news.

The fight against the indictments he is facing, which is apparently guiding a good many of his decisions, has already been reflected in the increasingly extreme statements issued by his mouthpieces in the Knesset and the media.

The other change involves his status as defense minister, which occurred the moment he chose to continue to hold the office left vacant by Avigdor Lieberman. For the first time, there is no buffer between him and the security situation and no one to pass ministerial responsibility onto.

Lieberman may have made a good calculation. Outside of the government, to the right of Netanyahu, Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, might be able to survive the upcoming elections and cross the electoral threshold. Netanyahu’s special portfolio is gaining him many attractive photo ops in his Uniqlo jacket, with soldiers and officers. His Achilles heel, as noted: If the security situation does grow worse, the responsibility will be his alone.

As in every election, the opposition will look with suspicion at every security move the government makes in the months to come. But precisely here the left tends toward conspiracy theories. Netanyahu is far from a military adventurist and usually acts with great caution when it comes to going on the attack.

The risk here is different – that assaults from the right and the left over the government’s weakness, for example, in dealing with another escalation in the Gaza Strip, will spur Netanyahu toward greater aggression with elections in the offing. That already happened to Netanyahu against his will during an election campaign, with Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.

In the background, it bears mentioning, there will also a changeover of army chiefs of staff, with Aviv Kochavi taking office on January 15.

War readiness off agenda

The last meeting Netanyahu held before the heads of the coalition parties met to decide on the dissolution of the government, was in the afternoon, in his office, with the IDF ombudsman, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik.

Netanyahu asked Brik directly as to his criticism of the IDF’s readiness for war. Brik has been expressing his opinions over the past few months in a series of sharply worded reports and letters, most of which were published for the first time in Haaretz. His complaints are a matter of serious dispute with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, but now this discussion will be shunted to the margins of the media agenda because elections have been declared.

Coincidently, Netanyahu’s meeting with Brik took place in Jerusalem at the same time the General Staff Forum was meeting in the Kirya in Tel Aviv to discuss the exact same matter. Eisenkot received two reports at that meeting – one by the IDF comptroller, Brig. Gen. (res.) Ilan Harari, who examined the readiness of the various divisions; and the second, by a committee chaired by reserve major generals Doron Almog and Avi Mizrahi, dealing with the situation of the ground forces branch, which delivered its recommendations and conclusions to Eisenkot with regard to some of the issues Brik had raised.

The army intends to make most of the two reports public on Tuesday. MK Omer Bar-Lev, who heads a sub-committee on IDF readiness (Zionist Union), also took part in the meeting of the General Staff Forum.