Starting Sunday night and all through Monday, rockets rained down on Israeli cities close to the Gaza Strip. As of 5 PM Monday, over 50 rockets had been fired. Most were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile Defense system. This latest barrage takes place one week before Israel’s third election this year. Over the past few months, I’ve debated various supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weekly, during a TV show on Israeli politics. Their arguments always came down to one main claim: Israel has never been more secure. That the country’s security is due to one person, Netanyahu, therefore, we must reelect Netanyahu.
But, after 24 hours of constant rocket fire, can Netanyahu really claim the mantel of “Mr. Security”?
Historically, security has been the number one issue for Israelis. But are Israelis more secure thanks to Netanyahu? His main opposition certainly does not think so. A senior official in his main opposition contender, the Blue and White party, told me: “Netanyahu has weakened our national security on every front. Hamas in Gaza is no longer deterred and the northern border remains unstable. Instead of using force to bring peace and quiet to our citizens, he is trying to buy quiet by paying Hamas with Qatari cash.”
Yet, on some levels, the answer has to be yes. Last year, the smallest number of Israeli soldiers died in recent Israeli history. That is certainly one criterion. Only 18 Israelis were killed by terror attacks last yeara low number compared to the second Intifadah, but not a historically low number. And, in recent years under Netanyahu, the number of Israeli terror victims has been much larger (83 in 2015 and 90 in 2016.)
By and large, Israelis feel safe in the streets. The days of security guards at the entrances to every restaurant cafe or public space have receded. Today, only large malls, rail stations and similar locations have guards (most of whom are geriatric.) While Israelis do feel safer now, that safety is mostly a result of the war between Israel and the West Bank started by Ariel Sharon, and to a lesser degree due to the cooperation with the Palestinian Authority Security service, something Netanyahu had nothing to do with, and has actually damaged.
Rockets from Gaza: During the course of Netanyahu’s period in office, Israel has fought two wars with Hamas in Gaza. Over the past five years, there has been no full-scale war. However, Hamas has fired numerous missiles into Israel, including 24 hours when over 1,000 rockets were fired on Southern Israel.
The Israeli response to missile attacks has largely been to provide the Air Force with practice bombing empty buildings. Hamas is clearly not deterred by the possibility of Israeli counterstrikes. Why? Hamas knows the truth, i.e., the Netanyahu government wants to keep Hamas in power, because if Hamas falls, the Palestinian Authority might regain control. If that were to happen, Israel might be forced to negotiate a potential peace agreement. According to many in the Likud, that possibility is more dangerous than a Hamas-controlled Gaza (despite Hamas’ continued call for Israel’s destruction). As a result, Israel has lost its deterrence with Hamas.
So, how has Israel maintained some semblance of peace on its Gaza Border? By persuading Qatar to send suitcases of money to maintain Hamas rule. Consequently, when it comes to Gaza, “Mr. Security” gets a failing grade.
Let’s look at Syria: Under Netanyahu, Israel decided not to get involved in any way, other than providing some humanitarian aid in the Syrian Civil War. Nothing was done to stop Assad in his murderous rampage against his people. The Israeli government expected the Syrian war would continue to the point of exhaustion. No one expected an Assad victory, which came about largely thanks to Russian/Iranian/Hezbollah support. That support has strengthened both Hezbollah and Iran in the region, and Israel has been forced to continuously bomb Iranian positions in Syria, hoping to stop the Iranians from bringing additional missiles into either Syria or Lebanon. Most problematic, however, has been Netanyahu’s decision to publicize much of Israel efforts in Syria, including Sunday night’s bombing of a terrorist office in Damascus, contradicting Israel’s long-kept policy of no comment on such matters. So, on Syria, “Mr. Security” also gets a failing grade.
Let’s turn briefly to Lebanon: On the positive side, there has been no war with Hezbollah during the past ten yearsmostly because during the last war (in 2006) under Ehud Olmert’s administration, despite putting on a brave face and causing Israel casualties, Hezbollah was hit hard enough to be deterred from starting a new war. On the negative side, over the past year, Hezbollah has grown its arsenal of missiles to over 100,000. So, when it comes to Lebanon, we will give “Mr. Security” a grade of “C”.
