A soldier stands near a battery of cannons near the Gaza border, March 28th, 2019.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
The recent Israeli election campaign was heated and nasty, primarily a referendum on whether Benjamin Netanyahu should continue to serve as prime minister. His personality and legal problems, not his policies, were the focus of opposition attacks.
In fact, beyond the harsh rhetoric, one can discern a broad consensus in Israel for the outgoing government’s actual diplomatic and defense policies.
Both the Likud and Blue-White parties almost entirely ignored the broader Palestinian issue throughout the election campaign. And when they did reference the matter, the lieutenant-generals in Blue-White (Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi) continually sought to prove that they were not “left wing,” and were not contemplating any West Bank withdrawals.
The Labor Party – still identified in the minds of many with the failed Oslo process – largely evaded the issue, too. Only Meretz, on the left-wing fringe of the Zionist spectrum, complained about the lack of focus on peace plans.
Nor did the anticipated launch in the coming weeks or months of “the deal of the century” by US President Donald Trump’s team generate any real debate during the election campaign. Israeli voters (and few others, for that matter) do not know the outline of Trump’s plan, but they all know what the Palestinian response will be – a rejection out of hand, as has been the case with previous peace plans.
Indeed, Israelis have no illusions about the Palestinian Authority. They are more or less in agreement with the policy practiced by Netanyahu and backed by the defense establishment: “conflict management.” This approach seeks to limit the suffering on both sides of the current situation by employing “carrots and sticks” while avoiding dangerous diplomatic gambits.
Much was made in the media about frustration in southern Israel with Netanyahu’s inaction toward Hamas, but his party won decisively in every town in these afflicted areas.
Nor did the leaders of Blue-White proffer policies on how to handle the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip that were any different from Netanyahu’s. There is, in fact, remarkable agreement in decision-making circles that despite the violent provocations from Gaza, Israel should not seek to again conquer Gaza. While a military operation to seize Gaza might put an end to Hamas’s missile and other terrorist attacks, it would generate a dangerous set of new problems. Parties which advocated a deep ground operation against Hamas did not do very well in the election.
IT SEEMS that the Israeli electorate favors the cautious approach adopted by Netanyahu governments of the past decade, which is to “mow the grass” in Gaza in limited fashion only when truly necessary. This approach sets limited political and military goals, reflecting the assumption that Israel finds itself in a protracted and intractable conflict. The use of force in such circumstances is not intended to attain impossible political goals, but rather to degrade enemy capabilities when necessary, in an attempt to temporarily deter the enemy and forge periods of quiet along Israel’s borders.
While many Israelis are fed-up with attacks by Hamas, only the far-right parties in this election voiced strident criticism of government policy and advocated invasion of Gaza and the eradication of that terrorist organization. The tough position on Gaza of the New Right Party, for example, did not save it from political elimination.
A huge majority of Israelis approved of Trump’s diplomatic gestures during the campaign – the recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights and the designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.
Blue-White understood that Trump was trying to help his friend Bibi Netanyahu, but did not criticize the American moves because of the broad consensus in Israel on the strategic importance of the Golan Heights, and on the imperative to keep it under Israeli sovereignty.
Similarly, most Israelis agree with Netanyahu that Iran is a grave threat to Israel’s national security, and they welcomed the American move to step up pressure on the Islamist regime in Tehran.
The closeness of Netanyahu to Trump did not elicit any public criticism, but rather accolades to the prime minister. He had the foresight to become friends with the leader of the strongest nation on Earth and influence his thinking. And there is no doubt in the minds of Israelis that good relations with the US are a pillar of Israel’s national security.
More generally, Netanyahu’s diplomatic prowess in developing strong ties with Russia, India, Brazil and eastern Mediterranean countries, and his good standing in parts of the Arab world, were clearly among his most effective electoral draws.
It is, however, clear that Netanyahu’s closeness to Trump (and to some populist leaders in Europe and beyond) is problematic for many American Jews, whose liberal inclinations are well known. With the elections behind him, Prime Minister Netanyahu should try to mend fences with centrist elements in American Jewry in order to shore-up bipartisan support for Israel and help stem a drift away from Israel among Democrats.
National cohesion is a critical ingredient for Israel in successfully meeting the grave national security challenges ahead. Fortunately, this election shows that a healthy broad consensus pertains to defense and diplomatic matters. As ugly as the 2019 campaign may have been, it is simply wrong to portray Israel as a deeply divided nation on these matters.
The writer is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (jiss.org.il) and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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