Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Netanyahu in a Nutshell (February 22, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Netanyahu in a nutshell: tactical victories, strategic misses


Q. In a nutshell? For example . . .

A. For example, the issue on the US-Israel agenda with the most explosive potential: Iran.

Last week, President Biden finally phoned PM Netanyahu. This was Biden’s first conversation with a Middle East leader since his inauguration, but it took place a month after Biden took office. This delay on Biden’s part was widely noticed in both Jerusalem and Washington and was understood to draw on a reservoir of Democratic resentment at Netanyahu’s highly partisan pro-Trump, pro-Republican behavior in recent years.

We can assume that in their phone conversation Biden and Netanyahu aired their substantive differences regarding not only Iran but also settlements and the absence of any sort of Israeli-Palestinian official dialogue. The post-conversation ‘readouts’ were banal and neutral.

In short, a tactical step forward: breaking the ice. But what does Netanyahu do next? He eulogizes Rush Limbaugh publicly in language that leaves no doubt as to the Israeli prime minister’s true sentiments regarding all that Biden represents: “. . . [Limbaugh] stood by us through thick and thin, always firm, never wavering. We shall miss him dearly.”

This is a bad start, totally unnecessary, to the Biden-Netanyahu top-level relationship. It is being compounded by Netanyahu’s apparent choice of National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat as his point man vis-à-vis Washington on the highly sensitive Iran issue. Ben-Shabbat, who hails from the Shin Bet, is not exactly an Iran expert. In his diplomatic encounters he requires an English translator. But he is loyal to Netanyahu to a fault. 

Netanyahu has apparently selected Ben-Shabbat instead of outgoing Mossad head Yossi Cohen, who knows Iran and knows the Washington scene extremely well. It seems that Netanyahu trusts Ben-Shabbat more than Cohen, who has political ambitions. 

The backdrop is the Biden administration’s drive to open up a renewed strategic dialogue with Iran. Biden’s newly-appointed Iran point man is Rob Malley, who is not particularly trusted in Israeli security circles where he is thought to be ‘soft’ on Iran. Netanyahu wants to see a much tougher American approach to the Iran nuclear and missile issues. Yet, for the moment, Washington and Tehran remain far apart regarding pre-conditions for talking. And Israeli intelligence circles have leaked that Iran is still two years away from becoming a military nuclear power.

All this means that Netanyahu’s anxiety is, at a minimum, premature and strategically counter-productive. The next four years will feature lots of controversial issues on the US-Israel agenda. Netanyahu knows that, even if we ignore his aggressive partisan opposition to the 2015 Iran JCPOA nuclear deal, he has a lot to make up for in his relations with Biden and the Democrats running Congress.

Incidentally, very few Israelis even knew who Rush Limbaugh was when he died. Netanyahu’s comment was playing to his US Republican-Evangelical base. Why start off by antagonizing?


Q. Still, Netanyahu is also playing to his own religious-nationalist base. And he seems to be dominating the news cycle . . .

A. Yes, but it doesn’t seem to be helping him electorally to rally a 61-mandate majority. Last week he gave a rare, jovial half-hour interview on prime time to Israel’s leading TV news show. He completely dominated star interviewer Yonit Levi, telling endless bald-faced lies without being challenged. For example, Netanyahu claimed to Levi that “We have a budget”, when for two years he has prevented enactment of a state budget. And he claimed racist-Kahanist extremist Itamar Ben-Gvir, whom Netanyahu helped form a party list likely to enter the next Knesset, could for reasons of principle never be a minister in his next government when clearly Netanyahu, if he wins, will be electorally indebted to Ben-Gvir.

The interview boosted Netanyahu and the Likud in the polls by exactly one mandate, from 28 to 29--still a low figure. Hardly a strategic political achievement.

But that was not the last of the prime minister’s tactically counter-productive or unproductive mistakes. Last week, the Likud led the charge at the partisan Electoral Commission to disqualify candidate number seven on the Labor electoral list, Ibtisam Mara’ana. Her sin in Likud eyes, besides being an Arab, was to tweet years ago that she had refused to stand during the annual two-minute memorial siren for Israel’s fallen soldiers and had felt liberated by the act. 

Let’s leave aside for the moment both the anger harbored by many Israeli Jews regarding slights like this, but also the discomfort felt by many with the death-and-mourning rituals increasingly dominating Israeli politics and the media. Many Arab citizens of Israel don’t stand for the siren. Many Haredim don’t stand, either. Did the Likud ask to disqualify an Arab Islamist or Arab ultra-nationalist party for its anti-Israel views? The Haredi parties for banning women from their electoral lists? Ben-Gvir’s Kahanist party for its overt racism? Of course not, because they are all potential coalition partners in the struggle to reach 61. They can all be bought with entitlements; Labor apparently can’t be bought. 