Next, let’s examine Iran, considered by Netanyahu as the existential threat to Israel: First, it must be said, initially Netanyahu handled Iran very well. He was able to turn stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons into a worldwide effort and concentrated the actions of the Obama Administration at reaching an agreement to stop the Iranian nuclear program for at least 10 years. When the final agreement was not perfect, Netanyahu decided to make stopping it or overturning it his mission. Although he could not stop it, Netanyahu was able to influence President Donald J. Trump to withdraw the US from the agreement, thereby dooming the deal.
Netanyahu considers dashing the Iran agreement to be his greatest accomplishment. If it somehow results in regime change in Teheran, he will be right. But as of this moment, despite, or because of American sanctions, the Iranian regime has violated the agreement and is now once again enriching uranium. Iran is now closer to developing the bomb, with no clear “Plan B”. If US sanctions do not work, it would seem Netanyahu’s quest to stop the Obama period agreement with Iran, by having the Trump Administration withdraw, has instead of strengthening Israel’s security, possibly endangered it more. On Iran, “Mr. Security” gets a “C-“.
This brings us to a related area: Israel’s relations with the United States, by far its most important strategic asset. No one can take away from Netanyahu his close relationship with President Trump. Netanyahu influenced Trump to release a peace plan that meets most of Israel’s needs, and thanks to Netanyahu’s relations with Trump, the US now recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and recognizes Israel sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The question is, at what price?
Netanyahu has always been seen as closer to Republicans in Washington than to Democrats. The current Israeli Ambassador to the US, a close Netanyahu confidant, had once been a Republican operative. However, even against that backdrop Netanyahu’s address to Congress (in opposition to the Obama agreement at the behest of the Republicans in Congress), soured many Democrats.
Moreover, his full embrace of Trump has started to turn Israel into a partisan issue, chipping away at the bipartisan Congressional support Israel has always enjoyed. In a related matter, both his support of Trump and his total dependence on the ultra-Orthodox to remain in power in Israel, have negatively impacted Israel’s relations with American Jews. Regarding Israel’s US relations, “Mr. Security” gets a grade of “B,” which is a good grade for the moment, but a low grade when it comes to long-term relations.
Talking about security, it would be impossible not to mention Israel’s relationship with a competitor and future rival. For reasons Netanyahu has never explained, he permitted the Germans to sell an advanced submarine to Egypt, without informing any part of the military of his decisiona decision that according to UZI Arad, former National Security advisor to Netanyahu, has very negative strategic implications for Israel. Combine this with the fact that according to the 2020 Global Firepower Index Israel is now number 18 in the world (after being #10 in 2011). It would seem when it comes to overall military security, “Mr. Security” gets an overall grade of “C,” and probably deserves worse.
Lastly, one must note Netanyahu’s use of the role of the Defense Ministerconsidered the most important cabinet position for political purposes. Netanyahu initially appointed Ehud Barak as his Defense Minister, followed by Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon, both former Chiefs of Staff, with years of experience in the military.
When Boogie started asking too many questions about submarine purchases from Germany, Netanyahu maneuvered his resignation and placed Avigdor Lieberman in that position (someone with no defense experience, but constituted a politically expedient move for Netanyahu.)
Most recently Netanyahu appointed Naftali Bennett Defense Minister. Was this appointment because Bennett was most qualified for the job? The answer is No. Netanyahu has two people in leadership positions immensely more qualified to be Minister of Defense. Netanyahu admitted publicly that appointing Bennett was a political act to stop him from agreeing to form a government with the Blue and White Party.
So, in the end, has the self-proclaimed “Mr. Security” done a good job in keeping Israel secure? The reality is that Netanyahu’s considerable rhetorical skills have convinced many Israelis that he is indeed Mr. Security. However, like the wizard behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, Netanyahu’s security accomplishments have been mostly smoke and mirrors.
Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.
The views expressed in this artcle are the author’s own.