Analysis |

Netanyahu Launches His Election Campaign, Lurching Toward the Center

Netanyahu's message last week in Paris was that Israel needs steady hands at the wheel. But now he no longer has a defense minister to blame, and its hard to rely on the military for political support

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Netanyahu at the annual memorial for Golda Meir, yesterday.
Netanyahu at the annual memorial for Golda Meir, yesterday.Credit: AFP
Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election campaign will highlight his vast experience, his authority on security issues and his reservations about military and diplomatic adventures. It will be a replay of David Ben-Gurion’s successful “Say ‘yes’ to the old man” campaign in the 1959 elections.

Ben-Gurion was 72, three years older than Netanyahu will be when he contends in the 2019 elections. The message will be updated and adapted to the era of tweets and streaming news, but its essence won’t change; Israel needs steady hands at the wheel, not inexperienced revolutionaries.

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Netanyahu actually launched his campaign last week in Paris, at the press conference at which he rejected calls to intensify the confrontation with Hamas in Gaza. He maintained the theme at the state memorial ceremony for Ben-Gurion, and on Sunday he sharpened the message during his brief speech at the defense establishment’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, in which he appointed himself defense minister, not Naftali Bennett, who was demanding the post.

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Netanyahu got support from former chief of staff and current political hopeful Benny Gantz, who spoke against “Exploiting our just defensive war for personal or political gain.” Or in translation, “Bibi, wait for me; don’t appoint Bennett defense minister. I’ll be there soon to rescue you.”

Netanyahu justified his readiness to let Bennett go and drop his alliance with the radical right by citing secret security risks that he couldn’t reveal to the public, only to the General Staff Forum and the heads of the intelligence community. Rely on me, he said, without elaborating.

Lieberman speaking at press conference, last week.Credit: Emil Salman

But it’s difficult to conduct an election campaign around mysterious security risks and hope that the military brass will support him with briefings on increasing Iranian strength in the north or tensions with the Russians in Syria. It’s hard to rely on the Israel Defense Forces for political support; Netanyahu got into his current predicament because of two special operations that ended in frustration – a bombing in Syria that was followed by the downing of a Russian surveillance plane, and the activity in Khan Yunis, whose failure led to the last round of violence on the Gaza border.

Netanyahu and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who didn’t always work in tandem, this time closed ranks and succeeded in preventing much public discussion or demands to investigate the two incidents. Meanwhile, they both are rid of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who was made a scapegoat for the military failures, as has been the custom throughout Israel’s history.

If Netanyahu continues to move toward the center, which should also help him on the legal front, he would prefer to rely on his friend U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan. One can assume that the plan will be presented in accordance with the political schedule in Israel, to help Netanyahu and reinforce the message that he, and only he, can recruit world leaders to his side. Vote for me and you’ll get Trump for the same price, Netanyahu will say, on the background of polls indicating the U.S. president’s enormous popularity in Israel.

It looks like Trump’s plan is going to be a variation of the Arab Peace Initiative, sugar-coated to make it easier for Israel to digest. Let’s say — separating out the core issues and putting off addressing Jerusalem, refugees, and recognizing the Jewish nation-state; advancing discussions on demilitarization, security arrangements and economic aid to the Palestinians; and expanding the regional dimension of the agreement, including normalization between Israel and the Gulf states, something that already began with Netanyahu’s visit to Oman — such a plan would also help Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Trump’s and Netanyahu’s partner, to extract himself from the mess he’s gotten into because of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Rather than looking like a bloodthirsty tyrant, MBS will be portrayed as the herald of Palestinian independence. A negative response by PA President Mahmoud Abbas won’t hurt Netanyahu’s campaign; it will merely show that he’s more moderate and thoughtful and prepared to go with Trump’s flow.

But this outline also poses risks. A security crisis in the north or the south will put Netanyahu on the frontline, unable to hide behind a defense minister who can assume responsibility for failure, and soon with a new chief of staff who’s less experienced than Eisenkot. Bennett and Lieberman will both portray Netanyahu as a dishrag before Hamas and Hezbollah, someone who mortgaged Israeli’s security in exchange for futile visits to the Persian Gulf and delusional peace plans. That’s exactly what Netanyahu did to Shimon Peres on the eve of the fateful 1996 elections.

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