Why does Netanyahu want a war?

The mainstay of survival for Netanyahu and his right-wing allies is fear of having to let go of power.
Sunday 25/11/2018
War mode. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu attends a memorial ceremony for Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion, on November 14. (Reuters)
War mode. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu attends a memorial ceremony for Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion, on November 14. (Reuters)

When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu felt the first lashes of a storm looming over his government, he chose the path of war. Israel’s strong man took a card out of his sleeve that had never been seen before in Israel. In a speech that many commentators compared to Churchill’s speech after he became Britain’s prime minister during the second world war, Netanyahu announced that Israel was going to war and a great one, too, so great in fact that Israel cannot afford to dissolve the present government and prepare for early legislative elections.

Netanyahu is the only one holding the helm in the country and the only one who seems to hold the decision between peace and war. After appointing himself minister of defence following Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation, Netanyahu visited the ministry and informed the military establishment about a major war coming its way.

Lieberman had left the Netanyahu cabinet in protest against the latter’s decision to agree to ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. Now, Netanyahu is peeking through the window to talk about a war beyond the concerns of Gaza.

Netanyahu’s political rivals in Israel testify to the man’s skill in playing with all the political currents in the country in order to maintain his supremacy at the head of the government. He has not been defeated since 2009 in normal or early elections. He has also been good at dealing with the challenges coming from outside Israel.

Netanyahu had remained standing in the ring during former US President Barack Obama’s terms and we know that the latter didn’t particularly like him. Obama ignored Netanyahu and even incited the US Congress in Washington against him. Netanyahu has also survived the threats of Tehran’s nuclear capabilities and the fire of Tehran’s allies in southern Lebanon, Gaza and Syria.

Netanyahu seemed to be cooking up with Cairo a long-term truce with Gaza, so that he can reshuffle his cards when it comes to dealing with the whole Palestinian situation. His plan is really worrying the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. The unprecedented campaign mounted by the Trump administration against Iran provides Netanyahu with a historic opportunity to paralyse Tehran’s ambitions to become a real existential threat for the “eternal Jewish state.”

Analysts in Israel place Netanyahu’s war speech in a tactical context aimed at saving his government and avoiding the risk of going to early elections. The tactic worked. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is also head of the Jewish Home party, tried to blackmail Netanyahu by waving his resignation too if he doesn’t get appointed defence minister to replace Lieberman. Of course, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, also from Jewish Home, joined Bennett and threatened to resign as well. But Netanyahu knew how to cut the grass from under their feet and offered them the best card to withdraw their resignation ultimatums.

The mainstay of survival for Netanyahu and his right-wing allies is fear of having to let go of power. Many previous political currents that could be described as pro-peace did not survive in Israel. The peace movement, for example, was left wing and had considered withdrawing from southern Lebanon many years before it happened in 2000. It had also pushed for secret negotiations with alleged terrorists before it became publicly known as the Oslo Accords in 1993.

Netanyahu has not stopped using the “sin” committed by the Rabin-Peres pair to fuel his own power with fear and intimidation, the only spiel he knows for holding on to power in Israel. Wise Guru Netanyahu solemnly declared that he was against an early election that could let the left seep through and cause another Oslo as happened in 1992.

During the Netanyahu era, Israel did not wage a major war that would have involved worried capitals, kept TV stations busy and forced the UN to issue resolutions, a war like the one waged against Lebanon in 2006. Netanyahu did, however, fight some bloody wars against Gaza, which were understood by the world as necessary for Israel’s security. Even the UN investigations, although daring, remained a dead letter, showing the obvious bias of the United Nations in favour of Netanyahu’s arguments. US President Donald Trump and his UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, were all ears.

But Netanyahu needs a war these days. He has removed the Gazan rioters from his path but the corruption charges hanging over him are threatening his survival. In his war speech, he made sure to mention his military past so that he can join the ranks of the likes of David Ben-Gurion, Ehud Barak, Levi Eshkol, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, who all had at some point managed the destiny of the Ministry of Defence. A stench of Machiavellian political manoeuvring is rising from Netanyahu’s words at the Ministry of Defence. But then again, he may be expressing a pressing tendency among Israel’s ruling elite in favour of a calculated war that would bring order to a lot of the chaos inside Israel’s strategic security maps.

Netanyahu realises that the ruler in Iran is pragmatic enough to reverse its drive to reach the edges of what is possible and what is impossible. That’s why Netanyahu is worried that Washington and the world might reach a new deal with Tehran against the wishes of Trump, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. Even if the world were to negotiate and reach an agreement with the Tehran regime, which no one really wants to topple, Netanyahu, who was happy with his visit to Muscat, has realised that he still might have to deal with some exceptional aspects that will not be covered by any agreements.

Backstage behind Netanyahu, someone must be whispering, and perhaps even leaking and misleading, that his “tenderness” in neutralising the Gaza front through a surreal agreement with Hamas is justified by the fact that Israel now regards the Gaza threat as marginal compared to other looming existential dangers.

Netanyahu is anxiously watching the rebuke of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who barely met him for a few minutes in Paris, while Israel’s eyes and spy planes are monitoring Hezbollah’s rockets in Lebanon around the clock. The matter might be grave but Netanyahu would rather keep the status quo another year at least until the next elections in November of 2019.

In the end, the decision to have war or to have peace is determined by Netanyahu’s mood, his electoral calculations and his ambitions for power. That’s where we should look for the secret of peace in Gaza and of war coming in other places.