Netanyahu’s ploy tied to next Israeli elections

It seems that everything wise has already been said about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, scheduled for March 3. Opponents, both in Israel and in the United States, claim Netanyahu harmed the interests of Israel by poking President Obama in the eye and by making the support of Israel — always a bipartisan issue — a partisan one.

Supporters of Netanyahu, on the other hand, claim that nuclear Iran is a life-and-death issue for Israel, and therefore it is Netanyahu’s right, indeed his duty, to raise his voice whenever he can against what he believes is a bad deal the administration is cooking up with Iran. In protecting Israel’s most vital interests, Netanyahu must take the issue to the lions’ den, namely Congress, even if it means alienating the president.

Netanyahu is the most experienced politician in Israel today, if you don’t count former President Shimon Peres, who, at 92, still dreams of a comeback. Needless to say, then, that Netanyahu has the upcoming Israeli elections in mind. Speaking before the U.S. Congress just two weeks before Election Day will give him a boost among former supporters, who may be wondering whether his seven years in power are enough.

SEEKING VOTES: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Likud party members during a campaign event near Tel Aviv earlier this week. Parliamentary elections for Israel’s Knesset are scheduled for March 17. Ariel Schalit AP
SEEKING VOTES: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Likud party members during a campaign event near Tel Aviv earlier this week. Parliamentary elections for Israel’s Knesset are scheduled for March 17. Ariel Schalit AP

The recent Peace Index, carried out by Prof. Efraim Yaar of Tel Aviv University and Prof. Tamar Herman of the Israel Democracy Institute, shows that 57.5 percent of Israelis think Netanyahu should have rejected the invitation from U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, and that 67 percent believe he decided to make the to influence the election at home.

If it is true that Netanyahu dares risking relations with President Obama to win votes at home, then it is precisely because he is interested in the votes of those on the right who — according to the same Peace Index — wholeheartedly support his decision to speak to Congress.

These voters split their votes between Likud, Habayit Hayehudi right-wing religious party and Yisrael Beytenu, led by arch-hawk Avigdor Liberman. Netanyahu’s Washington maneuver, in this scenario, aims to convince right-wing voters to give their support to him rather than to other like-minded politicians, because once Israel’s security becomes perilous, only he will be bold enough to defy the mighty American president.

Then after the elections, by the rules of Israeli politics, the Israel’s president, a symbolic figurehead, assigns the task of forming a new government to the candidate with the best chance of building a viable coalition. In a case of a draw between the various blocs in the Knesset, the president would likely entrust the mission to the leader whose party won the biggest mandate.

This is exactly what Netanyahu aims for. Since he can’t hope to collect many votes from the center-left, he must focus on attracting votes in his own right-wing bloc, enough to make him the leader of the largest party after election day. Thus, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin would have no other choice except to nominate Netanyahu as the next prime minister. (Rivlin will do it reluctantly, because Netanyahu had worked hard to foil his election, but that’s another story in the cut-throat saga of Israeli politics).

While I think Netanyahu should cancel his plan to speak to Congress, for reasons explained ad nauseam by others, I don’t think he is doing it only for political gain. Iran’s possession of nuclear arms is of paramount importance for him, as it is for many of us. Whether or not one buys Netanyahu’s notion that he’s another Winston Churchill, who raised a lone voice against the Nazi threat when all others favored appeasement, no one should question his concern over Iran becoming a nuclear power.

So what else can I add to this story that hasn’t been said already? Let me try this: I dare to predict that Netanyahu will eventually cancel his plan to speak to Congress. Why? Because of another thing dear to his heart: Television. Once Vice President Biden announced that he will not be present at the event, Netanyahu will not risk creating with his own hands the damning picture of himself standing at the podium with only Republican Speaker Boehner behind him. This picture will speak louder than all his words about Iran, and as a TV genius Netanyahu probably won’t let it happen.

And by canceling, Netanyahu will have the best of all possible worlds. Already he has succeeded in raising the alarm about President Obama’s alleged soft position on Iran. Now, not only he will impress right-wing voters at home with his resilience, but he would also be able to accuse the center-left of sacrificing Israel’s vital interests.

As for the damage already inflicted on the American-Israeli relations, repairing it will be the task of the next Israeli prime minister. If it’s the leader of Labor, Yitzhak Herzog, who last week met Vice President Biden in Munich, then the job will be relatively easy. If it’s Netanyahu again, it will be more difficult, but not impossible. U.S.-Israeli relations are stronger than the personalities who occasionally rock the boat more than necessary.

Uri Dromi is director general of the Jerusalem Press Club, a former spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments and a retired colonel in the Israeli Air Force. He writes a column on Israeli affairs for the Miami Herald.

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