Netanyahu’s game of Russian roulette

The Cradle, December 5, 2023 —

With diminishing strategic gains from Israel’s Gaza war and internal and external threats to his prime ministership, an embattled Netanyahu may choose war with Lebanon to prolong his political survival.

Forced into a Gaza truce by an angry public demanding prisoner exchanges, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now faces his toughest challenge since launching air and land assaults on the Gaza Strip in October. 

The frequency of his threats to both Hamas in Gaza and Lebanon’s Hezbollah on Israel’s northern front has spiked since Netanyahu’s reluctant acceptance of the Qatar-brokered truce.

While the prime minister and Washington’s goals align on waging a war on the Palestinian resistance, and, by extension, on Gaza, their policies diverge on the strategy and duration of the conflict. Faced with threats of its own and attacks by resistance factions in West Asia, the US prefers employing a leveraged military approach without any extensive involvement on the ground.

Lately, the Biden administration has been taking a sterner approach towards Tel Aviv’s actions in the northern Gaza Strip, and has called for Israeli coordination with the US on the ground war. Hours ahead of the truce being implemented, Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored that “the massive loss of civilian life and displacement of the scale that we saw in Northern Gaza [should] not be repeated in the South.” 

The spokesman for the White House National Security Council, John Kirby, has also recently told reporters that the Biden administration “does not support southern operations unless or until the Israelis can show that they have accounted for all the internally displaced people of Gaza.”

Prolonging war for personal gain

Netanyahu, however, harbors a different agenda, seeking to prolong the conflict for personal gains rather than political success. The continuation of the war means he will stay in office longer, and have the time to strike internal and external deals that ensure his post-conflict survival.

For now, “King Bibi” faces mounting pressure from both allies and adversaries. International calls for tangible outcomes from the conflict are intensifying, with the mainstream media increasingly compelled – by social media – to highlight Israeli war crimes in Gaza. Domestically, Netanyahu is grappling with almost daily demands for his resignation or for the removal of extremist cabinet ministers from the Otzma Yehudit and religious Zionist parties.  

In the aftermath of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, the Israeli opposition tempted Netanyahu’s Likud party with offers to dismiss Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir – as well as the removal of the prime minister himself –  as a condition for participating in an emergency government.

These proposals aimed to resolve Israel’s ongoing political and social unrest since 2019, which has led to five consecutive electoral cycles in four years and frequent mass anti-government protests. A national unity government would also be able to resume and possibly develop the Abraham Accords, strained by the presence of extremist parties in the government. Netanyahu’s radical ministers have often negatively affected both these nascent Israeli-Arab relations and Tel Aviv’s relationship with US Democrats.

Notably, the participation of National Camp leader Benny Gantz and former Chief of Staff Gadi Azinkot in Israel’s post-7 October emergency government is contingent upon the war’s duration or the evolving relationship between the Biden administration and Netanyahu. Trust issues between Netanyahu and Gantz add another layer to an already complex political crisis.

All the king’s men 

Even the “king’s” allies show little support, turning the tables on Netanyahu amidst relentless political maneuvering. His once steadfast coalition partners, tired of his constant threats and government disruptions, now threaten to withdraw from his government unless the Gaza war continues – a move tied to the release of prisoners on both sides. 

During truce negotiations in late November, National Security Minister Ben-Gvir voiced these threats publicly on the social media platform X, saying: “Ceasing the war equals dissolving the government.” Finance Minister Smotrich, also in a post on X,  called the cessation of the war in exchange for the release of all detainees in Gaza “a plan to eliminate Israel.” 

For Netanyahu, the priority is not the war in Gaza and its genocidal objectives but rather how best to confront internal strife amid his fears of a coup. Reports continue to circulate about Likud’s inclination to depose him through a Knesset vote of no confidence and select another party member to form a government – without having to hold yet another general election.

These proposals have gone so far as to name possible replacements – one such candidate is the current chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, Yuli Edelstein, who would be appointed interim Prime Minister until a new party leader is elected.

Last month, in a last-ditch effort to secure his right-wing party’s support, Netanyahu reportedly reminded Likud members: “I am the only one who will prevent a Palestinian state in Gaza and [the West Bank] after the war.”

Sacrificing Israel to save Bibi 

Essentially, Netanyahu’s political survival strategy centers on portraying himself as the lone defender against shallow US rhetoric for a two-state solution. Attempting to sidestep responsibility for the occupation state’s failures, Netanyahu now faces a resurgent Benny Gantz in the opposition. Recent Israeli polls predict a significant shift among the wider public, favoring opposition and Arab parties over the current right-wing coalition. Per the polling, a new coalition could be expected to win 79 seats, compared to 41 seats for the parties of the current Likud-far-right government.

Israel’s precarious political situation has Netanyahu resisting any solution, settlement, or exit that could lead to legal consequences for him. He undermines his party by threatening immediate elections post-war if Likud’s internal machinations against him don’t stop – having already refused to step down from his post. 

More worrisome yet is that despite Israel’s devastating past war experiences in Lebanon, Netanyahu may view a northern war as his only potential escape route – a way to reshuffle his political fortunes to avoid corruption charges and face his military failures. Why not play Russian roulette with Lebanon when the only other option is a long stretch in a prison cell?

For its part, the US, cognizant of Netanyahu’s narrowing options and his potential gambit, conveys nuanced messages to Hezbollah and the Lebanese government through various intermediaries, urging restraint. 

While the Israeli army cannot wage a war to protect the political and personal future of Netanyahu, leaks in recent weeks show that the military appears to be more enthusiastic about waging war on Lebanon than most Israeli politicians.

They would like nothing more than to destroy the Radwan Force, Hezbollah’s special forces unit, or at least remove it from the border. That, in addition to the Israeli army’s long-term ambition of destroying the Lebanese resistance’s strategic weapons arsenal, and forcing it to withdraw from the area south of the Litani River. It is here that Netanyahu’s calculations intersect with those of his military’s top brass, who are equally threatened by the accountability they must face at the end of the war. The unprecedented events of 7 October exposed deep gaping holes in Israel’s military intelligence and preparedness, and the army will almost certainly pay a future price for it.

Despite the overlap of opinion between Netanyahu and his army commanders, an Israeli war on Lebanon is not necessarily inevitable – in principle. In reality, the US and some of Tel Aviv’s decision-makers know very well that the calculations of a war with Hezbollah are different from the calculations of war on any other front. This is not only because of Hezbollah’s considerable military capabilities and battlefield experience but also because of the lock-step coordination taking place among the region’s Axis of Resistance -Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.

Although Netanyahu and his generals may see war with Lebanon as a personal path to salvation, they will face obstacles even at the starting line. For one, Washington will almost certainly refuse a conflict that will utterly devastate US interests across West Asia.

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