Tough talk plays well, but Netanyahu can't afford actual fighting

Diplomacy and security are Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's strongest suits, but escalation right before the election could hurt him.

al-monitor A Palestinian man reacts next to a fire during a protest against US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Feb. 6, 2020. Photo by REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma.

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israeli politics, indictment, israeli security agency, israeli-palestinian conflict, israeli elections, benjamin netanyahu

Feb 7, 2020

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised the public a live special announcement on the afternoon of Feb. 6. He built up suspense for a dramatic address but when the security situation deteriorated, he was forced him to shelve his big announcement. It is thought that what Netanyahu planned to say had something to do with the annexation of some small part of West Bank territories even before the March election, or perhaps warming relations with some Arab state or another, surely intended to seize control of the diplomatic and security agenda before the upcoming election.

Netanyahu’s strategy is to inundate voters daily with headlines of major diplomatic and security advances and minimize focus on his indictment for bribery. At the same time, he is plowing across his Likud base with at least two election rallies per night. On Wednesday, he was in Herzliya and Petah Tikva. On Thursday, he was in Ramle and Hadera. The gatherings were packed. Likud supporters have tied their fate with Netanyahu, giving him the tailwind and political safety net he needs.

But there are some things that even an expert campaigner like Netanyahu can’t control. There was a series of terror incidents that began shortly after midnight on Feb. 6 with a vehicular attack in Jerusalem that left 12 soldiers from the Golani Brigade injured. Around noon, gunshots were fired at a border police officer at the Lions’ Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City and there was another shooting that afternoon at an IDF position in the settlement of Dolev. These incidents ruined Netanyahu’s plans for the day and instead, he went on a tour of the tunnel checkpoint in Etzion settlement bloc instead. From there he went to the hospital to visit the wounded soldiers.

He did not cancel his election rallies in Ramle and Hadera. Instead, he changed some of the content. He spoke about his diplomatic successes and threatened the Palestinian president, declaring from the podium in Hadera, “None of this will help you, Mahmoud Abbas, not the stabbings, not the car-rammings, not the shootings and not the incitement. We will do everything necessary to maintain our safety, determine our borders and ensure our future. We will do all that with you or without you. And only the Likud can do it.”

Despite his rhetoric, Netanyahu recognizes how volatile the region has become, particularly in the days following the release of US President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century.” Abbas has been calling on his supporters to take to the streets in protest and Netanyahu is fully aware that even the most minor incident can escalate and cost him control of the agenda. He's not taking steps to annex parts of the territories as promised, waiting for a green light from the White House and avoiding setting off a spiral of violence.

Security incidents usually help Netanyahu politically. So far, he still gets high marks for suitability as prime minister, but Netanyahu has always shown prudence in being wary of the great unknown. In 2018, for instance, when observers were convinced that Israel and Hamas were on the verge of a major clash. Netanyahu followed a policy of restraint and avoided a major operation in Gaza, even though it meant not keeping his promise to bring down Hamas. Likewise, in the last two election campaigns, of April and September, Netanyahu chose not to launch a major operation in Gaza even after he was forced to leave the podium during election rallies in Ashdod and Ashkelon. The rockets fired from Gaza seemed intended to defy him.

Netanyahu knows how fickle public opinion in Israel can be. He is fully aware of how quickly rhetoric about striking back at terrorism can be replaced with public outrage as soon as soldiers are killed in Gaza. He saw what happened to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during the Second Lebanon War, how the wide consensus in favor the war collapsed when the coffins of Israeli casualties started to pile up. If Netanyahu is to be understood based on his behavior so far in the war against terrorism, he prefers not to initiate military adventurism — unless, of course, he is dragged into it. One reason is that in the event of failure, the generals who make up the Blue and White Party’s leadership could well seem much more appealing to voters.

Polls from the last few days show that the race between the two blocs remains deadlocked. On one hand, Netanyahu’s diplomatic blitz did not grow his support significantly. It did, however, help him maintain his strength after being indicted.

The Blue and White Party has found its ability to keep the agenda focused on corruption limited, especially after Netanyahu withdrew his request for immunity. Yet even so, the party has managed to maintain its position as the largest party. Blue and White has a stable base that is as loyal to its brand as Netanyahu’s base of Likud supporters.

A clear example of how impossible it is to get voters to switch blocs can be found among the residents of southern Israeli towns and villages, where they live under the constant threat of rocket fire from Gaza (and in the past year, of incendiary balloons too). Netanyahu has been prime minister for over a decade now, meaning that he is ultimately responsible for the current security situation. Simple logic would have the residents of Sderot, Ashkelon and Ashdod abandoning him, but nothing of the sort has happened. These voters have a deep emotional connection with Netanyahu and realize that Blue and White doesn’t have a magic solution to the problem of Gaza.

There is an enormous divide among the public between those who admire Netanyahu and those who hate him. No other prime minister has evoked such intense and polarizing emotion. Take the responses on social media to the live broadcast of his appearance in Hadera. There were comments praising him like, “Bibi Empire” and “Netanyahu is a super-cannon,” or “What a great leader!” but there were also disparaging comments like “Yuck! Get out of here,” or “The man who did the most damage to Israel EVER” or “This is Netanyahu’s goodbye party.”

What it all boils down to is this: Despite Netanyahu’s diplomatic blitz, his indictment for bribery, the “deal of the century” and the escalation of tensions with the Palestinians, this third round of elections is all about one man.

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