Israel: will crisis-plagued Netanyahu start a war to save his skin ?

Jonathan Cook

Middle East Eye  /  April 14, 2023

The PM has as much to lose as gain from starting hostilities. But with religious extremists dictating his agenda, he may find it hard to avoid setting the region ablaze.

Afavoured tactic of Israeli prime ministers in trouble is to provoke a confrontation, or at least over-react to ensure one develops, and then send in the army.

Wars can be expected to unite Israelis behind a failing government and silence the opposition while winning uncritical support from Jews overseas and knee-jerk sympathy from western states.

Gaza has served this purpose repeatedly over the past 15 years. Notoriously, Ehud Olmert chose to use Lebanon – a much more challenging arena militarily – to try to prove his mettle in 2006 and rally Israel’s population behind his weak government. It did not turn out well for him.

Benjamin Netanyahu is an Israeli leader immersed in trouble – of both the personal and political kind – far more deeply than his predecessors.

He is in the midst of a corruption trial that is not going his way. He desperately needs to keep himself in power and pass legislation to weaken the courts if he is not to risk ending up in jail.

But his so-called “judicial overhaul”, intended to give his religious extremist allies effective control over the courts, has triggered unprecedented protests across the country. Netanyahu’s polling figures have tanked. He would almost certainly lose an election were one called today.

In parallel, he faces an unprecedented near-mutiny among elite sections of the military, including pilots and experienced reservists, who oppose his interference in the judiciary – in part, for self-interested reasons. The Israeli supreme court’s supposed “oversight” of their war crimes is the biggest obstacle to bringing them to the dock of the International Criminal Court.

Ministerial pyromaniacs

But the rebellion in the ranks Netanyahu has provoked is also viewed increasingly as undermining Israel’s much-prized deterrence in a “hostile” region.

If that weren’t bad enough, Netanyahu needs to endlessly pander to his fascist, religious settler partners in the coalition or his government will almost certainly fall.

But the far-right ministers overseeing the police and the military administration that dictates life for Palestinians are little more than pyromaniacs, determined to set the occupied territories ablaze.

That way, the settlers, and army have the pretext to speed up the process of driving Palestinians off their land and herding them into a handful of urban ghettoes.

As a result, for the first time the vigorous pro-Israel lobby, especially in the United States, is finding reason to doubt the legitimacy of an Israeli government.

Israel’s apologists have been hit by a double whammy: of Netanyahu inviting openly religious fascist parties into his coalition, and then seeking to give them control over the courts.

The lobby was already immersed in the difficult task of smearing the international human rights community for agreeing that Israel qualifies as an apartheid state. Now it is baulking at the job of defending Netanyahu’s efforts to turn Israel into a theocratic dictatorship.

And behind it all, the Biden administration is unhappy that Netanyahu is making Israel look so obviously undemocratic that Washington’s “shared values” and “eternal bonds” sermons are sounding more than hollow.

Lighting fires

Juggling all these problems is testing the ingenuity even of Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and a politician usually ascribed a near-mythical talent for holding on to power.

In such circumstances, the prospect of a war in the next few weeks might look attractive – a danger that has not gone unnoticed by Israeli commentators. Netanyahu’s government has already lit fires on the Palestinian, Lebanese, and Syrian fronts.

The spark was Israel twice sending its police forces inside Al-Aqsa mosque in occupied Jerusalem last week to beat and humiliate peaceful worshippers during the holy fasting month of Ramadan. Desecration by a self-declared Jewish state of Al-Aqsa, a holy site of huge importance not only to Palestinians but to all Muslims, was a surefire way to affront the Arab world.

Almost immediately, there was a revival of Palestinian “lone-wolf” attacks. Palestinians in the occupied West Bank fired on a car, killing three Israeli Jews – a mother and her two daughters who had moved from Britain to live in an illegal settlement. And a member of the much-abused Palestinian minority living inside Israel was shot dead after driving into people on Tel Aviv’s seafront, killing an Italian tourist.

On the broader front, a burst of rockets was fired from Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria, prompting Israel to launch limited airstrikes against its neighbours.

However, despite heightened tensions, all sides – including Israel – appeared keen to pull back from the brink.

Mutinous murmurings

Things have quietened down for the moment, apparently at Netanyahu’s insistence. He is reported to have overruled his far-right police minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and denied Jewish settlers entry to Al-Aqsa over the remaining days of Ramadan, presumably to stop a repeat of last week’s scenes of police violence.

Still, the question remains: might Netanyahu decide in the coming weeks that it works to his advantage to stir things up again?

The same pressures dog him. He needs to drive through his judicial overhaul – both to save his own neck and that of his government. This week he vowed to press on with what he called a “clear mandate to fix the judicial system”.

But the core of the protest movement, from Israel’s secular middle classes to its reservists, are not backing down. They are still massing on the streets to stop him.

