In the lead-up to Israeli elections, the prime minister’s trip to France wasn't a public relations gaffe -- it may have been political genius.
- By Aaron David MillerAaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.
The Israeli press and chattering classes have been quick to declare Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Paris in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks an unmitigated disaster. He crashed the solidarity party — reportedly French President François Hollande asked him not to come. He missed the bus intended for dignitaries and was photographed in the middle of a Paris street looking annoyed, uneasy and very much out of place. In a video that has since gone viral, he can be seen pushing himself to the front of the line and was mocked by the press for doing so. (You can actually play a video game that moves the prime minister up front.) But more problematic was perhaps his call for French Jews to come to Israel; for while it was understandable given the circumstances, it may have missed the importance that lies in both having a strong Jewish diaspora and not caving into the forces of terror. In short, Netanyahu’s France appearance was summed up in the following ways: “Je suis Bibi,” Haaretz columnist Yossi Verter declared; a “PR disaster,” Asher Schechter opined, and claimed both the visit and the prime minister himself were emblematic of Israel’s situation in 2015 — bereft of allies and international support.
Perhaps. Much depends on which newspapers you read. Israel Hayom, the pro-Netanyahu paper, attacked the malicious coverage of the Paris visit. Still, Likud in Paris doesn’t carry the same charm and joie de vivre that springtime in Paris does. And even though it was right for the prime minister of a nation that has been victimized by the same kind terror to stand with the French and French Jewry, the visit probably wasn’t a smartly orchestrated affair. But it also probably won’t affect Netanyahu’s prospects all that much in the upcoming Israeli elections, now less than two months away, either for better or for worse.
Clearly tragic world events offer presidents a chance to be presidential and prime ministers a chance to be prime ministerial. And despite his adversaries’ attacks, what happened in Paris — both the jihadi terror and the killing of Jews — likely does buck up the narrative of a world, particularly an Islamic one, which is hostile to Jews. And this is indeed a theme that resonates with Netanyahu and many Israelis, too.
And in that sense, it wasn’t so much the visit to Paris that could help Netanyahu keep his job so much as it was the reason for the visit.
The fact is we’re entering a potentially dangerous phase of jihadi terror, in Europe, perhaps even in the United States, and for sure in the broken, angry, and dysfunctional Middle East. It is far from certain that a deteriorating security environment — as it did in the past – will carry Benjamin Netanyahu to victory in the spring. After all, this past summer’s Gaza war tainted his security credentials and Israelis are busy worrying about other things like their stalled economy, which has yet to recover from that war.
But the spring election is likely to be a close one. And under such circumstances, anything that plays to Netanyahu’s strengths and validates his worldview and narrative could help quite a bit. Indeed, in such a close election – where it’s the ability to form a government that may count more than whose party (Likud or Labor) has the most votes — a bad threat environment (not of Bibi’s making) might easily hand him the election. And here’s why.
Let’s first consider that in two of the past three of Bibi’s election victories, terror and conflict turned the tide in his favor late in the campaign. In 1996, he bested Shimon Peres in large part because of an intense series of Hamas suicide bombings, and in 2008/2009, Ehud Olmert’s failure to win big against Hamas in Gaza and an inconclusive war with Hezbollah in 2006 helped Netanyahu edge him out. And while Israelis seem tired of Netanyahu (53 percent no longer want him as prime minister), when asked who is most fit for the job, they still opted for Bibi over his closest rival, Yitzhak “Bugie” Herzog, by 34 to 17 percent.
Second, while Netanyahu’s Paris trip has been portrayed as a PR disaster personally for him, when the lines are drawn between terror and anti-terror, between the West’s tolerance of freedom of speech/expression and radical jihad’s intolerance and savagery, Israel correctly ends up on the side of the good guys, along with other Western allies led by the United States.
That was the way it went down in the wake of the 9/11 with the United States and Israel standing side by side, and it may well be that way now, particularly if there are more attacks in Europe. The Palestinian issue gets pushed aside at times like these. And occupying power notwithstanding, Israel is seen as an ally, not a liability in the war against terror. On the other hand, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the Islamic State (IS) beheadings, al Qaeda and its affiliates attacking Western targets, are not. The terror in Paris won’t lessen Europe’s growing pro-Palestinian sympathies over time, but it might well slow it down. And while Europe is preoccupied with Muslim terrorists, Israel’s own isolation might lessen temporarily, further supporting the current prime minister. And remember Israeli elections are now just a few short months away. Fair or not, jihadi terror directed against Europeans — and especially Jews — remains the best set of talking points for making a pro-Israeli, or at least not an anti-Israeli case.
Third, let’s consider Iran, where the chances of a deal are, at best, very uncertain. I’ve made the case that in a rational world, there’s a deal Iran can sell should the Supreme Leader actually want one. But certainly no deal will further buoy Netanyahu’s arguments about a nuke-seeking Iran and the dangers to the west of Iran with a bomb, and push the Saudis, Gulfies, and Israelis closer together. And with the March deadline looming for a political deal between the P5+1 and Iran, we should know which way this is going before the Israeli elections. And if there is no deal, the case will be made that the West needs the Israelis in their campaign against the Sunni jihadis, but for their campaign against expansionist Shiites, too. A Republican-controlled Congress will be certain to make that point with more sanctions against Teheran and support for Israel. And the 2016 U.S. presidential election will ensure that the debate on Israel is over who is more pro-Israel among the Republicans and the Democrats.
The Paris visit may not have done much for Benjamin Netanyahu’s PR. But an unsettled, violent Middle East that is heading south for reasons that have little to do with an unresolved Palestinian issue may. The prime minister is not only positioning himself as a centrist between a harder right wing represented by Naftali Bennett and a more flexible center left, but as Mr. