Benjamin Netanyahu needs a war. He needs it to be with Iran. And he needs it soon.
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Netanyahu needs a war because he’s desperate, and because a war might answer two of his more immediate needs: First, an overarching, delaying-action distraction, and second, in the event a war should succeed even as his career fades, the single thing the prime minister wants the most in this life: a legacy.
He’s desperate now because he’s losing ground fast in the latest opinion polls. He’s desperate because after all these many years in power, obsessed by his place in history and his own wishlist comparisons with Winston Churchill, Netanyahu still has no legacy beside the number of all these many years in power.
He's desperate because he's fast losing the support of the bulk of North American Jews, and, perhaps more crucially to him, he may even be losing the backing of Sheldon Adelson.
Most of all, though, he’s desperate because as prime minister, he knows that he may not have much time left.
He’s desperate because police detectives and investigative journalists are closing in on him. He pretends that the allegations center on innocent favors traded for innocently modest luxuries. But the security-minded public knows only too well that Netanyahu may be involved in malfeasance in securing the purchase of several advanced German-built submarines – potentially Israel’s most potent strategic weapon in its continuing confrontation of Mutually Threatened Destruction with Iran.
And things just got worse. Even as Netanyahu’s handpicked made men sought to ram through a bill to blunt the damage of the police probes, the crude power play counterproductively drained away much of whatever presumption of innocence the Likud leader may still command.
For years, Netanyahu chafed as his defense ministers, army chiefs and intelligence agency directors restrained him from going ahead with what they foresaw as an ill-fated, ineffective and possibly catastrophic offensive against Iranian nuclear sites.
It was to be Netanyahu’s Churchillian moment. His place in history. And his own brass – and the Barack Obama he so loathed – denied him.
Now, however, just when Netanyahu needs it most, Iran is showing signs that it is coming to him. And just like that, signs of war abound once again.
Citing Iran’s mounting presence in Syria, Netanyahu’s defense minister has demanded that the military budget be hiked by well over a billion dollars. The demand is particularly extraordinary in view of the fact that the army’s chief of staff reportedly sees no need for the increase.
On Sunday, the Kuwait-based Al Jarida newspaper reported that Israel had secretly vowed to destroy any Iranian facilities deployed in Syria within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of Israel’s northeast border.
Quoting an unnamed Israeli source, the report said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had relayed Netanyahu a message from Syrian President Bashar Assad with a Syrian offer for a 40 km demilitarized zone in return for Israel not working to topple the Syrian leader.
Netanyahu was quoted as being prepared to accept the deal, but adding that Israel remained committed to the goal of driving Iran and its client Hezbollah out of Syria.
The next day, raising eyebrows and speculation in a public forum, Israel Defense Forces Chief Spokesman Ronen Manelis told a conference of Israeli journalists that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah would be a target for assassination in any future war between Israel and the Iran-controlled militia.
Then, on Tuesday, Netanyahu’s Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi, who often enunciates policy for the prime minister, issued a warning to Iran in unusually stark terms.
Asked point-blank if Israel now faced the prospect of a new war on its northern border, Hanegbi told Army Radio, “Tension in the north is surging.” The Iranians, he said, make no secret of their desire to stake out a military presence in Syria.
“Israel is saying, ‘This will not be.’”
According to Hanegbi, long one of Netanyahu’s more trusted and, relatively speaking, more moderate lieutenants, Iranian forces near the border or naval or air bases elsewhere in Syria “are red lines which we not allow to be crossed.”
At the same time, Netanyahu is clearly, and legitimately, troubled by a Trump administration which appears to be cutting and running with respect to Syria, ignoring the prime minister’s pleas to counter rising Iranian influence there.
Tonight, in a deep and often lonely office near the main exit from Jerusalem, a man whose darkening expression is tending far more toward Richard Nixon than Winston Churchill is planning his next move.
In the past, hardline Israeli leaders under the threat of police probes have opted for a dramatic shift to the left, hoping to ride a peace push to save their premiership. But Netanyahu has worked so long and so well to block any meaningful avenue toward peace that he has himself choked off much of his own room to maneuver.
Three years ago, desperate at the time, he opted for war. The war was avoidable, the results for Israel and especially Palestinian civilians, devastating. And yet
For Netanyahu, it worked. The Israeli army was badly demoralized and in disarray. Large swaths of Israel felt vulnerable to attack. In Gaza, hundreds of children and large numbers of adult civilians were killed and thousands more wounded.
But Netanyahu? He’s still there. Just where he was. Still studying those military maps.