Napoleon Bonaparte famously preferred lucky generals over good ones, and the same is true for political candidates. On Tuesday, Benjamin Netanyahu’s luck deserted him: Hamas rockets dispersed a Netanyahu election rally in the city of Ashdod, forcing the prime minister to seek shelter and humiliating him in the process. The debacle came a few short hours after Donald Trump undercut Netanyahu’s main claim to fame – his alliance with the U.S. president – by summarily dismissing his main ally in the White House, John Bolton. (For the latest election polls - click here)
Both incidents are damaging for Netanyahu’s election campaign: The ongoing rocket fire in the south and his accommodation of Hamas rule in Gaza are widely considered Netanyahu’s Achilles’ heel in the security arena. And Trump’s ill-timed dismissal of Bolton undercuts Netanyahu’s main electoral asset: His ability to influence, if not steward, Trump’s Middle East policies to Israel’s benefit.
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A few minutes after Netanyahu finished “exposing” a new Iranian nuclear plant and calling for more international pressure on Tehran on Monday, Trump breezily said he’d be happy to meet with President Hassan Rohani. And just as Netanyahu announced Tuesday his intention to annex the Jordan Valley “in close coordination” with the Trump administration, news broke that Bolton, a strong supporter of the prime minister’s hawkish views on Iran, had been sacked.
It was pure coincidence, one assumes, but damaging nonetheless. Just as Netanyahu was beseeching Israelis to reelect him next Tuesday because only he could “negotiate” with Trump, the president seemed to be distancing himself from their hitherto joint stance on Iran. Even though Bolton’s departure was apparently linked to his opposition to Trump’s plan to hold talks at Camp David with the Taliban, the timing of Trump’s tweet heralding Bolton’s dismissal undercut Netanyahu’s efforts to use their famously close relationship as a central prop in his election campaign.
Trump’s apparent dovish shift on Iran, brought home by Bolton’s contentious dismissal/resignation, also bolstered the opposition’s effort to paint Netanyahu as a “loser” who had lost his legendary magic touch. Coming after Netanyahu’s apparent failure on Sunday to press his case on voter fraud and to advance a bill permitting cameras in polling places, as well as his touting of the new Iranian danger on Monday (which most observers saw as a political dud), this is not a look that Netanyahu covets.
Other than exhibiting the continuously revolving door at the White House and Trump’s inability to get along with strong personalities who challenge his positions, the president’s rift with Bolton also highlights his steady drift from his hitherto hawkish stand on Iran, embraced by most Israel supporters in the GOP, to the more isolationist stance championed by Republican Sen. Rand Paul. The shift is more of a natural fit for Trump, but one that Netanyahu has desperately tried to underplay and conceal, even from his own cabinet ministers.
Netanyahu is still hoping to hear a U.S. endorsement or at least implicit acceptance of his plan to annex the Jordan Valley as a first step toward extending Israeli sovereignty over what he described on Tuesday as “Jewish settlements and other vital areas in the West Bank.” Whatever gains he may make among Israeli voters for his pledge – regurgitated from previous elections, but presented now in more specific terms – these might be more than offset by a growing perception that Netanyahu’s entire Trump-based strategy may be unraveling.
Netanyahu’s press conference was part of his largely successful effort to manufacture continuous news and to dominate the election campaign agenda. He is the master of ceremonies, his prime ministerial position is his pulpit, government policies are his props and Israelis are his captive audience. His slogan should be “All Bibi, All The Time.” The prime minister’s omnipresence necessarily sets him at center stage and inevitably dwarfs his rivals in comparison. The risk for Netanyahu, however, is that his hyperactivity also projects desperation, which, along with being branded a “loser,” could also push voters in Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz’s direction.
And while his second straight “dramatic announcement” was panned by rivals as pure election propaganda, Netanyahu’s choice of the Jordan Valley as a first step in annexing large swaths of Judea and Samaria was actually a clever ploy: It is the one area that most Israelis, from deep right to center-left, would like to see attached permanently to sovereign Israel.
Netanyahu’s declaration of intent to annex the area “immediately after the election” was widely seen as an effort to strengthen Likud at the expense of parties to its right. But it may also appeal to centrist hawks, who are wavering between Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, as well as Gantz’s party.
The next item on Netanyahu’s agenda is the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party, which, contrary to his expectations, increasingly seems likely to pass the 3.25 percent threshold and send four of its representatives to the Knesset. Netanyahu now fears that the Likud campaign beseeching voters not to cast their ballots for Otzma because it won’t pass the threshold runs the risk of drawing away those very votes that would enable it to make the grade.
As things stand now, Otzma Yehudit’s success or failure could make the difference between Netanyahu securing his coveted 61 seats (giving him a majority in the 120-seat Knesset), which would grant him immunity from prosecution, and, coming up short, with the possibility of his career coming to an ignominious end in the courts.
On Thursday, Netanyahu takes his traveling road show to the Black Sea city of Sochi to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. As with Trump, the meeting is meant to underscore Netanyahu’s diplomatic prowess and close personal ties with the leaders of both superpowers. But given his experience this week with Trump, Netanyahu might be worried that Putin will join his U.S. counterpart and pull a fast one that could turn the visit into a liability rather than asset.
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