Opinion

Netanyahu Might Need a War Before the Election

Benjamin Netanyahu on the Golan Heights, on March 11, 2019.
Gil Eliyahu

Entrepreneurs around the world know that amusement parks have to keep offering crazy innovations to keep the crowds coming. As soon as a new roller coaster is installed, you have to start planning the next one – higher, faster and scarier. In the amusement park called Israel, the excitement keeps climbing, so even the most unnerving events are in danger of boring the public.

Who remembers that only a few months ago it was the nation-state law that rattled the country, that a housing plan for young couples was a hot-button issue, that another escalation in Gaza sent chills down the national spine, that Jerusalem became a capital recognized by the United States and that the Golan Heights were annexed to Israel by American fiat? What pleasant nostalgia.

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To think that once, only moments ago, the public took an interest in the shaping of the country, whereas now we’re merely speculating which political combinations will yield more Knesset seats for which parties. And mainly, people are waiting to see if we win the grand prize once again, with Benjamin Netanyahu running the state’s affairs in his spare time.

Luckily, three joyful months await us – a period without someone in charge in which the government isn’t really functional. Development plans will be on hold as the head of the defense, education and justice ministries is a suspect awaiting his pretrial hearing and indictment. Three other ministries – interior and Negev and Galilee development (both headed by Arye Dery) and labor and social affairs (Haim Katz) – are also headed by people suspected of criminal wrongdoing. Other ministries are headed by invisible ministers.

The three months of waiting for the election is a dangerous period. Ostensibly we have a transitional government with limited authority, but it still has enough maneuver room to harm the country's stability and security. For example, two airstrikes in Syria within two days, following the rocket fire from Syria at Israel, could be considered a routine response, but such strikes have a dangerous potential to ignite a conflagration.

The new Syrian deployment in the Golan Heights, the Russians’ efforts to attain a diplomatic resolution in Syria, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s threats to act with force “across the Middle East” if Iran is attacked, and a freeze in the implementation of the cease-fire deal in Gaza all oblige Israel to reevaluate its diplomatic and military strategy. But who has time for this?

In the past, in normal days, the security cabinet’s decisions were perceived as being based on professional analysis and balanced thinking. Decision-making processes were often heavily criticized, but the public usually believed that the outcome was based on political impartiality and integrity.

This confidence has evaporated. After Gaza started receiving financial aid in exchange for quiet, once before the election and once before the Eurovision Song Contest, now it may be Syria’s turn. Attacks on it are tinged with suspicions of political considerations.

The conventional wisdom is that embarking on a war or a major military operation is risky for a leader’s political future. The saying that it’s easy to get into a war but harder to get out of one is especially true before an election.

The thing is, the country is now run by someone whose only consideration is how to stay out of prison. This is a prime minister who has twice taken the country to an unnecessary election, a loose cannon who lost it when he couldn’t cobble together a governing coalition. After appointing a defense minister with no experience or knowledge of the material, he was now willing to offer the job to a political rival who couldn’t even manage his own party.

For Netanyahu, the purpose of the defense portfolio is the same as it was for the communications portfolio, which he once held. If he’s willing to sell it to keep himself out of prison, would he hesitate to start a war if he thought that was his only way out?