Is Netanyahu ‘Mr. Security’?

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is burnishing his security credentials ahead of next month’s national elections. He has reminded voters of his vast experience and his challengers’ inexperience, referring to himself as the nation’s “Bibi-Sitter” — a play on words using his nickname. He has insisted that only he can be trusted with Israel’s security and has brazenly suggested that his rivals on the left would allow the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) into Jerusalem. He also is planning a highly controversial trip to Washington, where he will present his case on Iran before a joint session of Congress. Paradoxically, however, it is this image he has worked so hard to cultivate over the years that has been challenged, time and again, by his nation’s top security experts — and, now, more so than ever before.

Far from seeing him as “Mr. Security,” these experts regard Netanyahu as a weak leader whose poor judgment has eroded Israel’s deterrence and harmed Israel’s relationship with its most important ally, the United States, and whose lack of strategic vision undermines Israel’s national security interests.

{mosads}As in past elections, the former security officials who have decided to enter the political arena have stayed away from Netanyahu, with the notable exception of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, a former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff. Instead, they have joined parties to the left of Netanyahu’s rightist Likud party, embracing more moderate positions on Iran and peace-making with the Palestinians.

This past weekend, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, a former head of the IDF military intelligence who has teamed up with the center-left Zionist Union, said that “the myth that Netanyahu is Mr. Security is a bluff.” He pointed to Netanyahu’s numerous failures during Operation Protective Edge (last summer’s war in Gaza), his earlier release of an unprecedented number of terrorists with blood on their hands in exchange for an Israeli held captive by Hamas, and his decision in 1997 to free Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin as glaring examples of Netanyahu’s failed leadership.

Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant, who headed the IDF’s Southern Command during Operation Cast Lead (the 2008 to 2009 war in Gaza) and is now running for Knesset on the centrist Koolanu list, has joined Yadlin in harshly criticizing the Netanyahu government’s poor handling of Operation Protective Edge.

Former Shin Bet chief Yaakov Peri, a member of the Knesset from Yesh Atid, a rival centrist party, has likewise contested the Mr. Security label for the prime minister. Having known Netanyahu for 25 years, Peri has said he is certain that another prime minister would better serve Israel’s security interests.

Criticism of Netanyahu from former security officials has come not just from those officials who have entered politics. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan has publicly stated that he does not trust Netanyahu and thinks he and his right-wing coalition partners, who oppose peace talks based on a two-state solution, are leading Israel to “a bi-national state and disaster.” Efraim Halevy, another ex-Mossad director, has recently argued that Netanyahu’s approach toward the Palestinians is leading Israel to a third intifada and that framing Iran’s nuclear drive in existential terms is counter-productive to preventing Iran from acquiring the bomb.

Perhaps Netanyahu’s most vocal critic these days among former security officials is ex-Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, who has blasted Netanyahu for enabling Hamas to rebuild itself and for ultimately failing to defeat it. Netanyahu, he says, is hardly Mr. Security, and “more like lack of security.”

Each of these men has criticized Netanyahu for his plans to address Congress next month, a visit spearheaded by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who did not coordinate the invitation with the White House — a breach of protocol that worsened an already-toxic relationship between Netanyahu and President Obama. Israelis hold the U.S.-Israel relationship as sacrosanct, and the mere possibility of harm to this relationship is taken with the utmost seriousness in Israel. Dagan has said that not only will Netanyahu’s speech not change Obama’s mind on the Iranian issue, but it “might extract an unbearable price” from Israel in the future.

The Israeli security community has been similarly concerned with the lack of diplomatic initiative on Netanyahu’s part, rejecting the oft-heard claim from Netanyahu and his rightist coalition allies that “there is no Palestinian partner” for peace. The current Shin Bet chief openly contradicted Netanyahu’s claim that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was encouraging terrorism, telling the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that “Abbas is not interested in terror and is not inciting to terror.” Last fall, over 100 former high-ranking security officials wrote a letter to Netanyahu, calling on him to strive for peace by working toward a two-state solution. The letter fell on deaf ears, as the only initiative Netanyahu ended up taking was to call for early elections.

Notwithstanding the cacophony of voices among the former security officials criticizing Netanyahu’s approach to Israeli security, the premier’s centrist rivals have failed to capitalize on this remarkable incongruity between the security community and the prime minister. Responding to survey findings that more Israelis plan to vote based on a party’s stance on socioeconomic issues than on its foreign policy and security stance, these centrist parties have not bothered to offer a clear alternative security-diplomatic agenda. They have thus given Netanyahu a free pass on one of his most vulnerable points.

Netanyahu’s campaign team can surely be expected to continue perpetuating the Mr. Security myth up to and beyond the March 17 elections. And what better prop than a security-themed speech in Washington, interrupted only by standing ovations from members of Congress representing both parties, just two weeks before Israelis head to the polls?

Ziv is an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service and director of the Israel National Security Project (INSP). His book, Why Hawks Become Doves: Shimon Peres and Foreign Policy Change in Israel, has recently been published by SUNY Press. His Twitter handle is @ZivGuy.

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu IDF Israel Israel Defense Forces Israel–United States relations John Boehner Likud Party Mahmoud Abbas Palestine

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