Analysis: Israel security is in the eye of the beholder

Though the statistics tell a somewhat different tale, the current spate of terrorist attacks is denting Netanyahu’s image as ‘Mr. Security.’

This week in 60 seconds: Terror hits Israel
Though the statistics tell a somewhat different tale, the current spate of terrorist attacks is denting Prime Minister Benjami Netanyahu’s image as ‘Mr. Security.’ The premier, well aware of the importance of this image to his political career, moves to reinforce it Early last Sunday morning, just hours after Aharon Banita and Nehemia Lavi were killed and two others wounded on Hagai Street in Jerusalem’s Old City, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew back to Israel from New York, where he had addressed the UN and met US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Already hit by criticism for not returning to the country Thursday night after his UN speech, in the wake of the murders of Eitam and Naama Henkin near Itamar, the Prime Minister’s Office posted on Netanyahu’s Facebook page a picture of him and his new military secretary, Brig.-Gen. Eliezer Toledano, deep in conversation, with the prime minister holding a red folder, presumably containing the daily security briefing.
“I am currently on my way to Israel, and when I arrive I will go immediately to the Kirya [in Tel Aviv] to meet with the top security officials and decide on a sharp attack against Palestinian terror,” he wrote above the picture. “We are in an all-out war against terrorism, and will conduct it forcefully.”
The picture and post were transparent. Netanyahu was trying to send a message to his increasingly anxious nation that he was in control, that matters would be responsibly tended to, and that the terrorism would be dealt with.
Of the 3,930 comments on this picture and post, one was by Yariv Ovadia, a former Foreign Ministry diplomat who last served at the beginning of the decade as the spokesman at Israel’s embassy in Rome.
“Wow, Bibi,” he wrote. “This feels like that part in the movie where Superman flies through the skies to arrive and fight the bad guy and save the girl. So exciting.
It’s as if you haven’t been prime minister already for 1,000 years and have not functioned in any field.”
And therein lies one of Netanyahu’s dilemmas.
As a politician who has built a career on the public perception that he is the one who can best fight terrorism and provide security, if and when that perception begins to decompose, he will feel the need to shore it up.
And that perception is beginning to decompose as parents are killed on the roads in Samaria and in the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, as a woman and her elderly mother are terrorized in their home in Kiryat Gat, as a passerby is stabbed near a major mall in Petah Tikva, and as rocks are hurled at buses, cars and the police in Jaffa and Lod.
And, of course, Netanyahu’s critics are eager to accelerate the decomposition process. For example, the anti-Netanyahu daily Yediot Aharonot ran a column on the top of its front page on Monday under the facetious headline “Mr. Security.”
“This indeed is a mystery with no answer: How did Netanyahu brand himself as the only person able to bring us security, when in reality we go from one security failure to the next, from war to uprising, from one threat to the next?” wrote Sima Kadmon, the paper’s senior political commentator and a fierce Netanyahu detractor.
“Remember Arthur Finkelstein’s campaign slogan [for Netanyahu] in 1996? ‘No peace, no security, no reason to vote for [Shimon] Peres’? Well, 20 years after Netanyahu first came to power, there is no peace, no security, and Israel continues to vote for Bibi,” she wrote.
Thus, to buttress the perception that he is uniquely capable of battling terrorism, of providing the country with a sense of personal security, Netanyahu flies back to Israel accompanied by pictures of him deep in security-related conversations with his military secretary, he goes to the scene of the Henkin murders accompanied by the defense minister and chief of staff, he cancels a planned visit this week to Berlin, and he convenes one security meeting after the other.
These security meetings are followed by announcements of steps that seem, well, rather obvious: reinforcing IDF forces in Judea and Samaria, and the Border Police and regular police force in Jerusalem; starting a process to expedite the demolition of homes of terrorists; acting more forcefully against incitement; even placing cameras on the roads and in the air above them throughout the West Bank.
Those moves do have an operational impact – not any one step will stop the wave of terrorism, but together they may have an accumulative effect – and they also are important in creating a sense that the government and the army are taking action, so that individuals do not conclude there is a security vacuum and they need to take matters into their own hands.
And these photo opportunities and announcements are also important for Netanyahu from a political perspective, as they create a sense of movement, of preempting, of doing something. These announcements are designed to shore up his credentials as the one who can provide security.
And, as Kadmon correctly pointed out, this has been his calling card for years. Netanyahu won the elections in 1996, and then again in 2009, 2013, and 2015 not because he dangled before the voters any grand and rosy vision in either the diplomatic or socioeconomic spheres, but, rather, because the voters trusted him to provide security.
And while Kadmon’s argument is that this trust is misplaced, crunching grisly statistics regarding how many people have been killed in terrorist actions since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 show that the number of Israelis killed by terrorism while he was prime minister is far lower than under the governments of Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.
According to Foreign Ministry data, since Netanyahu came to power for a second time in 2009 some six-and-a-half years ago, 85 people – or an average of 13 a year – have been killed in terrorist attacks.
In the 10 years from 1999, when Netanyahu lost an election to Ehud Barak, to when he regained power in 2009 – a period that included the second intifada – some 1,183 people, or an average of 118 people per year, were killed in terrorist attacks.
Fifty-nine people were killed during Netanyahu’s first term from 1996 to 1999, or an average of about 20 people a year, compared to 202 people killed from 1993 to when Netanyahu won the elections in 1996, an average of 58 people killed annually.
Though the perception now, in the midst of the current wave of terrorism, is that we have returned to the bad old days – and that the country under Netanyahu is no safer than under any leader – those numbers show that for whatever reason, and they are surely manifold, over the last 22 years fewer Israelis have been killed by terrorism when he was prime minister than when he wasn’t.
But a sense of security is subjective; it is what people feel. People don’t walk around with charts of terrorism statistics which they analyze but, rather, with news of the most recent drive-by shooting, stabbing or rocket attack fresh in their minds.
So Netanyahu calls meetings, makes announcements, cancels state visits abroad and focuses on dealing with the wave of terrorism.
And one way he is dealing with it is by trying to keep Washington on his side or at least from publicly slamming Israel’s defensive actions.
Tellingly, he has not responded to the attacks by announcing any settlement construction plans in the West Bank, and by refraining to do so he is withstanding pressure from the right flank of his coalition and of his own party as well.
One of the reasons Sharon was able to eventually defeat the second intifada was that then-US president George Bush gave him the leeway – for the most part – to do what he felt he needed to do to bring that terrorism down.
That was not always the case, as Bush famously told Sharon in March 2002 to immediately stop Operation Defensive Shield, and Sharon just as famously ignored him.
But from that point onward, there was not overmuch pressure from the US on Sharon to curb the IDF’s activities – which included reentering the Palestinian cities and targeted assassinations.
One of the many reasons often given for this US leeway is that in late 2003 Sharon unveiled his plan to withdraw from Gaza, creating the sense that while Israel might on the one hand be taking tough military measures to protect its citizens, on the other hand it is willing to make far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians.
Netanyahu has given no indication that he is planning any far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians.
Yet now, similar to Sharon during the second intifada, he does need the leeway from Washington to do what he thinks must be done to restore calm and bring down the terrorist activity.
One way the prime minister believes Israel will lose that leeway – a sentiment he made clear to his security cabinet this week – is with announcements of mass settlement construction. And if he doesn’t have the diplomatic freedom to take the steps he thinks are necessary, then he also risks losing the long-held public perception that – whatever else – he is good at keeping the terrorists at bay.