In the 1988 election campaign, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis sought to bolster his perceived weakness on defense by inviting the press to the General Dynamics plant in Michigan to witness him riding in an M1A1 Abrams tank.
His rival George Bush Sr. pounced on the photos of a puny Dukakis waving from the tank while sporting a ridiculously oversize helmet to mock the Democratic hopeful, to devastating effect. It was a picture worth a million words and it doomed Dukakis’ already faltering candidacy.
Benjamin Netanyahu, an avid student of U.S. politics, must be worried that the video of him being hastily rushed off stage at an election rally in Ashdod in the face of a Hamas rocket attack will have a similarly disastrous impact on Israeli voters. Even though Netanyahu and his bodyguards were following established procedure, the Ashdod video cast the prime minister in an unfavorable and cowardly light.
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The image was doubly injurious because it highlighted Netanyahu’s main Achilles’ heel in the national security arena: The ongoing failure of his “soft” containment policy towards Hamas to relieve southern Israel from the constant threat of rocket attacks from Gaza.
In close election that could be decided by a miniscule margin, the video could make all the difference between victory and defeat. Netanyahu now has five days to try and un-etch the embarrassing impressions left by the video from the public’s mind. Even for a wily politician known for his skills as a campaign “magician,” it is a formidable challenge.
Netanyahu’s first reaction was to try and turn the generally mocking reactions to his video on their head: In the Wednesday Knesset debate on the Likud proposal to legislate the introduction of cameras to polling places - which failed to garner the requisite majority - Netanyahu said that it wasn’t clear who celebrated the damaging video more: His rivals Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid in Kahol Lavan or Hamas leaders in Gaza.
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But Netanyahu’s distress was also discernable in a repulsive post on his Facebook account in which Gantz and Lapid were accused of allying with “the Arabs” who “want to annihilate us all – women, children and men.” Responding to the ensuing uproar, Netanyahu disavowed the post and blamed its patently racist language on a staffer. Critics claimed that this was Netanyahu’s classic modus operandi: Disseminating outrageous assertions that permeate to his fiery base and quickly disowning them after their damage is done.
Nonetheless, there was one faintly silver lining in the otherwise dark clouds created by the video: It overshadowed what increasingly seems like the imminent collapse of Netanyahu’s entire Trump-based strategy on Iran. Trump’s eagerness to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rohani flies in the face of Netanyahu’s plan to isolate Iran while the dismissal of National Security Adviser John Bolton indicates that the threat of U.S. military action against Tehran, a key part of Netanyahu’s plan to bring the ayatollahs to their knees, is more remote than ever.
First indications of the potential unraveling of Netanyahu’s strategic designs were apparent already in June, when Trump stopped a planned missile attack on Iran in retaliation for the downing of a U.S. surveillance drone. Ignoring Bolton’s urgings to strike back with force, Trump showed that he had no stomach for getting embroiled in another military clash in the Middle East. Both Netanyahu and the ayatollahs realized that a vital component of the plan to deter Iran and pressure it to submission had dissipated into thin air.
Things went downhill from there. Rather than confronting Iran head on, Trump seemed to adopt an approach disturbingly similar to his dealings with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un: Preferring style over substance and opting for smiling photo-ops instead of substantive gains achieved in painstaking negotiations. Bolton’s departure not only deprived Netanyahu of a valuable ally in the White House, it marked the collapse of his entire strategy on containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The fatal flaw in Netanyahu’s total reliance on Trump was exposed: It depended on Trump. The quirkiness, erraticism, disregard for precedent and willingness to break with established U.S. policies - including his own - that spurred Trump to unilaterally abandon the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and to consequently strain U.S. relations with the other signatories to the deal is now coming back to bite Netanyahu, with a vengeance. Trump carried out an abrupt about-face with nary a thought given to his erstwhile best friend in Israel.
But Bolton’s dismissal should have shaken Netanyahu on an even deeper and more existential level, in the sense of “There but for the grace of God go I.” Trump, after all lost patience with Bolton for his consistent, strong-willed and argumentative opposition to Trump’s policies, which, had they emanated from an Obama White House, would have been dubbed “appeasement.” Netanyahu must be asking himself whether his own obvious displeasure with Trump’s overtures to Iran and thinly veiled criticism of Trump’s approach won’t ultimately compel the President to “fire” him as well – and then heap abuse on Twitter.
For now, however, Netanyahu can rest easy on the Iran front. He has successfully concealed his apparent failure from the Israeli public, especially his supporters, who continue to idolize Trump as Obama’s antithesis and Israel’s best friend forever. Barring unexpected developments, Trump’s coaxing of Iranian leaders to a summit as well as Bolton’s abrupt departure are unlikely to change their impression in the six days left to election. Netanyahu may be facing a strategic meltdown, but he has more urgent issues on his mind.
Scarlett O’Hara-like, Netanyahu can think about it on September 17 when the Israeli public decides whether the burden of trying to piece together the shambles of his approach will fall on him – or on his successor.
Which is why the 15 seconds of video of Ashdod weigh heavier on Netanyahu’s mind and makes his need to counter its negative impact far more acute and urgent. Six days before Israelis head to the polls, Netanyahu can ill afford to retaliate against Hamas with the kind of force that would inevitably trigger another conflagration that would send Israelis scurrying to their protected air raid shelters.
The prime minister will have to choose a different diversion provocative enough to erase the video of him fleeing Hamas rockets. Given his desperation and increasing Trump-like disregard for norms and conventions, it’s best to buckle up.