Henry Kissinger’s well-worn phrase, “Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic
policy,” was coined almost 40 years ago when the then-US secretary of state was
engaged in putting together the Syrian-Israel Separation of Forces Agreement on
the Golan Heights.
That agreement was being brokered just as the Agranat
Committee investigating the Yom Kippur War published its bombshell interim
findings – which led to Golda Meir’s resignation – and amid the busy political
horse-trading taking place at the time to form a new government under Yitzhak
Rabin. With his pithy little phrase, Kissinger articulated that Israel’s
internal party considerations were shaping the country’s critical foreign policy
decisions. (As if that is not the case everywhere else in the world.) Four
decades later, it is again a Syria-related issue – indeed, a critical
Syria-related issue – on the agenda during coalition negotiations. But this time
it is less domestic policy driving foreign policy than national security issues
sure to impact on coalition ones.
Less than 24 hours after Israel
reportedly hit a Syrian arms convoy headed to Hezbollah in Lebanon with “game
changing” anti-aircraft batteries, or bombed a defense installation near
Damascus that may have been an assembly plant for chemical weapons, or both,
President Shimon Peres began formally consulting the parties to get their
recommendations about who should be prime minister and was given the task of
forming the next coalition.
How ironic that Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu failed during the recently-completed campaign to make national
security concerns the main election issue, but that a week later those very
issues were casting a heavy shadow over the coalition negotiations.
Atid may have catapulted to 19 seats in the elections with its emphasis on
domestic issues and call for an equitable distribution of the country’s military
and tax burden, but those issues suddenly looked less significant alongside
photographs of haredim and secular Israelis lining up together to get their gas
masks in the wake of concern about Syria’s chemical stockpile.
most cynical and jaded would say that Wednesday’s reported dawn attack was timed
for political purposes and that it was aimed at easing the coalition
Granted, it might be simpler to rope in recalcitrant
parties – or parties asking for too much – during a time of crisis and
emergency. But still, there is an objective crisis up north.
cabinet meeting, Netanyahu – after noting the “deadly weapons in Syria” and
adding that the country was “increasingly falling apart” – seemed to foreshadow
what was to come three days later by saying, “The Middle East is not waiting on
the results of the elections and it will not stop during the formation of the
“There are many threats here, and the reality is developing
apace,” he said. “In the east, north and south, everything is in ferment and we
must be prepared.
To this end, I would like to form the broadest and most
stable government as possible in order – first of all – to meet the significant security threats facing
It is not as though the prime minister is manufacturing the
crisis in Syria. It is not as though the possible transfer of SA-17
anti-aircraft batteries, or Scud D missiles, or Yakhont anti-ship cruise
missiles from Syria to Hezbollah is not a strategic tipping point that Israel
can not tolerate. It’s not as though the stockpile of an estimated 1,000 tons of
chemical weapons in Syrian storehouses does not pose a significant threat to the
country and the world.
Imagine, suggests Ra’anan Gissin, a former
spokesman to Ariel Sharon, were the al-Qaida elements in Syria able to get their
hands on Syrian mustard gas and transfer it to the al-Qaida elements in Mali,
facing off against French troops. The chemical weapons are indeed a global
Gissin made another interesting observation: Syria is turning
into Lebanon and Lebanon is morphing into Syria – a development that will pose
significant challenges for Israel.
What does that mean? It means that the
chaos, unpredictability, civil war and sectarian strife that has been the staple
of Lebanon for the last 40 years has now moved over to Syria, with huge
implications for Israel, which is on the verge of losing its “most reliable and
And, in turn, Lebanon is becoming – or more
accurately Iran is intent on it becoming – Syria: a client state with
state-of-theart Russian weaponry to act as Tehran’s regional counterbalance to
Israel. If Syria falls and Iran loses its closest ally, it needs to invent a new
one, and is trying to do so with Lebanon. Hence the efforts to move over the
strategic weapons from a tottering Syria to – ironically – a more stable
In other words, the threats – and the need to act against them –
are real. Is Netanyahu making them up? No. Is he over-exaggerating them? It
doesn’t seem that way, not considering what has happened in Syria over the last
Does the growing sense of national crisis help him in his
talks with potential coalition partners? Yes.
One does not have to work
too hard to imagine that at some point during coalition talks with Yesh Atid’s
Yair Lapid, Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett or Shas’s Eli Yishai, Arye Deri and
Ariel Attias – at a time when they will stubbornly demand one thing or another
that Netanyahu will be loath to concede – that the prime minister will take the
heads of each party to the side, show them classified security documents and
whisper in their ears that with these types of threats hanging over the country,
a government needs to be formed quickly and the “small stuff” can be dealt with
Obviously, there is nothing like a circlethe- wagons crisis to get
recalcitrant parties to be willing to show more flexibility and sit together
around the cabinet table. And this is true not only with Netanyahu’s “natural”
Take, for instance, Tzipi Livni and her party. Livni,
who unabashedly bashed Netanyahu both in Israel and abroad during the campaign
and prior to it, and who might raise eyebrows were she now to express interest
in joining the government of a man she vehemently argued was leading the country
to ruin, could use the current crisis to do just that.
It is an
emergency, she could argue – as could Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich, although this
is more unlikely – and it is time to unite forces. Many are the trees that can
be climbed down for the sake of national unity in a time of
Coalition politics and a national security crisis intersected
this week, and what the country is likely to witness in the coming days is how
the crisis will impact profoundly on the coalition politics.