Israel’s government of Netanyahu, by Netanyahu and for Netanyahu
From Day 1 of the current Israeli coalition government, it was beyond obvious that, for the one who formed it — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — it was merely an escape route from his corruption trial. This was much more than a matter of his usual hubris, which has always led him to believe that no one but himself is worthy of leading the country.
It has been said on so many previous occasions, including by Netanyahu himself, that someone who faces criminal charges cannot and should not serve in the most powerful position in the country, because then it becomes impossible to discern, possibly even for that very person, whether their decisions are being taken in the interest of the country or to save their own skin.
This concern has become even more marked since Israel last week initiated another military confrontation in Gaza, this time with the militant Islamist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Netanyahu has no other means of staying in power except to be a partner in government with the most extreme ultranationalist and racist elements in Israeli politics; and, to a large extent, he is being held hostage by them.
It was clear from the very inception of this government that the far-right Religious Zionism alliance would pressure him to act in Gaza, and with uninhibited force, as part of its irresponsible strategy of maximum confrontation with the Palestinians. That opportunity arose for them after an escalation in the security situation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This led to Religious Zionism’s leaders, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, threatening to withdraw their support from the government unless it ordered the Israel Defense Forces to embark on another deadly operation in Gaza.
There is no doubt that, in the current administration, there are no responsible adults who can hit the brakes when necessary
Hence, when such a military operation took place, its link to the threats of the far-right members of the coalition appeared to be rather straightforward. But this not only oversimplifies the current and convoluted decision-making process, but also partially exonerates Netanyahu. The ultimate responsibility for any government decision lies with the prime minister. However, there is no doubt that, in the current administration, there are no responsible adults who can hit the brakes when necessary. This government’s far-right elements lack strategic judgment and have an infantile level of understanding of complex issues, which sets it on the path of confrontation in both its domestic and international affairs.
Let us focus for a moment on the decision to assassinate Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s leaders. Could anyone argue with any great conviction that previous Israeli administrations, not least those of Netanyahu, would have refrained from taking exactly that course of action with or without the support of ultranationalists at the heart of government? Targeted assassinations of Palestinian militants, or of Iranian military personnel and nuclear scientists or Hezbollah members, have been taking place for many years, regardless of the orientation of Israel’s government. It is part of the country’s security psyche.
However, in a country where so many decisions are literally a matter of life and death, the public must be entirely reassured that such decisions, at least in the heart of hearts of the decision-makers, are taken with no hint of ulterior motive or serving their political or personal interests. Truth be told, unless one is privy to the decision-making process, it is almost impossible to tell what was discussed before the latest military operation in Gaza, or any previous operation. Yet, the very fact that Ben-Gvir and his colleagues could go around telling the world that targeting Palestinian Islamic Jihad was thanks to their pressure on Netanyahu, without threatening the stability or the very existence of the coalition, leaves everyone guessing about the real motivations behind the confrontation.
Advisers close to Netanyahu made sure to brief the media that Ben-Gvir, the minister of national security, was not involved in the decisions leading to the recent operation in Gaza in any way. But this is baffling, considering the implications for the security and safety of Israelis if the minister in charge of internal security was not consulted, even if in this case it was a blessing in disguise. Moreover, whether Ben-Gvir and Smotrich were or were not consulted, or had any say in the launching of this most recent futile round of bloodshed, there are very few who believe that this is an accurate account of what happened. At the very least, Netanyahu must have been mindful of the thinking and possible reaction of his far-right coalition partners when sanctioning the operation.
Netanyahu, in the autumn of his political career, while facing extremely serious corruption charges and with mounting evidence that he is under the spell of his close family and their unhealthy influence, which further distorts his judgment and subsequent decisions, is putting the entire country in jeopardy. Inevitably, one is bound to question whether Netanyahu himself can tell whether his decisions are being taken for the good of the country or are merely cynical decisions intended to keep him in power and thus avoid spending his later years behind bars.
At the very least, Netanyahu must have been mindful of the thinking and possible reaction of his far-right coalition partners
A complex country such as Israel cannot afford for the person at the top of the political pyramid to have his attention split between the myriad challenges the country is facing and sneaking his way out of a corruption trial. Netanyahu has already made it clear that he is prepared to trample all over the democratic system and, in doing so, severely damage the country’s economy, in order to save his skin.
So, what can assure us that, when the noose of his trial — figuratively speaking of course — tightens further around his neck, he will not embroil Israel in yet another misjudged and miscalculated episode of military adventurism against Iran or Hezbollah in Lebanon, or even send ground troops into Gaza, not for national security reasons but simply to distract from his legal predicament?
The recent hostilities in Gaza were another alarming wake-up call that should alert the country to the dangerous uncertainties stemming from a government that is of Netanyahu, by Netanyahu and for Netanyahu, and to hell with the consequences for Israel.
- Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg