Is Netanyahu’s election campaign on the way to war?

Benjamin Netanyahu claimed in 2008 that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had no moral authority to launch peace talks in Palestinians, so he should now implement the same rule on himself and avoid generating a war.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at the launch of the Likud's election campaign in Ramat Gan, Israel, March 4, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Mar 5, 2019

Let us imagine that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decides to deploy troops tomorrow for a ground operation in the heart of the Gaza Strip, and some of them are killed in action. Let us say the operation is a reasonable, even completely justified response to rockets fired from Gaza into Israeli border communities. Regardless, the parents of the dead soldiers will harbor the terrible suspicion to their dying day that their loved ones were the victims of an election campaign. They will be haunted by the sense that their sons were sent into battle to best Netanyahu’s main rival, the new Blue and White alliance, which is led by three generals, and to silence critics competing with the Likud for the right-wing vote on April 9.

Yet this ostensibly libelous claim, according to which the prime minister of Israel would place his personal interests ahead of the public good, is not a scenario cooked up by the political left and the media. Netanyahu himself wrote the book.

As head of the opposition in 2008, Netanyahu warned against overtures Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was making to the Palestinians while under suspicion of corruption. “There is concern I have to say, real and not unfounded, that [such a prime minister] will make decisions based on the personal interest of his political survival and not on the basis of national interest,” Netanyahu said in an interview with Channel 2 television. Addressing reports that Olmert had offered to cede land for peace, Netanyahu added, “A prime minister sunk up to his neck in investigations has no moral and public mandate to determine fateful issues for the State of Israel.” 

If a prime minister “up to his neck” in police probes does not have a mandate to make peace, does a prime minister dogged by serious criminal suspicions have a mandate to determine fateful issues such as war?

Anyone looking at the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip can see that an election battle could deteriorate any day into a bloody war. On the one hand, Blue and White candidates, whom Netanyahu portrays as “leftists,” are hounding Netanyahu, reminding him of his support for Israel’s 2005 pullout from Gaza and his 2011 decision to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in return for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

On the other hand, the chair of the New Right, Naftali Bennett, is egging him on to crack down on the Palestinians. “The terrorists are warning that they’ll get upset if you block their illegal cell phones in prison, so you gave in?” Bennett lashed out on March 4. He reminded Netanyahu, “On the metal detectors you showed the same fear when confronted by threats, so now we have terrorists taking over the Temple Mount.”

Bennett was referring to Netanyahu’s 2017 decision, made under international pressure, to remove metal detectors from the Temple Mount and to recent violent clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians at the Gate of Merci (Bab al-Rahma), which has been closed on the Temple Mount since 2003. In the past three weeks, Israel has arrested some 100 East Jerusalem Palestinians and banned Muslim clerics and officials, among them the chair of the Waqf Council, Sheikh Abd al-Azeem Salhab, from the compound. Meanwhile, Jewish Temple Mount activists, among them members of HaBayit HaYehudi, lambasted the government for failing to adequately seal the Gate of Mercy after a break-in. They are planning a huge protest march from Safra Square to the Gate of Merci and an ascension en mass to the Temple Mount.

Netanyahu has dealt in the past with violent clashes that started out on the Temple Mount, holy to both Jews and Muslims, who call it the Haram al-Sharif, and with the resulting crises in relations with neighboring Jordan, which is the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Given the personal and political crisis in which Netanyahu is mired, will he want to or be able to douse the flames while his government partners on the right are breathing down his neck? Even the pro-right-wing Israel Hayom has stepped on Netanyahu’s blisters. The paper gave prominent placement to a Jan. 9 demand by Economics Minister Eli Cohen of the center-right Kulanu to implement the Supreme Court’s ruling allowing the razing of the West Bank Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, which has been sitting on Netanyahu’s desk for months awaiting his order.

In regard to Netanyahu’s own words about Olmert’s competence, what sort of national interest would dictate a decision to crush the Palestinian security forces, which are cooperating with Israel to prevent terror attacks? What do Israelis stand to gain from the government’s theft of NIS500 million ($138 million) in tax revenues it has collected for the Palestinian Authority (PA)? Will this move, designed to punish the PA for paying the families of Palestinians jailed in Israel prevent even one terror attack? On the other hand, the same government that displays such determination in facing down Palestinian violence is supporting Jewish violence by omission and commission. Such support is especially strong during election seasons. When the battle concerns the prime minister’s personal freedom, the settlers take special liberty to pick fights.

The UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs has this year alone documented 47 attacks by settlers against Palestinians resulting in injuries and property damage, compared with 38 events in the corresponding period in 2018 and 29 in 2017. In clashes documented Feb. 12-25, two Israeli soldiers and 139 Palestinians were injured. Thirty Palestinian children and three teachers required medical treatment after inhaling tear gas in their school compound in a section of Hebron under Israeli control. In three separate incidents, settlers uprooted 600 Palestinian-owned olive trees, and in two others, settlers stole animals and farm produce from Palestinians in the West Bank.

Also during that period, Israel demolished 26 Palestinian structures in the West Bank and severed three links to the area’s water supply, steps that left 44 Palestinians homeless and hurt thousands of others. Israel justified its actions by citing a lack of building permits. In East Jerusalem, seven buildings were demolished, and 38 people were uprooted from their homes. Three settlers were injured in the resulting clashes, and stone-throwing Palestinians damaged settlers’ cars.

What does the US administration, the one needed more than ever to be the responsible adult, do to restore calm and prevent violence? It moves the US Consulate — the de facto diplomatic mission for Palestinians — into the recently inaugurated embassy, which is headed by a close friend of the settlers, Ambassador David Friedman. The decision severs the main diplomatic link between Washington and Palestinian headquarters in Ramallah, even though this link had served to calm tensions from time to time.

At the same time, President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” is gathering dust. After all, Trump too is “up to his neck” in investigations and does not have a “moral mandate” to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace. He, too, is under suspicion of making “decisions based on the personal interest of his political survival and not on the basis of national interest.”