Netanyahu’s impressive and timely feats ahead of each and every election raises the unsettling question about whether he’s doing it for all of us, or all of it just for him.
Last week, quite unusually and pretty publicly, this country’s most artful politician, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, witnessed two widely suspected election ploys crumble before his eyes.
First, Pfizer CEO Albert Boula, postponed his planned visit to Israel. It was touted that the decision to rearrange the visit was made to avoid appearing to influence the outcome of the election, a reasonable assumption considering the fact that Israel’s impressive vaccination drive is a key part of Netanyahu’s re-election campaign. Then, on Thursday, Netanyahu was forced to cancel his surprise visit to the UAE amid his wife’s ill-health and a dispute with Jordan whereby Amman delayed approval for the delegation’s proposed flight route. Like the vaccination campaign, the normalisation agreements with countries across the Arab and Muslim world is a core component of Netanyahu’s election strategy.
However, while these two particular campaign manoeuvres have not materialised, it is widely suspected that further surprises are ready and waiting for national consumption ahead of the election. There is more on the menu, so to speak.
Israelis have witnessed many a well-timed feat engineered by our skilful Prime Minister over the past years. Just before clinching the March 2015 election, Netanyahu jetted off to Washington to eloquently blast the Obama administration’s Iranian nuclear deal before Congress, to multiple and sustained standing ovations. Here was Israel’s courageous leader, standing up to the President of the United States to the applause of America’s lawmakers, doing his utmost to save his country from an existentially threatening international arrangement.
Four years and one election later (hard to believe, I know), just days before the public went to the polls, Israel brought home the remains of Sergeant Zachary Baumel who had been missing since the 1982 Lebanon War. By working closely with Russia, Israel had managed to redeem one of its own, giving its fallen soldier the ceremonial burial he and his family deserved. Ahead of the following elections in September, Netanyahu sought to engineer a more partisan gimmick with a last-minute promise to annex the West Bank.
A month before the third and latest round of elections in March 2020, Netanyahu secured the release of a jailed Israeli backpacker who’d been detained in Russia on drug smuggling charges by exacting a pardon from President Vladimir Putin. Making the most of the wide public interest and strong sympathy for the young girl’s cause, Netanyahu himself greeted her at Moscow’s airport to escort her home. Weeks later, the Prime Minister had the opportunity to once again flex his credentials as a respected statesman and influential world leader when the Trump administration recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Of course, Netanyahu can, and does, boast of accomplishments elsewhere throughout his tenure, some of which were seemingly timed less for our election, and perhaps more for America’s. Yet there is wide acknowledgement that many of the Prime Minister’s most impressive achievements and promises are very conveniently timed.
Consequently, there is a darker, less-flattering flip side to this string of timely accomplishments and expressions of bravado. The question stands as to whether Netanyahu is driven more by his own electoral and judicial interests rather those of the country.
For example, did the family and friends of Zachary Baumel need to wait for a tight election race to finally have closure on their loss? Would Netanyahu have invested the time and effort in securing the release of a jailed backpacker whose travails had captured the heart of nation if Israel’s citizens weren’t so enamoured by her struggle? After all, other Israeli citizens are currently languishing in detention abroad, including those who haven’t committed crimes. What’s more, such international engagements aren’t free. They come with trade-offs. Could Israel have used its capital with Russia, a regional superpower with a strong military presence in neighbouring Syria, for other, perhaps better, purposes? What may Israel have given in exchange for achieving publicly paraded policy goals?
We can only speculate the answers to these questions, and it is not reasonable to assume only the worst of Netanyahu, least of all when the exercise of his judgement is democratically mandated and state-secret or sensitive decisions are shielded from the public view. What’s more, an elected and accountable prime minister can’t be blamed for wanting to capitalise on his successes.
However, there’s less room for the benefit of the doubt with regards to some of the other election contrivances as there are clear indications that the prime minister’s actions did not advance Israel’s interests. The stated purpose of his speech to congress in 2015, for example, was to block the Iran nuclear deal. Accusations that his purpose in flying to America and defying the Obama administration was an election gimmick were flatly denied. Yet Netanyahu came nowhere near to preventing the deal. It has even been suggested that by being more vocal and threatening on the Iran issue than his predecessors (and most of Israel’s security establishment) Netanyahu himself was responsible for panicking allies into signing the Iran deal. What’s more, the defiant address served to further sour relations between with the Obama administration and the Democratic Party, undermining the bipartisan nature of American support for Israel which was long acknowledged as a central plank of Israel’s strategic calculus in its alliance with Washington. That Netanyahu trades Israel’s long-term interests for short-term political gain by burning bridges with the Democrats and cosying up to Trump and the Republicans has been a core and compelling accusation levelled against him for years since.
However, that Netanyahu’s grand pre-election ventures are often for his benefit is most glaringly seen by his promise to annex parts of the West Bank. Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and not once had he made any such move to annex any part of the West Bank, including during the first three years of the Trump presidency. During the vocal public discussion on the issue, at no point was any satisfactory explanation given as to why then, as opposed to any other point since 2009 or during his first prime ministerial term in the late 1990s, was our Prime Minister suddenly committed to making such a bold and internationally contentious move. If Netanyahu truly believed that it was in Israel’s interests, then he had had ample opportunity to do so for a long time beforehand. The risk-averse Prime Minister clearly did not believe that annexation was a good idea, yet here he was promising something widely regarded as dangerous for political gain.
If Netanyahu pulls something else out of the bag over the next week, we’ll be confronted with this unsettling question once again. Are these wonders for the good of the country or are they good for one man’s ambitions? And how much damage might these ambitions wreak?