Will West Bank violence make Netanyahu regret taking defense portfolio?

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received the Defense portfolio a month ago, he immediately became enamored with the post, which he had never held before.

December 16, 2018 20:16
3 minute read.
PM Benjamin Netanyahu giving presentation at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, December 16th, 2018.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu giving presentation at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, December 16th, 2018.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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It was love at first sight.

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received the Defense portfolio a month ago, he immediately became enamored with the post, which he had never held before.

He went straight to the field to talk to troops and drink their notoriously bad coffee, met with former IDF chiefs of staff and started Operation Northern Shield to eliminate tunnels on the border with Lebanon.

It looked like his tenure as defense minister would only further reinforce Netanyahu’s title as Mr Security, and with it his chances for a landslide victory in the 2019 election.

But then, one fatal terrorist attack happened, and then another one, and one security problem led to another.

A Midgam poll broadcast on Channel 2 found that 58% of Israelis are unsatisfied with Netanyahu’s performance as defense minister, with 26% being satisfied and only 7% very satisfied. The poll found that former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz could lead a new party to 16 seats and could win 26 if running together with Yesh Atid, just three less than Netanyahu’s Likud would win.

Such numbers are the result of the IDF – which has made a point of distancing conflicts from the home front – being engaged not only on the northern border but also in the South as well as in Judea and Samaria.

Those conflicts have attracted so much attention that an attempted stabbing in Jerusalem’s Old City went almost unnoticed. Two Border Police officers were stabbed, the male officer in the face, near his eye and the female border guard in her leg before they shot dead their attacker.

That incident could have ended dramatically differently and also could have set off another wave of attacks in the OId City.

But this round of violence is different than all others with Netanyahu as prime minister because unlike in the past, he no longer has a defense minister to serve as a bullet-proof vest and absorb blows for him if anything goes wrong.

That was what happened previously with former defense ministers Avigdor Liberman and Moshe Ya’alon and even with Yitzhak Mordechai in his first term. Netanyahu has been quite adept at taking credit for the accomplishments of his ministers – not just in defense – and distancing himself whenever anything does not go well.

Knowing this, both Liberman and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon made a point of announcing their biggest decisions when Netanyahu was either on a secret trip abroad or a visit to a security installation. That what what happened, for instance, when Liberman announced his appointment of incoming IDF chief of staff Aviv Kochavi - when Netanyahu was en route to Oman.

Netanyahu also cannot blame his defense minister for not making more right-wing moves in Judea and Samaria, as he has repeatedly done in the past. This could end up harming him politically, as the two MKs in the Bayit Yehudi faction’s National Union party could be enough to bring down his coalition of 61 MKs.

The easiest way to force Netanyahu into initiating an election now would be to not vote for his appointment as defense minister in the Knesset. That vote must take place by February 18, three months after Liberman’s departure.

If Netanyahu sees he does not have a majority for his appointment, that would be the time to ask for the Knesset’s dispersal. In a transition government, he could get away with continuing to be minister of defense.

It remains to be seen if the wave of violence will continue. If it does, Netanyahu could regret taking the Defense portfolio and tarnishing his Mr. Security mantle, and perhaps it could shift to the likes of Gantz or Gabi Ashkenazi.

Or, what started as love at first sight could end up standing the test of time.

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