Analysis

Final Salvo of Netanyahu’s Campaign Shows Direction He’ll Take if He Wins

In the home stretch, the prime minister used his connections with world powers, exercised restraint with Hamas and took a tough line with the Palestinian Authority

u.s. President Donald Trump with Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019
Manuel Balce Ceneta,AP

The defense developments in recent weeks reflect the Netanyahu government’s approach in recent years, and presumably its positions during the next year if Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party sets up the next government after Tuesday’s election.

In the home stretch before the vote, Netanyahu is relying on his close ties with the leaders of international powers, and has shown restraint bordering on appeasement toward Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But at the same time he has taken a firm line, at least in words, against the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Among the world powers, Netanyahu in recent weeks has enjoyed a series of gestures and extraordinary gifts from U.S. President Donald Trump, and a gesture (whose price was not clarified) from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump completed a series of steps that could have come straight from Likud’s talking points when he recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, after he had already moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and abandoned the nuclear agreement with Iran.

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On Monday, Trump added the decision to label Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terror organization. In this case, the consideration was above all an American one, but it also serves Israel’s interests, and Netanyahu can justifiably claim that his positions have had a marked influence on Trump’s policies.

Putin’s gesture involved the Russian-Israeli operation to locate and remove Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel’s body from Syria. You’d have to be pretty naive to believe that this was merely a gesture of Russia’s goodwill, or that the president of a country with tens of thousands of soldiers whose burial places are unknown – from World War II through the Soviets’ Afghanistan war – was overly concerned by the anguish of an Israeli fighter’s family.

We can presume that Putin will know how to leverage this gesture, and that he wasn’t blind to the timing of the return of Baumel’s remains, a week before the election, even if the location of the remains (after several failures) indeed occurred a short time before. The unusual way that clothes of Baumel and his boots were returned to Israel only after the Netanyahu-Putin meeting in Moscow shows that the Russian move was calculated to help Netanyahu.

In Gaza, Netanyahu continued the policy of containment against Hamas. The prime minister and his spokesmen continue to talk about a good defense performance during his term, while minimizing or even ignoring the daily harassment the Gaza border residents have suffered over the past year.

Israel’s willingness to make a series of concessions to Gaza right after two incidents of rocket fire at the Tel Aviv area shows that Netanyahu made a conscious decision to act with restraint toward Gaza and get past the election without an escalation in the south. The increased military deployment around the Strip, which was reduced over the weekend, wasn’t meant to prepare or a ground operation but as a threat to Hamas, in an effort to spur it to reach agreements with the mediators from Egyptian intelligence.

Interestingly, Israel hasn’t released any information on the agreements that were reached. Hamas leaders have been more forthcoming: Netanyahu agreed to widen the fishing zone off Gaza, ease movement through the border crossings, expand exports from Gaza and cut 30 percent from the list of dual-use materials that Israel bans from entering the Strip for fear they would be used for military purposes.

Qatar, with Israel’s consent, will double its financial aid to the Strip to $30 million a month for a year. And unlike the money that the PA would transfer to Gaza, this cash goes to Hamas workers, not to PA employees.

In the West Bank, by contrast, Netanyahu’s approach is different. Through the entire campaign, and essentially throughout this last term, the prime minister has been ignoring the possibility of relaunching diplomatic talks with the PA. Despite this, the security coordination between the sides is continuing in a way that serves Israeli interests in the field.

Over the past year, together with the Trump administration, Israel has been working to increase the economic pressure on the PA by cutting American aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency, and by halting tax transfers to the PA as punishment for its financial support of jailed terrorists.

In the marathon of interviews that he has been conducting before the election, Netanyahu has declared his support for the possible annexation of the West Bank settlements. Other promises he has made during election campaigns to satisfy the settlers weren’t often kept after an election. This time it also seems that these remarks are part of the attempt to take votes from the parties to the right of Likud. Still, we can’t ignore the symbolic importance of these declarations and the concerns they’ve raised in the West.

This connects to the key question after the election: What kind of coalition will Netanyahu set up if he wins? An important ingredient is the Trump administration’s peace plan, the “deal of the century” that the president plans to unveil in a few weeks, after endless delays. If Netanyahu’s response to the proposal is “yes, but,” he could seek to form a national-unity government with Kahol Lavan, despite its leaders’ vehement declarations that they won’t join a coalition headed by a prime minister facing three indictments.

The second possibility is a narrow right-wing government that will face its first test very soon after being established because several of its parties will strongly oppose any positive response to Trump’s plan. Still, the decisive consideration for Netanyahu isn’t expected to be principles or ideology but survival – which coalition will let him pass legislation that would delay the legal proceedings against him.