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Netanyahu is risking war to boost his electoral prospects

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a meeting with Russia's Putin in Moscow, Russia on April 4, 2019 [kremlin.ru]
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow, Russia on April 4, 2019 [kremlin.ru]

In an effort to boost his electoral prospects, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is risking the outbreak of a war no one wants.

Over the course of a few days, Israel launched attacks in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Commenting on the attack in Syria, the Israeli military said that on 25 August its aircraft struck “Iranian Quds Force operatives and Shiite militias which were preparing to advance attack plans targeting sites in Israel from within Syria over the last number of days”. This unprecedented escalation will almost certainly increase tensions.

The US State Department issued a statement regarding the Syria attack, pointing out that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Netanyahu on the phone. “The Secretary expressed support for Israel’s right to defend itself from threats posed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and to take action to prevent imminent attacks against Israeli assets in the region,” the statement said.

Of course, President Donald Trump’s administration – unlike the Barack Obama administration – has been committed to supporting far right-wing Israeli policies and in particular Netanyahu’s agenda. President Trump’s public recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights in the lead up to the Israeli election back in April was seen as helpful to the Israeli prime minister. There is no way to imagine that this backing will decrease.

The recent steps in which Trump supported the ban of Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from entering Israel and the State Department’s move to drop the Palestinian territories listing from its website also suggests this fact. These steps could be seen as fresh examples of the unconditional US support for Netanyahu, in order to help him win next month’s do-over election.

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Arguably, during the Obama administration it would have been far more difficult for Netanyahu to have this flexibility in pursuing his plans in the occupied West Bank. However, since the US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said that Israel has the right to annex parts of the West Bank, that could be seen as the green light for Netanyahu’s plans.

Such a major announcement, which reverses decades of US commitments towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, would indeed boost Netanyahu’s popularity and indicates that, under his leadership, Israel is stronger and can do what it wants without anyone standing in its way.

Earlier this month, the Times of Israel reported that a poll for the Walla news site found that a majority of the Israeli public opposes a unity government led by Netanyahu, which would bring together the ruling Likud party and its centrist competitor Blue and White (Kahol Lavan). Therefore, Netanyahu, seemingly, is desperate to not let this poll be the case when it comes to counting the votes in the upcoming Israeli elections in September.

After his past failures to contain Iran in Syria, Netanyahu will likely look for something to help him win the election. If he can appear to be containing Tehran now, and not just in Syria but across the whole region, he will be able to portray himself as a strongman whose leadership can ensure Israel’s security. Such a portrayal will likely help in gaining extra votes, but the tactic may backfire.

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It is believed that the attack Israel launched in southern Lebanon in the early hours of 25 August is of key significance, as it was the first of its kind since 2006, according to Hezbollah’s General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah, who made a rare appearance on the same day issuing a strong warning to Tel Aviv.

“I say to the Israeli army along the border, from tonight be ready and wait for us,” Nasrallah said. “What happened yesterday will not pass,” Nasrallah warned.

Thus, if Nasrallah responds militarily, the region could find itself on the brink of an unwanted war, although it is clear that neither side is in favour of conflict.

“What happened was similar to a declaration of war which allows us to resort to our right to defending our sovereignty,” the Lebanese president’s office quoted Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, as saying on Twitter on Monday, Reuters reported. This raises a significant question: Does Aoun’s statement confirm and authorise an act of revenge?

Netanyahu is aware that the majority of Israeli citizens are not in favour of war. “An overwhelming majority of the population, 73%, believe that Israel is an established fact, as opposed to only 18% who think that the existence of the state is in real danger,” the Jerusalem Post reported in April.

“But alongside the sense of security that Israelis express regarding the existence of the state, 52% of the public fear that a war could break out in the near future, seemingly in light of the increasing tensions in the north and the Iranian threat to retaliate against Israel,” the report continued.

The Israeli daily added: “12% of the public are very fearful that a war could erupt in the near future, and 40% moderately fearful. In contrast, 31% are not so fearful and 7% are not fearful at all at the prospect of a war in the near term.”

Despite the fact that Netanyahu seems to be aware of Israeli citizens’ concerns, his actions show that he is willing to use any means necessary to win the elections, regardless of the consequences for the region and Israel itself.

Although Israel attacked Iranian-backed targets in Syria previously, it has never escalated to a degree that entails attacks on four targets in three countries within just a few days. The tensions have now reached their peak and what will be important to observe is when and how Hezbollah responds.

Read: Lebanese army fires at Israeli drones near border

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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