Pulling Israel into a confrontation with the Palestinians, or a war with neighbouring Lebanon, could look tempting. It would force the Israeli military to drop its mutinous murmurings and fall into line, however reluctantly.

It would also be likely to divide the protest movement, with some sections demanding unity at a time of national crisis. The Israel lobby overseas would also be pressured back into its usual subservience.

Given that the key bits of Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul could be passed almost as soon as Israel’s parliament returns from its Passover recess at the end of April, he could try to slip through the changes under cover of war.

That may be why government sources told the Israeli media over the weekend that, after the Ramadan and Passover holidays had finished, they would be forced to launch a major military operation.

Netanyahu gave a flavour of his own rationalisations for any future hostilities. In recent speeches, he has argued that the preceding government, led by Yair Lapid, undermined Israeli regional deterrence by signing a “surrender agreement” with Hezbollah. It set maritime borders with Lebanon that supposedly handed over gas reserves “to the enemy without receiving anything in return”.

He has also directed his fire at the rebellious reservists, accusing them of eroding Israeli security. “When our enemies see the call for refusal, they interpret it as a weakness of our national resilience.” He warned that Israel’s enemies might take that as an invitation to strike.

Appearing to indicate that he may pre-empt an Arab attack, Netanyahu added: “We’ll restore deterrence. It’ll take time but it’ll happen. I told the previous government not to ruin so much as we’ll have to fix it.”

‘Waning deterrence’

But while stoking war sounds simple on paper, carrying through such a plan may prove far trickier.

True, Israeli reservists would be unlikely to stay home were there a call-up. The mood of revolt, however, would continue, and surely return with a vengeance the moment a needless confrontation had run its course.

Further, retired Israeli generals would make it hard for the government to fix the narrative. They would be sure to dominate the headlines during the fighting, suggesting Netanyahu had engineered a military crisis to solve his domestic woes.

Moshe Ya’alon, a former defence minister under Netanyahu, as well as a former head of the military, told protesters in Tel Aviv last weekend: “I served in the army for decades, and I did not see behaviour as reckless as that of defendant Netanyahu now.”

Blame for any hostilities would likely fall directly on Netanyahu’s shoulders. He is already accused of weakening Israel’s standing in the eyes of its neighbours through the internal divisions he has stoked with plans for the judicial overhaul. This point was driven home by Ya’alon. He observed of Netanyahu: “His obsessive plot to overturn Israel’s democracy represents an immediate threat to Israel’s security… Our enemies are watching, and our deterrence is waning.”

Arab leaders have been publicly making the same argument. This week, Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy leader of Hamas’ political wing, observed that Israel was in an “unprecedented crisis” and facing “internal disintegration”. Arouri, who was part of a Hamas delegation that met Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to discuss the recent exchange of fire, added: “The resistance axis is gaining momentum, and the developments in the region work in its favour.”

Netanyahu could reasonably expect much worse fallout from a military confrontation of his choosing than Olmert faced after his disastrous 34-day standoff with Hezbollah in 2006.

Zeal for war

If Netanyahu is likely to struggle to mobilise Israelis into their usual zeal for war, he also faces a region unusually united – against him.

Netanyahu likes to flaunt his success in securing the 2020 Abraham Accords, a formal declaration of normalisation between Israel and the Gulf states of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. His ultimate hope was to convert Israel into an honorary member of the ‘Sunni’ fold, luring Saudi Arabia to sign the accords too, and thereby intensify regional coordination against Iran.

But in recent days Saudi Arabia, the powerhouse of the Sunni Arab world, has shown an unexpected readiness to make peace overtures to its historic Shia-led rivals, especially Iran and Syria, Israel’s main regional adversaries.

Riyadh is heading moves to welcome Syria back into the Arab League, and it has signed an agreement – over US opposition – burying the hatchet with Iran. A joint statement, issued in Beijing, said the two countries would act together to benefit regional security.

Renewed ties between Riyadh and Tehran may further limit the Israeli military’s room for manoeuvre in Lebanon, where Iran operates, and has aided Hezbollah in building its military strength to deter an Israeli attack. It could also complicate Israel’s approach to Gaza, where Hamas receives Iranian assistance too.

And with Israel’s US patron prioritising its energies on “weakening” Russia in Ukraine and sabre-rattling against China, Israel has good reason to feel more isolated in the region than ever.

By any rational assessment, the odds are not stacked in favour of Israel provoking war. But reason may not be the guiding star, especially when Netanyahu is in bed with militant religious extremists like his police minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and the finance (and unofficial occupation) minister Bezalel Smotrich.

This pair of arsonists want a conflagration with the Palestinians as a way to galvanise Israeli public opinion behind the annexation of the occupied territories. They have the means and motive to keep blowing up the Palestinian arena, with the constant risk of widening any confrontation to other fronts by stoking tensions at Al-Aqsa.

Netanyahu may conclude he has more to lose than gain from a war. But he may find himself in one anyway.

Jonathan Cook is the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism