Israel Pulse

Who benefits in Israel from increasing security tension?

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Article Summary
Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the head of the Blue and White party, Benny Gantz, both are gaining from increased security tensions.

There was no way that the chairman of the Blue and White party could turn down the invitation he received Aug. 26 from the Prime Minister’s Office. Retired Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz was invited to receive a security briefing about the most recent developments on the northern front. At issue were threats made by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah that he would respond to attacks attributed to Israel on Beirut’s Dahiyeh neighborhood and the decision by the Israeli security system to raise the alert level.

Gantz may head the largest party apart from the Likud in the Knesset, which dissolved itself in May, but he does not hold the official title of chairman of the opposition (he was not member of the Knesset before the April elections), a role that would have obliged the prime minister to brief him on political issues at least once a month. In fact, Netanyahu did not have to invite Gantz, who is a former chief of the General Staff, at all. More so, the timing of the invitation, three weeks before the Sept. 17 election, has a certain political significance that Gantz tried to minimize, and rightly so, as far as he was concerned. When the chairman of the Blue and White party was informed in advance that Netanyahu would not be attending the meeting, and that the briefing would be given by National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat instead, Gantz insisted on a wider forum. Ben Shabbat is a personal Netanyahu appointee who served in the past as the prime minister’s political emissary to the country’s rabbinic leadership. The meeting could have easily been taken out of context and given some kind of election spin, along the lines of “Is Gantz heading into a Netanyahu coalition after the election?”

In this case, Gantz proved his political acumen. He asked that the prime minister’s military secretary, Avi Bluth, also be present. Even the location of the meeting was changed. Rather than taking place in Netanyahu’s office, it was held in another room.

Yet despite all of Gantz’s cautious prudence, an invitation like this on the eve of such a dramatic election and in the shadow of such a daunting security incident has political significance.

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Even though Netanyahu and Gantz did not sit in the same room, by inviting the chairman of the Blue and White to a security briefing, the prime minister put an old/new equation into play. He and Gantz are competing head to head over who will occupy the Prime Minister’s Office come September. Netanyahu is now doing everything he can to ensure that he has a 61-seat majority coalition (without Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman) and to increase the Likud’s strength, so that it is blatantly obvious that the Likud is the largest party. This would ensure that he is asked to form the next government. As long as Gantz appears in the polls as the leader of a very large party, it will be easier for Netanyahu to argue that the right’s hold on government is at risk. This, in turn, would help him win seats that would otherwise have gone to other right-wing parties. Across the aisle, Gantz and his Blue and White party have an identical strategy in that they also want to be the biggest party. As a result, both the Likud and Blue and White can be expected to vie for votes that would otherwise go to smaller parties in their own blocs.

It doesn’t take a security expert to see that the events of recent days reflect a change in Netanyahu’s policy vis-a-vis Iran. He is certainly taking a lot more risks than he did in the past. The incident in Dahiyeh, which is attributed to Israel, was exceptional in its nature and scope and has the potential to ignite an immediate escalation of tensions. Even if Netanyahu believes that the most likely scenario is that Nasrallah will contain attacks against Israel despite all his rhetoric and threats, the possibility of the open fighting in the region is still on the table.

The two big winners in this escalation of tensions in the north are “Mr. Security” Netanyahu and the head of the “Chiefs of Staff Party” Gantz. A security agenda benefits them both. When it comes to the northern front, Gantz is showing that he can act in an official manner after being brought into the loop of the most recent security developments. At the same time, however, the chairman of the Blue and White party has identified the Gaza situation as Netanyahu’s tender underbelly, particularly when dealing with Likud voters, and has therefore adopted a more belligerent position.

The immediate losers in this game are all the small and midsized parties, and anyone concentrating on a social and/or economic agenda. So far, 2019’s second round of elections has focused almost entirely on the issue of religious coercion. The effective campaign being run by Liberman set the agenda and forced the political system in general and Netanyahu in particular into a failing battle over the votes of Russian immigrants.

The Democratic Camp, which has focused its agenda on the war against corruption and the prime minister’s immunity from criminal proceedings, can also be expected to take a hit. When faced with such a significant security threat, the Israel public unites behind its leaders, particularly in the earliest stages of the potential confrontation. As the well-known adage says: “In warfare, there is no coalition or opposition.” In times such as these, Democratic Camp senior official and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s personal attacks on Netanyahu are seen as being little more than quibbles. They do not merit any real attention. Similarly, the chairman of Labor-Gesher, Amir Peretz, whose campaign is focused on social issues, will end up being hurt as long as security issues top the public agenda. Making matters even more absurd, all three of them — Liberman, Barak, and Peretz — served as defense ministers in the past and can easily flaunt their experience. At this stage, however, they have chosen to focus the campaigns on civil affairs.

And so, it has been proved yet again that in Israel, a security agenda can suddenly reshuffle the deck even for all the most effective civil and economic campaigns. Even the most precursory glance at the headlines of the last few days is enough to realize that everything has been washed away by a torrent of reports about Israeli attacks in Syria and what happened in Lebanon. The only thing that got Peretz into the headlines was his gimmick of shaving his trademark mustache. Liberman got himself into trouble with an unnecessary tweet announcing that the terrorists who killed 17-year-old Rina Shnerb had been caught and was immediately ordered to remove it by the military censor. Rather than bolstering his image as a security hawk, the tweet seemed to show him acting rashly in an effort to pick up more votes. Meanwhile, Barak and the leaders of the Democratic Camp barely exist in the current election discourse.

The big winner is Netanyahu, who also happens to serve as minister of defense. His entanglement in all sorts of criminal investigations has dropped off the public agenda, while he keeps making headlines on diplomatic and security issues.

Are the security risks that Netanyahu is now taking somehow related to these fateful elections, which can ultimately determine his fate? Are they a dog whistle to the right? It is hard to tell. What is clear is that Netanyahu, version August 2019, is much more daring when it comes to security affairs on the northern front, and that he is prepared to take the kinds of actions that could entangle Israel in the kind of war that he has successfully avoided until now. He seems to believe that any security developments that take place up until the coming election will serve him in the end.

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Found in: Israeli elections

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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