The Jordanian Failure of Netanyahu – and the Israeli Opposition

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The Israeli side of the gate to the Tzofar enclave, April 30, 2020.

One of the Israeli opposition's greatest sins in recent years has been neglecting to present a clear alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu on security matters and foreign affairs. Believing it would be hardest to beat him in this arena, too many politicians have opted for the “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach.

And so, long before the “Anyone but Bibi” mantra entered our lives – a mantra that focuses the campaign on the person and not necessarily his path – most of his rivals gave up on distinguishing themselves from him ideologically in critical areas such as the nuclear deal with Iran, the nonexistent Gaza strategy and questionable alliances with anti-liberal leaders around the world. They were helped in this by the Israeli media’s penchant for covering political and personal machinations of marginal importance rather than broader questions of international relations.

For example, even with an electron microscope it’s rarely possible to tell the difference between Netanyahu’s and Yair Lapid’s political and security views, especially during all the years when Lapid kept insisting mysteriously that the main problem with the prime minister was just that “something happened to him.”

To avoid being painted as leftists, God forbid, politicians have left the burden of criticism – which isn’t always pleasant to tell the public about – to leaks and interviews by senior defense and foreign-affairs officials, whether current or former, by name or not by name. And these people are immediately branded subversive underlings, no matter their rank. And if they’re still serving, they’re silenced with threats of investigations into the leak, and that’s usually where the public debate on the issue ends.

One of these issues gets scant attention from the opposition, and then only if there’s a crisis (and even then just barely): Israel-Jordan relations. Netanyahu schemed for and feted the normalization of ties with the Arab states that are part of the Abraham Accords, but security and foreign-affairs experts have been warning for many years about a mounting crisis with our older neighbor to the east. Israel’s embrace of the security guard at the Amman embassy after he shot two Jordanians in a clash nearby, and the return of land at Tzofar and Naharayim were just two boiling points in 25 years of a steadily cooling peace.

The main problem, many people behind the scenes agree, is the exclusive focus on security-intelligence cooperation and border security, with the civil-economic arena completely neglected. The proclamations about annexation poured more fuel on the Jordanians’ burning heads, and highlighting the free access to the Temple Mount that’s now being assured the Emiratis and Bahrainis is perceived as a threat to the Jordanian royal family’s historical standing. In the shadow of all this, the Jordanians responded to the obstacles that Israel presented to the crown prince’s visit to the Temple Mount by thwarting Netanyahu’s flight to the Gulf for gloating purposes.

But the biggest scandal was the way Netanyahu chose to respond: by closing Israeli airspace to Jordanian planes as an act of revenge, decided on by him alone, with no consultation whatsoever with the relevant officials, as journalist Ben Caspit revealed. If the officials who received the order hadn’t tried to forestall this egregious move, it would have been an explicit violation of the peace agreement with Jordan. Questioned about it by Channel 13’s Ayala Hasson, Netanyahu’s response was arrogant and condescending: “Jordan needs good relations with us as much as we need good relations with Jordan.”

With a week to go before a fateful election, the opposition doesn’t appear to be pouncing on this episode, aside from a few feeble comments that will be forgotten by tomorrow.

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