(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was speaking at a campaign event in Israel’s coastal city of Ashdod on Tuesday, the “code red” alarm – signifying incoming rockets from Gaza – went off. Netanyahu’s bodyguards hustled him off the stage, while in the skies, the Iron Dome missile-defense system destroyed the incoming rockets. Like most of the thousands of missiles Hamas has fired at Israel over the years, these caused no damage. For many Israelis, though, the image of the prime minister fleeing incoming Hamas fire was a metaphor for his political condition.
In much of the West, Netanyahu is perceived as a tough guy, cozying up to strongmen in European capitals and to President Donald Trump in Washington, but many Israelis understand there is a good deal of bluster behind this image. Though he is now unwilling to discuss a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu has also done little to preclude it; he has authorized far less settlement construction than prime ministers who preceded him. Now Israel’s longest-serving PM, Netanyahu has also been very reticent to go to war. Aside from the 2014 Gaza war with Hamas, Netanyahu has never taken Israel into major conflict. For that, he is both lauded and rebuked; Israelis admire him for keeping their casualties down, but residents of communities near the Gaza border lambaste him for having done nothing to improve their quality of life.
Benny Gantz, the former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces who is Bibi’s top rival in next week’s national elections, has vowed to punish Hamas much more severely. Many Israelis suspect he means it. While Netanyahu accuses Gantz of being a leftist, Gantz accuses Netanyahu of being weak. As Bibi was being hustled off the stage in Ashdod, the latter accusation seemed more apt.
Another dimension of Netanyahu’s “Mr. Security” image - carefully cultivated because Israelis tend to vote more on security matters than on economics or any other domestic issue - has been his relentless drive to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. He alienated President Barack Obama by addressing a joint session of Congress in 2015, unsuccessfully pleading with U.S. lawmakers to kill the Iran Nuclear Agreement. It was Bibi who delighted in showing the world the treasure of CDs, DVDs and thumb drives that the Mossad had stolen from Tehran, ostensibly proving that the Iranians had been lying about their nuclear program all along. The prime minister has often intervened in U.S. politics to further his Iran policy: He supported Mitt Romney in his campaign against Obama, because he thought Obama was soft on Iran; he has delighted in Trump’s tough stance on the Tehran regime, boasting that his unique relationship with the unpredictable president made Israel safer than ever.
But many Israelis see that Netanyahu’s Iran strategy may be crumbling. Trump has recently been making noise about negotiations with Tehran; when those rumors first surfaced, the Israeli press reported Bibi was desperately trying to get Trump on the phone, while Trump refused to take the call. Just hours after the firing of National Security Adviser John Bolton, perhaps the most pro-Israel figure in Trump’s close circle, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Trump was willing to speak with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani without preconditions. Many Israelis will not be surprised if Trump ultimately signs a deal with Iran very similar to the nuclear pact reached under Obama that Trump derided and ripped up.
The international news media made much of Netanyahu’s announcement yesterday that if re-elected, he would annex much of the Jordan River Valley. In Israel, that was much less momentous a moment. It has always been obvious to Israelis that, in any future deal with the Palestinians, Israel was going to keep control of the western side of the Jordan River. Otherwise, any Palestinian state would be open to arms smuggling from the east. To many Israelis, therefore, Bibi’s announcement, with elections only a week away, simply looked desperate.
To add reputational insult to injury, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, Bibi’s stalwart U.S. financial supporters, are reported by the Israeli press to have told authorities investigating Netanyahu’s alleged corruption that the prime minister’s wife, Sarah, is “crazy” and “decides everything.” That will not help the PM at the polls.
Lastly, on Monday, the Knesset smacked down a law Netanyahu was trying to ram through, against the advice of senior judicial figures in the government, that would have permitted video cameras in some (mostly Arab) polling places. The proposal was another reminder to Israelis that Netanyahu will do virtually anything to Israel’s democracy to try to stay in power, and that the man known as the master political operator who could get anything done now seems to be flailing, running out of tricks.
Are Netanyahu’s days over? Though he is now slightly trailing Gantz’s Blue and White coalition in the polls, what matters is who will be able to put together a coalition. That is utterly unclear. What the numbers do make clear, though, is that Bibi may not be invulnerable, and his recent behavior demonstrates that he knows it. A political quip making its way across Israel yesterday was telling. Almost all Israelis despise Hamas, but, some were saying with a wink, maybe Hamas’s small attack yesterday got one thing right – getting Bibi off the political stage.
To contact the author of this story: Daniel Gordis at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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