When the state comptroller wrote in 2015 that the government was neglecting the country’s housing crisis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ignored him. Instead, he took the opportunity to remind Israelis, “The greatest challenge in our lives is currently Iran’s bid to acquire nuclear weapons.” He then added a line that won him both derision and immortality: “When we talk about the price of housing, about the cost of living, I don’t forget life itself for a single moment.” In a takeoff on his iconic remark and in reference to the suspicions of corruption against him, one could imagine Netanyahu saying, “The leftists are talking about cigars and takeaway meals, but I, as leader of the Likud, never forget life itself.” Netanyahu has to ensure that such fear haunts Israel at all times, especially leading up to election day on April 9.
If he wants to keep his seat, Netanyahu must shift the election campaign’s focus away from his legal troubles. But what can he do when the stock market is too low, the cost of living too high and the price of housing dropping too slowly? How can he make headlines? No problem: There is always Iran.
Faced with such a danger, how can people bother the supreme commander with minutia while he is saving Israeli lives? According to Netanyahu’s worldview, only he can rescue his citizens. He never misses an opportunity to remind Israelis of it on every platform, even if he has to ratchet up tensions and damage Israel’s security interests.
For years, Netanyahu has been holding the keys to the guard post protecting “life itself” against a bomb that was never made. But after handing over the keys to US President Donald Trump when the United States canceled the nuclear deal, Netanyahu was forced to look for another opportunity. He found it not far from the Iranian nuclear threat in the shape of Iranian missiles deployed in Syria and Lebanon.
On the morning of Jan. 13, at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu announced, “We worked with impressive success to block Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria,” adding that the Israeli military had struck Iranian and Hezbollah targets “hundreds of times.” The latest such attack occurred “just in the last 36 hours," he said, when "the air force attacked Iranian warehouses containing Iranian weapons in the Damascus International Airport.”
Several hours later, Netanyahu took the opportunity of a farewell ceremony for outgoing Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot to say that the Israel Defense Forces had attacked Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria hundreds of times. “Our commitment to block Iran in Syria is strong and everyone understands it, including the president of Russia, with whom I am in regular touch.” But if everyone understands it, why does he have to talk about it twice a day? Did someone say elections?
It is also hard to fathom why Eizenkot told The New York Times about the Israeli strikes. He is not running for anything on April 9. It can only mean that the dedicated military officer did not want to leave all the glory to Netanyahu.
In the campaign against the missile threat as in the issue of nuclear deterrence, Israel has adhered for years to a policy of ambiguity in the spirit of the biblical quote on the Mossad spy agency’s homepage: “You shall not mingle with one who divulges secrets, one who gossips or with one who entices with his lips” (Mishlei Proverbs, 20:19). Until recently, when reporting on weapon depots in Syria going up in flames, the Israeli media was forced to cite “foreign sources” including Arab outlets, carefully avoiding directly attributing these incidents to Israeli air force attacks.
A former senior IDF source told Al-Monitor this week that ambiguity was a safeguard against escalation. The rulers of Iran and Syria as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin find it easier to turn a blind eye to anonymous missiles than ignore deadly missile attacks accompanied by crowing from Israel, said the source.
In September 2018, several days after the IDF took credit for 202 attacks against Iranian targets in Syria, missiles were fired from Syria at IDF aircrafts. The fire unintentionally brought down a Russian Ilyushin aircraft, killing all 14 of its passengers. The lesson that should have been learned from this tragedy, which angered President Putin, is that silence is the best policy in the campaign against Iran and its allies. On the other hand, talk about defense issues is a surefire recipe for attracting voters in an election campaign. A clash between these two approaches could result in loss of life, but during election season, which sometimes lasts many months in Israel, bravado and adventurism seem to win.
Netanyahu does not hold a patent on playing the defense card in the election game. On June 7, 1981, several weeks before elections and a few days after he met with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided the time was right to send the air force to destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor. The successful military operation turned out to be just as successful politically. Begin’s Likud narrowly beat the rival Labor, garnering 48 Knesset seats against Labor’s 47, and held on to power.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres' attempt to portray himself as concerned for life itself took a heavy toll. In January 1996, several months prior to the May elections, Peres, who was also acting as defense minister, ordered the assassination of Yahya Ayyash, the Palestinian bomb maker known as “the engineer” who was responsible for the deaths of dozens of Israelis. The killing set off a wave of Palestinian terror attacks that drew voters to the right.
Again, several weeks before the elections, Peres decided to prove that his defense credentials were just as good as those of his assassinated predecessor Yitzhak Rabin and ordered an operation codenamed “Grapes of Wrath” in south Lebanon. Regretfully, Israeli shells mistakenly hit a building in the village of Kafr Qana, killing 102 Lebanese civilians sheltering inside. The devastating photos from the scene caused tens of thousands of Arab-Israeli voters to withdraw their support for Peres, contributing to Netanyahu’s narrow victory.
With Netanyahu holding the scepters of prime minister and defense minister and the threat of indictment hanging over his head, it might be wise to get the shelters ready.