Tuesday just wasn’t Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s day. The press conference he convened with the promise of a surprising and thunderous announcement ended with a recycled pledge that's unlikely to shift the direction of a single Israeli voter. In the meantime, not only did the gesture that Netanyahu was expecting from the Trump administration fail to materialize, but his most enthusiastic supporter in Washington was fired, in preparation for what appears to be a significant pivot in U.S. policy towards Iran.
To top things off, as Netanyahu addressed a campaign rally in Ashdod, the Palestinians — most likely Islamic Jihad— welcomed him with a barrage of Katyusha rockets fired from the Gaza Strip on Ashdod and Ashkelon. It wouldn’t be surprising if that were to turn out to be a deliberate Iranian provocation, less than a week before the election. This transpired in an arena where Netanyahu is particularly vulnerable – his government’s longstanding inability to protect Israel’s Gaza-border communities.
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The rocket fire from the Strip caught Netanyahu in the most embarrassing situation for him and the most useful situation for his rivals. He was photographed being hustled away from the stage by Shin Bet bodyguards to a shelter, experiencing for the first time what residents of southern Israel have endured regularly for the past year and a half (and sporadically since 2001). Netanyahu promised a dramatic event, but was caught up in a very different drama.
Half a headline
The prime minister's troubles began even earlier. For the second time in less than 24 hours, it seemed that U.S. President Donald Trump had taken the air out of the prime minister’s latest campaign move. On Monday evening, Netanyahu convened a special press conference at which he revealed new disclosures about Iran’s nuclear project. But Trump, with or without any connection, announced some two hours later that he was willing to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rohani.
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Tuesday was a repeat performance. Once again the Prime Minister’s Office promised a dramatic announcement, once again the media got into a tizzy — and once again Netanyahu supplied only half of a headline, with a vague promise to impose Israeli sovereignty on the Jordan Valley and maybe on the West Bank as well, if and when he wins next week’s election.
The expectations that developed around Netanyahu’s announcement were in part the result of conjecture that it was coordinated with the U.S. administration. But less than half an hour after Netanyahu concluded his remarks, Trump dropped his bomb, as per usual, on Twitter: John Bolton is heading home — the third national security adviser to part ways with the president in under three years.
Trump for Trump
Trump, according to reports in the U.S. media, had reservations about Bolton from the start. There were reports that the president wavered over hiring him because of Bolton’s voluminous mustache, but his firing presumably had more to do with Bolton’s alignment with the neoconservative camp, which pushed President George W. Bush into wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, which took place 18 years ago Wednesday. Trump claimed after the fact that he was against the second Gulf war, of which Bolton was a central supporter.
In recent months, Trump and Bolton have disagreed on a number of issues. The adviser embarrassed the president when he promised, during a live broadcast, a coup that didn’t materialize in Venezuela. He annoyed Trump by opposing the president’s peace efforts in Afghanistan, disagreed with him over his conciliatory stance on North Korea — and apparently was staunchly against the current plans to renew negotiations with Tehran.
Trump, who dismissed recommendations to punish Iran militarily for attacking the oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and downing an American drone in June, fears a war with Iran. His dismissal of Bolton, even if it was the result of disagreements over issues spanning the globe, is not good news for Netanyahu. The adviser’s removal could be another indication of Trump’s willingness to negotiate with Iran.
In effect, the main obstacles to talks can now be found in Tehran, rather than Washington. The Iranians are demanding the lifting of the sanctions as a precondition to negotiations. The U.S. is opposed, and to break the stalemate, France is offering a $15 billion letter of credit that would allow Iran to receive hard currency. In addition, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is skeptical about even the idea of a Trump-Rohani meeting. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in contrast, said Tuesday that the United States is open to negotiations with no preconditions.
That doesn’t mean that Netanyahu’s battle of containment is totally lost. The main characteristic of U.S. policy in the past two and a half years has been the extreme capriciousness of the president. And still, it seems the days are over when Trump seemed to be reciting the weekly talking points issued by Jerusalem nearly word for word.
That’s not because Trump has changed his spots over Israel, but rather for a different reason, one the Israeli right stubbornly refused to acknowledge throughout the honeymoon phase. Trump first and foremost looks after of Trump, and at the moment he needs diplomatic achievements, not new wars in the Middle East.
The election's image
Israel’s defense establishment has been worried over the past few days about the potential for another escalation on the northern front. Iran keeps trying to smuggle precision-guided missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon while also trying to set up assembly lines for precision weapons on Lebanese soil. Friction between the sides is increasing, in light of the Israeli declarations about its determination to block these measures and the numerous strikes that have been reported in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
But the new outburst, at the height of a major Israel Defense Forces exercise simulating a multiple-from war, came Tuesday evening from the south, when the rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip. The immediate suspect was Islamic Jihad, which was behind much of the fire in the past several weeks. In this instance, it’s a major provocation — not firing at the border communities, but instead launching Katyushas at Ashkelon and Ashdod, at the height of Netanyahu’s speech in the northernmost of the two cities.
There was a military response, limited in strength and scope. Although the Israeli Air Force struck some 15 Hamas-linked targets, there were no reports of casualties from Gaza. Will Netanyahu be dragged into a broader operation in the Strip, mere days before the election? Throughout the past several months, each time similar questions arose, the prime minister chose restraint.
His natural tendency is supposed to result in the same decision this time as well, but with his political future hanging in the balance, the circumstances may have changed. In the absence of a different picture in the meantime, the image of Netanyahu being removed from the stage is the picture of this entire election campaign. It would take a saint to separate military and political considerations Tuesday night.
Last week, a senior defense official was asked about the likelihood of an escalation in the Gaza Strip. In the coming year, he opined, there was a high probability that Israel will be caught up in another military operation in the Strip, “and if it happens, it will be because of Islamic Jihad,” he said.