Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference, February 28th, 2019.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
WASHINGTON – Well, that sure did not go as planned.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had it all choreographed so well. He would travel to the US capital just two weeks before the elections, receive a warm embrace by US President Donald Trump in not one but two meetings, address thousands of cheering supporters at AIPAC, and highlight everything he is good at: high-profile diplomacy and rousing rhetoric in perfect English.
The choreography was designed to show that when it comes to performing on the world stage, this prime minister sparkles and is simply in a league of his own.
Then Hamas fires a rocket that hit a moshav in central Israel, and everything changed.
The attack on Moshav Mishmeret thrust Netanyahu into an uncomfortable dilemma. If he went ahead with his US itinerary – including a meeting with Trump at the White House on Monday, the AIPAC speech followed with meeting with US Senate and House leaders on Tuesday, topped off with a dinner at the White House in the evening – he would be accused of fiddling while the country was burning.
Never mind that as egregious as the attack was, the country was not exactly burning. His critics would pounce on him for putting his political interests – the carefully planned visit in Washington – before the country’s interests.
Never mind as well, that he had the technical ability to manage the crisis from afar, the optics of him abroad as the country was in the midst of a security crisis – with a brand new chief-of-staff and no defense minister – could be devastating politically.
One of Netanyahu’s biggest strengths, in fact one of the reasons for his political longevity despite all the clouds hovering above him, has been his ability to radiate a sense that he is Mr. Security, and that when he is in power there is less of a chance of bombs exploding on buses, or terrorists terrorizing the cities at will, or missiles falling on homes.
Netanyahu continues to win elections because he has succeeded in projecting a sense that when he is in power, you and your children are safer.
This is something his opponents understand all too well, which is why his biggest challenge in years is coming from a party with not one or even two former chiefs of staff, but rather with three.
Or, as Blue and Party leader Benny Gantz likes to boast, a party with 117 years of security experience.
The only way to beat him, this political logic goes, is to out-security Mr. Security, and the way to do that is pack a party with defense mavens.
Netanyahu, therefore, must continue to radiate a sense of being in control of the security situation. And the way to do that after central Israel came under missile attack was to drop everything, and return home to manage the crisis up close and personal.
That’s on the one hand.
On the other hand, and this is where the dilemma sets in, Netanyahu’s quickly dropping everything could be interpreted as panic. And for this, too, he will come under attack from opponents.
By going ahead with one meeting with Trump, but dropping everything else, Netanyahu – his critics will argue – gave a victory to Hamas.
The message to Hamas, they will argue, is that if with a single strategically placed missile they can completely disrupt the country’s agenda and force Netanyahu back home today, why not repeat the exercise every time he goes abroad?
The message it sends Hamas is that they can disrupt the county’s routine at even the highest level, forcing the prime minister to forgo what he himself defined as a very important diplomatic trip.
That dilemma is what faced Netanyahu in Washington during the early hours Monday morning when he learned of the attack.
There were no good options. Whether he decided to leave or to stay. Hamas had already set the agenda.
Netanyahu decided to leave, concluding that sending a message to the nation of being in control at a moment of crisis was more important than concern that his rushing home would give Hamas the small victory of being able to say that they disrupted the prime minister’s itinerary.
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