Meir Kahane’s candidacy was disqualified through legislation with Likud acquiescence decades ago, but Netanyahu needs Kahane’s heir and successor for his future coalition. Attacking Labor’s Mara’ana was useful for distracting voter attention from that scandal. In any case, her number seven spot on the Labor ticket will almost certainly leave her outside the Knesset, even assuming Labor passes the minimum four-mandate threshold for getting elected on March 23. (Of all the Zionist parties, only Meretz has placed two Arabs high on its list, in ‘realistic’ slots, assuming it too passes the four-mandate threshold.)

Ultimately, the Supreme Court judge charged with supervising elections will reinstate Mara’ana on appeal. Disqualifying her was a publicity stunt that left a lot of Arab Israelis uneasy. Netanyahu may need them on March 24 if he doesn’t reach 61 with his Haredi and Kahanist allies.


Q. And what about the strange case of the young ex-Haredi woman who crossed the Golan border to Syria?

A. She crossed a few weeks ago, of her own free will, after posting “If you don’t climb the mountain you won’t know what is waiting beyond it”. She had tried in the past to cross illegally into the Gaza Strip and Jordan. She has spent time with West Bank Palestinians, terming them “not cousins but brothers”. The 22-year-old had left her Haredi family in Modi’in Ilit, a Haredi town in the West Bank, abandoned orthodox Judaism, and become something of a free spirit with an urge for adventure.

Once in Syria, the young woman (for reasons strangely unexplained, Netanyahu’s censors won’t let us know her name; rumor has it that she hails from a very prominent Haredi family with political connections) was arrested. Her Syrian captors quickly realized she was unhinged, hence not an asset but a potential liability for a regime still unable to control its own sovereign territory and anxious that Israel not aid its enemies. They asked the Russians to arrange a quick exchange with Israel.

What emerged was a super-secret ‘humanitarian’ triangular deal. Syria flew the young woman to Moscow (against her will? Nobody asked her). Israel flew to Moscow two Syrian ‘shepherds’, presumably spies, who had crossed into the Israeli Golan and been captured. President Putin asked for and received over a million dollars from Netanyahu to purchase and deliver to Syria a few thousand doses of Russia’s Sputnik covid-19 vaccine.

The young Israeli woman was flown home and interrogated regarding the ease with which she walked into Kuneitra on the Syrian side of the Golan. She may be charged with illegally crossing into enemy territory. The IDF needs to know urgently why it was so easy for her to cross the border, lest hostile forces exploit the same lacuna in the opposite direction to enter Israel. 

That wasn’t the only glaring anomaly here. Netanyahu took credit for repatriating the young woman at a surprisingly low cost in captured Syrians. A few years ago, two unhinged young Israeli men deliberately crossed, separately, into the Gaza Strip. Ever since, Israeli offers to free large numbers of Hamas terrorists in Israeli jails have not persuaded the Hamas leadership to do a deal and return them (as well as the remains of two dead Israeli soldiers). On the other hand, the ease with which Moscow solicited an Israeli contribution to vaccinating Syrians contrasted sharply with the obstacles Israel has until recently mounted to vaccinating Palestinian day-laborers and allowing vaccine doses into Gaza.

There are of course additional issues here. What, for example, is Israel’s ‘humanitarian’ and Jewish duty to Israelis who cross over to enemy territory willingly? Who defines their decision as ‘unhinged’? These issues deserve a separate discussion.


Q. Is there a bottom line here that links all these Netanyahu publicity stunts to Biden and Iran?

A. Indeed there is. One way or another, Netanyahu’s close relationship with Putin obviously was of prime importance here. But this is where we encounter the ultimate anomaly that brings us back to the Netanyahu-Biden relationship. Israel needs Russia’s good will in order to continue attacking Iranian forces and weaponry in Syria, where Moscow has a large military and political presence. Hence, if Putin cynically asks Israel to finance the covid vaccination of the leadership of a country (Syria) with which it is still technically at war, Netanyahu complies.

Getting the young ex-Haredi woman back was a tactical achievement, however ridiculous the ‘humanitarian’ gloss and the extreme secrecy that Netanyahu has imposed on the deal. It was good for Israeli-Russian and even Israeli-Syrian relations. And when Netanyahu phoned the young woman’s mother in Modiin Ilit to reassure her that her daughter was safe, he signaled that his political instincts were at play here as well.

But when it comes to Iran--whether Iran in Syria, Iran’s missiles or Iran’s nuclear program--Israel now also needs Biden’s good will. Given the clear gap between Biden’s and Netanyahu’s views on Iran, and with all due respect for Putin, developing a healthy and positive US-Israel dialogue regarding Iran is more important than doing favors for Russia and possibly for a key Haredi ally. Thus far, Netanyahu does not seem to be cultivating the necessary close coordination and cooperation very skillfully. Indeed, at the strategic level regarding Iran, Washington and Israel under Netanyahu appear to be moving further apart.