Under fire (literally), Netanyahu battles to keep looking like a winner

Being shepherded offstage to shelter during a political rally amid a rocket attack from Gaza is hardly the image the PM seeks to burnish. Still, he’s nothing if not resilient

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the press regarding the Iranian nuclear program, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on September 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the press regarding the Iranian nuclear program, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on September 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Just a few seats short of a potential majority coalition, and just a few days away from elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was looking to events he’d planned for Monday and Tuesday to help put him over the top.

On Monday evening, he scheduled his revelation of an Iranian nuclear weapons development site — showcasing data and showing photographs that, he said, again prove the Iranians are bent on obtaining a nuclear weapons arsenal, lying to the UN’s watchdog and the rest of the international community about it, and frantically covering up their secret sites every time they realize Israel is on to them.

And on Tuesday evening, he again commandeered local media with what was billed ahead of time as a “dramatic” announcement, to say that “diplomatic conditions have ripened” to the point where he will immediately apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley/northern Dead Sea area — almost a quarter of the West Bank — and later apply sovereignty to all West Bank settlements, if the electorate rewards him next Tuesday with another term as prime minister.

To put it mildly, however, things haven’t panned out exactly as Netanyahu planned.

On Iran, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo followed up on his revelations by accusing the ayatollahs of “possible undeclared nuclear activities,” and the International Atomic Energy Agency is asking increasingly pointed questions about Iran’s accelerating departure from the restrictions of the 2015 nuclear deal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the press regarding the Iranian nuclear program, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on September 9, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Set against this, however, the prime minister’s most powerful ally, US President Donald Trump, is indicating a desire to sit down with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, asserting on Monday that the Iranians “would like to be able to solve their problem… We could solve it in 24 hours.” Deepening Netanyahu’s concern that Trump is shifting to a more moderate stance on Israel’s existential enemy, the US president on Tuesday fired/consented to the resignation of his national security adviser John Bolton, spearhead of the administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions policy against Tehran — the very policy that Netanyahu so centrally advocates.

“I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions,” Trump explained of Bolton. His departure, chortled Tehran, constitutes a “decisive sign of the failure of the US maximum pressure strategy.”

As for Netanyahu’s extending sovereignty announcement, here too, it’s been a rocky ride. Rapidly concluding that his live appearance was more party political broadcast than vital diplomatic declaration, Israel’s main TV stations cut away from his presentation on Tuesday evening after just a few minutes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a map of the Jordan Valley, vowing to extend Israeli sovereignty there if re-elected, during a speech in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Next, while most settler leaders quickly hailed his promises of imminent sovereignty, political rivals to the left denounced him for potentially scuppering any future prospect of a negotiated separation from the Palestinians, while rivals on the right made clear that they simply didn’t believe him. And both sets of opponents observed that if he’d wanted to annex the Jordan Valley, he could have done so years ago.

The right-wing Yamina party called his pledge a transparent case of “spin,” designed to lure its voters to his Likud, and its chair Ayelet Shaked opined Wednesday that he could render the Jordan Valley part of Israel with a simple cabinet vote inside a day if he was serious about it. It’s not clear that the current transition government could do anything of the sort; it is clear that, whatever the voters may have made of his promise, almost all of Israel’s political leaders, outside Likud, are highly skeptical.

New Right chairwoman Ayelet Shaked (L) and party No 2. Naftali Bennett speak to reporters in the West Bank settlement of Efrat on July 22, 2019. (Gershon Ellison/Flash90)

But Tuesday evening got worse for Netanyahu. Having concluded his broadcast regarding the Jordan Valley, he headed down south, to an election rally in Ashdod, livestreamed by Likud on social media. And Gaza’s terror groups apparently watched him on his way. As he prepared to begin his address to the hundreds in the hall, and many more watching online, rocket sirens sounded: Two projectiles had been launched from Gaza — at Ashdod and nearby Ashkelon.

Netanyahu certainly did not panic. He calmly instructed the crowd to “leave quietly. But he did allow himself to be escorted from the stage by his bodyguards. He had little choice in the matter; the prime minister cannot ignore his own core security regime, and he also could not ignore the imperative for those in the hall to heed the sirens and take appropriate shelter.

But the footage of an Israeli prime minister, whose capacity to ensure security for Israel is a major component of his electoral appeal, being compelled to temporarily abandon an election rally because of a rocket attack from the Hamas-run territory next door, constituted potential electoral catnip for his rivals.

To the right, Yamina’s Naftali Bennett rushed to term the scene a “national humiliation.” Netanyahu’s nemesis, Avigdor Liberman, said it showed his Gaza policy was bankrupt. His main rivals in Blue and White boasted that one of their candidates, Gabi Ashkenazi, had not left the stage where he was appearing in Ashkelon at around the same time, because, as Ashkenazi told his audience, “We are not afraid.” Said Blue and White’s leader Benny Gantz: “If I’d been there, I wouldn’t have moved.”

And on Wednesday, the Blue and White leadership gathered in Ashkelon to set out how it would handle the ongoing attacks from Gaza. “We will not tolerate Hamas in Gaza carrying out what we saw yesterday and what we have seen for the past year and a half,” declared Gantz. “We have to change our policy… If necessary, we will intensify our assault against Gaza, we will move to overwhelming assaults by air and to targeted assassinations and any other appropriate measures… We will change this reality.”

Left to right: Blue and White alliance leaders Moshe Ya’alon, Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenazi speak to the press during a tour of the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, near Kibbutz Kfar Aza, on March 13, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Gantz, and Liberman and Bennett for that matter, have vowed often in the past to follow similar policies, while castigating Netanyahu for buying calm by allowing Qatar to distribute millions of dollars in cash to needy Gazans; to date, the Israeli electorate has not been persuaded in sufficient numbers to support them for it.

Well aware that most of his rivals are less skilled than he in the political arts, Netanyahu by Wednesday morning was bouncing back, condemning Blue and White for gloating at his misfortune, and denouncing his domestic political rivals in the same breath as Israel’s terrorist enemies. “I don’t know where they celebrated more,” he fumed, “in Gaza or with [Blue and White No. 2 Yair] Lapid and Gantz.”

Even as further Gaza rockets targeted southern Israel on Wednesday afternoon, he was finalizing plans to fly to Sochi on Thursday, for another intended vote-boosting appearance, with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the blows kept coming; he suffered another, albeit predictable defeat Wednesday afternoon when his bid to fast-track legislation to deploy cameras in polling stations on election day was rejected by the Knesset. And in Sochi Thursday, Putin kept him waiting for three hours before their get-together.

In short, Netanyahu is doing everything he can to look like a winner, while a multitude of forces and factors have combined to undermine that image in these final days of the campaign. Being ushered offstage under rocket fire is emphatically not the look he was going for. But Netanyahu is nothing if not resilient.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu taken off stage during a campaign event in Ashdod due to incoming rocket sirens, September 10, 2019. (Screenshot: Twitter)

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