Security narrative casts shadow on Israeli elections

It is unlikely that Netanyahu, a notoriously cautious leader, wants a war in Gaza. The mobilisation of IDF troops is a pro forma step.
Sunday 31/03/2019
An orthodox Jewish man looks at Israeli election campaign posters in Jerusalem, March 27. (Reuters)
Countdown underway. An orthodox Jewish man looks at Israeli election campaign posters in Jerusalem, March 27. (Reuters)

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was in attendance March 25 when US President Donald Trump signed the declaration recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights but had to leave soon after a rocket from Gaza hit a house north of Tel Aviv.

These events -- and other regional developments -- took place less than two weeks before Israeli elections, with Netanyahu neck and neck with his challenger.

Netanyahu’s decade-long dominance over Israeli politics is being challenged by former chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) Benny Gantz. Hardly inspiring, Gantz has a relatively clean personal record -- while Netanyahu is to be indicted on multiple charges of corruption -- and is bland enough to bring together nearly all the anti-Netanyahu components of the Israeli political system.

The result is an Israeli election shorn of almost all policy issues -- it is just a straight referendum on whether Netanyahu should continue as prime minister -- and an electorate divided almost evenly between the two sides.

So tight is the race that religious parties, which generally wait until after the election to cast their lot with a candidate, have declared for Netanyahu, and the prime minister orchestrated a merger to ensure the votes for a tiny racist faction do not go to waste, all in an effort to shore up the nationalist right wing of the spectrum.

In this heavily personality-driven contest, the incentive has been for symbolism, negative campaigning and dirty tricks.

Perhaps the best example of this is the apparent hack of Gantz’s mobile telephone by Iran. What actually happened remains a mystery. The leak is, of course, politically timed. The situation became murkier when a senior Iranian cleric claimed that the regime had hacked the phones of members of the Netanyahu family.

For Gantz, this reopened the accusations he is a “leftist,” i.e. weak, despite indications his policies would be more of the same, especially abroad, with Netanyahu and surrogates asking how somebody who cannot protect his phone could protect the country.

Even the light-hearted responses -- one Israeli commentator sarcastically asked that if Iran “found anything interesting on Benny Gantz’s phone, like anything at all about his political views” they should pass this on to the Israeli public -- pointed towards Gantz’s limitations.

The Israelis captured the Golan Heights during the war of 1967 and annexed the territory in 1981. There is little doubt Israel will continue to hold the Golan and, in reality, this is desirable since the alternatives are Iran and its tributaries.

Trump’s decision to recognise the annexation -- and to recognise it now -- is mostly symbolic and seems to be an attempt to boost Netanyahu’s fortunes in the election. Such an intervention might seem shocking but it is routine. It is just that such US interventions in the past had usually been against Netanyahu.

The Russians and their apologists tried to argue that the United States’ Golan announcement legitimises Moscow’s seizure of Crimea. However, the more worrying precedent is internal. Every member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party running in this election, except the prime minister, has advocated annexation of the West Bank and most of the right-wing coalition parties are signed up to this idea as well.

Such a step would -- unlike altering the status of the Golan -- be a death knell for any peace process. The United States has tried to argue that the Golan is unique but if Netanyahu prevails in this election he has eyes on a law that would immunise him while in office and the votes for that might be available if he accedes to the West Bank annexation demands of his party and partners.

What was effectively a campaign stop for Netanyahu in Washington as Trump formally recognised the Golan as Israel’s was interrupted by a rocket from Hamas-held Gaza hitting a house in Mishmeret, wounding seven family members. More rockets followed and Israel launched a wave of retaliatory air strikes. The IDF was mobilised to the borders of the Gaza Strip.

It remains unclear who attacked Israel and why. It is possible the missile was from a fringe faction such as the Iran-controlled Harakat al-Sabireen, which Hamas recently moved to suppress, and Iranian cells within Hamas. It is possible, as Hamas told the Egyptians during ceasefire talks, that the rockets went off by accident. Or maybe it was simply Hamas seeking to deflect attention from its brutal suppression of the Gazan protests and to pressure Netanyahu into concessions so he can avoid a war on the eve of an election.

It is unlikely that Netanyahu, a notoriously cautious leader, wants a war in Gaza. The mobilisation of IDF troops is a pro forma step. Netanyahu has facilitated the transfer of $1 billion from Qatar and more to Hamas over the last few years to help keep Gaza quiet -- something that provides a strong talking point about “funding terrorism” for Gantz. An outbreak of hostilities would cancel out any claims Netanyahu has handled the Hamas situation well.

Despite strong interests against it on both sides, there is no guarantee this flare-up will not escalate, especially with Iran meddling in Gaza. Hamas vowed another “return march,” an event in which dozens of people were killed last year. That most of the slain were Hamas operatives did not undo the political damage to Israel. The options for preventing a repeat are few and drastic.

Meanwhile, Iran is taking advantage of its Russian-mediated takeover of southern Syria to organise cross-border terrorist cells into Israel and is generally consolidating its position throughout the country.

It will soon be clear whether these trends have rallied Israelis around the man they know or vindicated Netanyahu’s critics.