It was inevitable really. Israel’s leaders find it very difficult to get through a hot summer without a little war and, with an election on the horizon, it’s hardly fair to expect them to even try. Ergo the current tension in the north (Hezbollah), the east (Iranians or Iranian proxies) and the south (Hamas) – all, if Israeli propaganda is to be believed, at the behest of Iran and with Iranian material backing.
As I’m writing, the Israeli army is reporting the firing of anti-tank missiles from Lebanon at an army base in northern Israel, and the Lebanese army is reporting Israeli drone activity in the south of that country. Israelis living within four kilometres of the northern border have been instructed to open their air-raid shelters and stay in their homes. The next few days are bound to be tense.
In both the north and the east (Iraq as well as Syria), the latest tension follows air attacks by Israel (possibly by armed drones) on targets identified as associated with Iran. In Beirut’s Dahieh neighbourhood, a Hezbollah stronghold, Israeli drones apparently attacked equipment used in the manufacture of precision missiles.
Far be it for me to downplay Iran’s enmity for Israel or the military preparations of both Hezbollah and Hamas. Both are in a state of war with Israel, though one characterised by long periods of relative quiet, and it would be foolhardy to assume that they merely sit on their hands in the periods between flare-ups.
That said, the timing of the latest crisis does seem a little fishy – coming as it does less than three weeks before the premiere of Elections 2019 – Part 2. The popular belief in Israel is that the nation rallies to the flag – and the government – in times of war. With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing a difficult election – none of the polls give him a governing majority in partnership with his right-wing and religious allies – and likely indictment for corruption immediately after the election, he could certainly do with a little rallying around.
It is entirely within the realm of possibility that Netanyahu has managed the current crisis with at least one eye on the electorate. He has seized every possible photo op with generals in the field over the past week and veteran Haaretz reporter Yossi Verter described him as looking “hale and hearty … the more security tensions escalated and captured headlines, the more his self-confidence soared.” I was reminded of Oscar Wilde’s aphorism about Lady Bracknell: “I hear her hair has turned quite gold with grief.”
It is too early to predict how the standoff with Hezbollah will play out. It’s is likely that there will be reciprocal actions by both sides over the next day or two, but after that…? Netanyahu is treading a thin line. The electoral gains that could accrue to him as a strong leader in a time of military crisis could be wiped out and worse if Hezbollah missiles begin to take a heavy toll of Israeli soldiers and civilians. A war leader perforce needs to be a national comforter, but that is not a role that Bibi likes or is good at.
Netanyahu’s flirting with war to improve his electoral prospects, dangerous as it is, is not even the most demoralising issue of this election season. It is trumped (I love the nuances of that word these days) by the dearth of references to the Palestinians by either of the two major parties – Netanyahu’s Likud and the Blue & White bloc led by former chief of staff Benny Gantz. The major issue that has confronted Israel ever since its founding is out of sight and out of mind. At the top of Gantz’s election platform is imposing time limits on the office of prime minister, followed by religion and state, education, health and the economy. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is a very distant last.
Gantz is a decent man, by most accounts, who doesn’t regard the premiership as his by right. He seems to take fairly progressive positions on most issues – except for security. He hasn’t promised to apply Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, as Netanyahu did over the weekend, but there’s little light between the two when it comes to security, the rubric under which the Palestinians are a sub-item. Neither party leader is able to see the Palestinians in any light other than that of security. They are a security problem, not, God forbid, human beings deserving of human and civil rights.
In that, Netanyahu and Gantz don’t differ much from the electorate they are trying to woo. In general, Israelis don’t think about the Palestinians too much and when they do it’s as a threat that the army exists to deal with. Were the electorate to demand debate about the Palestinians, the political parties would follow suit. But they don’t – and Messrs Netanyahu and Gantz are more than happy to skip the issue.
That is what is truly depressing about these elections. They herald no change, except, possibly, on the fringes. Even if there is fighting beforehand – even if people die – the sovereign voters of Israel will go to the polls like sheep and nothing important will change.