Why a war in the north could mean the fall of Netanyahu

Why a war in the north could mean the fall of Netanyahu

Recent conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza ended inconclusively, to public dismay. A repeat during an election campaign could have decisive political consequences

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen at a cornerstone laying ceremony for a new neighborhood in the southern Israeli town of Sderot. January 28, 2015. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen at a cornerstone laying ceremony for a new neighborhood in the southern Israeli town of Sderot. January 28, 2015. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO)

The northern border is teetering on the edge of a new Lebanon war, with the most dramatic escalation in cross-border fire since the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

In the midst of the crisis, and in the throes of an election campaign, the conventional wisdom among political pundits suggests that a war favors the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu over his most serious challenger, the center-left Zionist Camp list led by Labor’s Isaac Herzog.

Neither left nor right wants to be seen as electioneering while IDF troops and border towns take fire, but both Netanyahu’s Likud and the Zionist Camp have campaigned on national security. Herzog, together with Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni, who jointly leads the parties’ shared list, have railed against Netanyahu’s handling of the summer war in Gaza, and charged that Netanyahu’s failure to advance peace with the Palestinians has left Israel unable to form critical alliances with other regional powers.

Likud, meanwhile, has argued that a Herzog-Livni government, if elected, would surrender the defensive highlands of the West Bank to Palestinian terror groups and would be too sensitive to international pressure to ensure Israeli deterrence on other fronts.

As the war talk in the north heats up, and campaign rhetoric necessarily tones down, both sides have shaped their public statements as subtle but unmistakable counter-narratives to these criticisms.

Livni and Herzog visited the northern border Wednesday accompanied by their latest campaign draft picks, retired major-generals Amos Yadlin and Eyal Ben-Reuven. As they meandered and interviewed their way along the northern front in the company of these grizzled military men, both Herzog and Livni published statements that offered Israelis one inexplicable promise.

“It is important to send the message that we are united, that the Golan is not negotiable and is part of Israel!” Livni said. (The exclamation mark is in the original written statement.)

“One thing has to be clear: there won’t be any discussion on the Golan,” affirmed Herzog in an interview with Army Radio from the northern border. “The situation demonstrates clearly that the Golan is beyond the pale. There is no question about discussions or negotiations over it. It is clear today in light of the situation in Syria that the Golan has to be the defensive front of Israel.”

No Israeli leader, strategic planner or even journalist has suggested Israel should withdraw from the Golan since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. No one asked Livni this week whether she believed the Golan was “part of Israel.” Herzog was asked how strongly Israel should respond to Hezbollah when he delivered his own assertion that the Golan was not up for negotiations.

The insistence that they would never withdraw from the defensible highlands of the Golan was not really a statement about the Golan, but a message, a moment of political theater that they hope will resonate in connection with another theater. The Labor Party has not won an election since 1999, largely because the Israeli electorate has come to believe after the Second Intifada in 2000, the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and repeated conflicts in an Israeli-evacuated Gaza that no withdrawal from the West Bank can be done safely. Herzog’s camp struggles with this trust deficit, and used the Golan crisis to send a message aimed at obtaining this trust.

Netanyahu also addressed his opponents’ narrative on Wednesday in a similarly roundabout way.

Speaking from the rocket-battered southern town of Sderot shortly after noon, the prime minister offered Hezbollah a word of advice that was promptly pushed to the press and even aired on Army Radio in the middle of the aforementioned Herzog interview.

“The IDF is now responding to the events in the north. To everyone who tries to challenge us on the northern border, I suggest looking at what happened here, not far from Sderot, in the Gaza Strip. Last summer, Hamas suffered its worst hit since its founding, and the IDF is deployed to act with power in all theaters. Our security comes before anything else.”

Netanyahu has carefully crafted his statements about the escalation on the northern border in recent days. Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office told foreign media on Wednesday that the escalation in the north is the work of Iran, “the same Iran with whom global powers are reaching an agreement that will leave it the capability to arm itself with a nuclear weapon.”

So when he threatened Hezbollah by referring to what happened to Hamas in Gaza, that, too, was a carefully couched message – not to Hezbollah, but to Israelis.

As war grows closer, Netanyahu is finding an opportunity to portray the much-criticized conclusion to last summer’s Gaza conflict as a victory, while Livni and Herzog are using it to portray themselves as hardnosed security hawks on the question of territorial withdrawal to an electorate that worries they are the very opposite.

In these responses, one can also learn something about the political dangers for each side if the situation in the north escalates into full-fledged war.

Nearly every conflict since 1973 has spelled political doom for the government that conducted it. The most recent examples – the 2006 Second Lebanon War in the north and last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza – saw fierce public criticism, but not for the decision to go to war. Leaders were forced to defend the decision to end the war before they could achieve a conclusive victory.

Conclusive victories may not be possible in cases such as Hezbollah and Hamas, who are not meaningfully answerable to their own civilian populations and therefore not deterred by the economic or humanitarian damage of war. Where such non-state actors have adopted a strategy of sustained, long-term terror meant to create pressure on Israeli society and politics, Israeli leaders have responded with a subtle strategy that borrows something from the enemy’s playbook. In every conflict since 2006, Israel has sought to demonstrate not only that it can inflict heavy damage on the enemy’s forces, but that the enemy’s rockets and other attacks did not have the deterrent power enemy planners believed.

There is no reason to believe the next war with Hezbollah will be significantly different in its basic strategic architecture.

The upshot: the next war may bring tens of thousands of rockets landing on Israel’s cities, untold destruction to Lebanon’s infrastructure, confrontation with Syria and Iran, and ultimately devastating blows to the entire panoply of Israel’s northern enemies — but it is not likely to produce the conclusive victory a prime minister will need in the days and weeks before an election if he hopes to avoid the fallout of public disappointment.

Netanyahu may have a reputation for bellicosity abroad, but in Israel he is seen as a leader who tends to avoid war and its unknowns.

And while Netanyahu’s campaigning will be tied up – both logistically and rhetorically – with the need to conduct the war, his opponents from the left will have no such limitations. The Golan Heights are today a matter of near-unanimous consensus in the Israeli electorate. A similar consensus exists over Hezbollah, which lost any vestige of moral standing among even the most ardent Israeli leftists when Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000.

The conventional wisdom, as always, contains a grain of truth. The threat of war may help the more hawkish-oriented Likud in the election. But that wisdom collapses if war becomes a reality. At that moment, Netanyahu will face the bitter irony that his dovish opponents will be more free to position themselves as the more aggressive defenders of Israel’s north than the rightists saddled with actually prosecuting the campaign.

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