The rising cost of housing has dominated the Israeli news cycle over the past three years, bringing almost half a million Israelis onto the streets in 2011, and fueling the political crisis that brought down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most recent coalition. As Israel prepares for elections on March 17, the housing question again filled headlines last week, with the release of a much-anticipated official report on the issue that included some damning indictments of the Netanyahu government.
But housing, and the wider economic woes of Israel’s middle class, are not what Netanyahu wants voters debating. “When we talk about housing prices, about the cost of living, I do not for a second forget about life itself,” Netanyahu said in comments released on social media last week. “The biggest threat to our life at the moment is a nuclear-armed Iran.”
Some Israelis denounced that as an evasion. “After six years with Netanyahu, Iran became the excuse for everything,” responded Zehava Gal-On, leader of the lefty Meretz party. “The most embarrassing comment by an Israeli politician, ever,” was the response from the Zionist Camp (formally Labor), Netanyahu’s main electoral challenger.
Even if Bibi’s campaign later took down the comment that had drawn such derision, the overall strategy it reflects remains intact: Netanyahu wants the election to be a referendum on Iran — his signature issue since taking office in 2009 — which is also why he’s plunging headlong into controversy by addressing the U.S. Congress on Tuesday on the eve of Israel’s vote.
The strategy is not without risks, however. For one thing, it makes the prime minister responsible for a very public rift with Israel's all-important ally, the U.S. Even more importantly, though, by turning Iran into a campaign issue at home, Netanyahu has prompted some of the most senior figures in Israel’s security establishment to publicly challenge his alarmist positions on Iran and his strategic competence.
Netanyahu had returned to power in 2009 after a 10-year hiatus, determined to change Israel’s course on two key issues: negotiations with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and the strategy towards Iran’s nuclear program.
Where his predecessors had adopted a more low-key approach emphasizing international cooperation and covert action, Netanyahu proclaimed Iran a looming “existential threat” to Israel. That claim might have been challenged by a number of the country’s most senior security men, but it did allow Netanyahu to shift the national and international conversation away from ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. By threatening unilateral military action against the Islamic Republic if Western powers failed to do more to stop Tehran’s nuclear work, Netanyahu managed to focus the conversation on Iran rather than on the Palestinians.
This wasn’t just a spin: there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he genuinely believes that history has cast him, like his professed hero Winston Churchill, as the man willing to take unpopular steps to confront a global peril that others have failed to grasp.
Besides sounding the alarm in Western capitals about Iran’s nuclear activities, the prime minister and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak began investing heavily in beefing up the capacity of Israel’s air force to mount long-distance bombing operations.
But Netanyahu’s aggressive posture on Iran also prompted some unexpected pushback. The heads of Israel’s three key security institutions – the Mossad intelligence service, the Shin Bet internal security service and the Israel Defense Forces – began speaking against a rush to military action against Iran, first in private and then also in public. Their concerns were echoed by military intelligence commander Amos Yadlin (now the Zionist Camp candidate for defense minister) and by prominent politicians, including President Shimon Peres.
It’s far from clear whether Netanyahu and Barak would have launched an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities had that option enjoyed full political and institutional backing. There are massive technical obstacles — and geopolitical risks — to Israel’s ability to mount an effective attack on Iran’s facilities. But the political and institutional support at home was always lacking, and still is, according to Israeli media reports.
Lacking a national consensus on Iran, Netanyahu made a dramatic political miscalculation in 2012. According to the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth in a report this weekend, then-Netanyahu adviser Ron Dermer convinced him that Mitt Romney would win the U.S. presidential election, opening up new avenues for tackling Iran. (Dermer, now Israel’s ambassador in Washington, is reportedly the architect of Tuesday’s Capitol Hill speech.) Netanyahu invited Romney to Jerusalem ahead of the U.S. elections, and was widely perceived to be supporting Obama’s Republican challenger.
That proved to be a bad bet. And Netanyahu’s hostile attitude towards engagement with Tehran meant that he had sidelined himself as a self-identified spoiler just as the real diplomatic game with Iran got underway in Obama’s second term.
The Iran deal now reportedly close to completion is fiercely opposed by Netanyahu, but the Israeli leader’s opposition is unlikely to prevent it. Still, he’ll try. The Speech is more “a demonstration” than actual political action, wrote Haaret’z Barak Ravid this Sunday.
Netanyahu’s turn to his base – both in Washington and in Israel — has created a strange political moment in which the Israeli prime minister’s talking points are echoed by senior Republicans, while staunchly pro-Israel Democrats are harshly criticizing him. Using Iran as a political wedge issue may also be backfiring on Netanyahu at home, as highly respected security-establishment figures take to the campaign trail to denounce his Iran strategy. According to Bibi’s analysis, the surge in support on the right should compensate the losses elsewhere and edge him another election victory.
The gloves-off clash on Iran strategy, however, also highlights the extent to which the Iran issue has eclipsed the Palestinian question. After all, Netanyahu has paid no diplomatic price in Washington for openly resisting U.S. policy on questions such as Israeli settlement in occupied territory.
If a nuclear agreement with Iran goes ahead, Netanyahu will clearly have lost one of his two key policy battles with the Obama White House. Still, some of his critics in Israel’s security establishment say given the alternatives on offer, Israel is safer with that deal than without it. And the Palestinians would be quick to confirm that Bibi won his other key fight with Washington, over ending the occupation. Current polls suggest that he is also likely to win re-election.
Noam Sheizaf is a Tel Aviv based journalist. He blogs at 972mag.com/noam