Netanyahu's 'Mr. Security' Mirage

03/03/2015 10:52 am ET | Updated May 03, 2015
Joel Carillet via Getty Images

Ahead of Israel's March 17 election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has arrived in Washington on a mission to undermine President Obama's Iran policy. This, his latest and greatest diplomatic affront, has starkly revealed the degree to which many here have tired of his shtick.

But what may come as a surprise is that Israelis are sick of Bibi too.

Of course, not all feel indigestion at the thought of Netanyahu being reelected next month. But polls show his favorability rating at an all-time low. Meanwhile, the cost of living for the average Israeli has become extraordinarily high -- 40 percent of Israelis are unable to make ends meet -- and a majority claim socio-economic and social justice issues as their top priority in this election. A majority also say that Netanyahu's main rival, Labor's Yitzhak Herzog, is most fit to handle this issue.

Yet, Netanyahu continues to run neck-and-neck with Herzog and his center-left "Zionist Union" alliance. The reason for this is revealed in the same polls that show voters' distaste for Netanyahu's handling of the economy: they still trust him most when it comes to security. With his "It's either me or ISIS" campaign line, Netanyahu has shown that he will stop at nothing to define the election in alarmist terms. Indeed, Israelis have always voted according to this most existential of issues. Assuming they do again, it seems likely that Netanyahu will be Prime Minister for the fourth time.

But the case to be made for Netanyahu as "Mr. Security" is flimsy at best -- an assessment consistently put forth by former heads of Israel's Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence services. If anything, he has done far more to damage Israel's security than strengthen it.

Netanyahu's ongoing Congressional speech fiasco is only the most recent example, whereby he has weakened Israeli security on multiple fronts. In choosing to publicly challenge President Obama on his home turf, the Prime Minister has further eroded their personal relationship -- a feat that seemed nearly impossible. Polls show that over two-thirds of Americans oppose the speech.

Because of Obama's unpopularity in Israel, Netanyahu's perceived "toughness" in standing up to the President may provide short-term political gains at home. But Netanyahu is harming bipartisan support for Israel and alienating young Americans in particular -- an ever-more dangerous prospect for Israel's future.

Even worse for Israel's security is what Netanyahu seeks to accomplish: undermining any nuclear deal with Iran that could possibly be achieved. The likely result of his success would be a war devastating for Israel, the U.S., and the region -- and one that would not prevent Tehran from ultimately getting the bomb. Iran has the technical know-how to build a nuclear weapon, yet it has so far chosen not to. An attack by the U.S. or Israel would likely convince Iranians that possession of nuclear weapons is in their best interest.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu's record on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a similar disaster for Israel's security. The ongoing occupation of the West Bank (alongside continued expansion of settlements) and Gaza is far from the only reason for the Palestinian terrorism Israel faces, but it is nonetheless a fundamental factor. Netanyahu has not offered a single initiative to end the conflict. To those proposed by others, such as the Arab Peace Initiative offering Israel full diplomatic relations with most of the Arab and Muslim world, he has never even offered a response.

Instead, Netanyahu now states that Israeli control of the West Bank must continue forever, and his government has made clear that it has no strategic vision beyond management of the status quo.

But Netanyahu has failed to even manage the status quo effectively. He has no strategy for dealing with Hamas -- negotiating with them to release hundreds of prisoners one day and fighting a new war against them the next. Before last summer's conflict, he failed to deal with the vast system of Hamas tunnels, which led to the avoidable deaths of Israeli civilians and IDF soldiers. Further loss of Israeli life was largely prevented by the Iron Dome missile defense system - funded by the same administration Netanyahu continually thumbs his nose at. And his decision to massively bombard civilian areas in Gaza and its horrific consequences hurt Israel's image abroad and provoked strong criticism from the White House and State Department.

Ultimately, nothing was gained from the war besides a temporary weakening of Hamas, who Israeli military intelligence says is "ready to go [to war] today". In the meantime, Gaza has sunk further into misery and extremism.

That's not all. In the immediate wake of the war in Gaza, Netanyahu's security failures were again on full display in Jerusalem. He declined to prevent right-wing MKs from making provocative visits to the Temple Mount, leading Jordan -- one of only two Arab countries with which Israel has a peace treaty -- to withdraw its ambassador. Meanwhile, he allowed Israeli settlers to carry out midnight takeovers of houses in Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem, another action that helped fuel months of Palestinian rioting and "lone-wolf" terrorism. Netanyahu has blamed the latter actions on alleged incitement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but most Israelis think Netanyahu has done nothing to curb incitement from his own side.

In reality, the only thing Netanyahu has managed to secure is his own political survival. Though his resume is a desert littered with failure, he has managed to create a "Mr. Security" mirage. In a matter of weeks, we will find out if the Israeli public has finally seen through it.


Aaron Mann is the Outreach and Research Consultant at Americans for Peace Now.