Analysis

Why Netanyahu Suddenly Started Talking About the Golan Heights

The prime minister places political survival above all else - even allowing it to trump the effort to maintain the status quo - and uses the media to meet his goals.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, poses with ministers prior to the weekly cabinet meeting in the Israeli controlled Golan Heights, Sunday, April 17, 2016.
Sebastian Scheiner, AP

The somewhat garrulous spirit that descended on the Prime Minister with regard to security issues was not restricted to the Gaza front. It was preceded by declarations of subduing the third intifada on the West Bank and by two visits to the Golan Heights within one week. On his first visit, during exercises by a reserve brigade, Netanyahu decided to disclose what has not been expressly stated before by Israeli spokespersons (and a topic which was consistently banned by censors from being published by media outlets in Israel): The IDF has carried out dozens of strikes in Syria over the last few years in order to prevent the smuggling of advanced weapon systems to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

On his second visit he was accompanied by the cabinet for a festive session, in which he promised that Israel would remain in the Golan for eternity. Netanyahu’s associates clarified that the declaration was essential in the context of international efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war and the insistence of the Assad regime to reclaim the Golan.

Blogger Shmuel Meir published a thorough analysis of Netanyahu’s view of Syria on the Haaretz's Hebrew website. Former cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser has been promoting an Israeli initiative calling for international recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan. Netanyahu’s two declarations were an exception to the cautious approach and low profile he has kept with regard to Syria over the last five years, during which he managed to stay away from that quagmire, reducing its impact on the Israeli public.

Netanyahu surely has some vision and strategy. He appears to be conservative, cautious, skeptical about Arab intentions and very keen on maintaining the status quo of a guaranteed Israeli military superiority and an entrenched rule over the Golan and the West Bank, as well as hanging on to power for as long as he can.

However, in some cases, the first principle yields to the third one. The most salient example is his dropping the Iran nuclear project from his agenda. Netanyahu’s reluctance to simultaneously confront the heads of Israel’s defense establishment and the American administration, both of which opposed an independent Israeli strike against Iran, led him to decide not to attack Iran’s nuclear installations, thus risking his future in subsequent elections. Shortly after the signing of the Vienna accords last July Netanyahu stopped attacking Barack Obama. The accords, which he had earlier described as a dreadful calamity, have disappeared from his speeches.

Thus, it seems that commentators are missing the main motive behind his latest declarations. Looking at things from the outside, at the beginning of his second decade in office, Netanyahu’s bureau is proceeding according to one overarching principle: maintaining his political support through a dictation of the media’s agenda, which seems to change on a daily basis. For this, an ongoing effort is required, based on improvisations and extinguishing of flare-ups. Any means are legitimate in this campaign, including deceptions, public relations stunts and a frequent deflection of the topics under discussion. 

The fact that the Prime Minister, as if by chance, is also the Minister of Communications, makes it easier for his bureau to maneuver journalists, TV channels and websites. The country’s agenda is subordinated to these needs. If there is a need to strengthen his image as someone who has a grip on security issues during a spate of stabbing attacks, he joins soldiers on the Golan Heights for a photo-op (Netanyahu didn’t invent this – Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert used the same tactics). If a nod to the right wing is required due to the electoral damage wrought by his initial disavowal of the soldier who shot an incapacitated terrorist in Hebron, he’ll bring the cabinet to the Golan and declare that it’s all ours. It doesn’t matter that Assad’s chances of reclaiming the Golan are close to zero, with other worries occupying him at present, with his Russian patrons discussing with the U.S. the possibility of replacing him with someone else from his Alawite community.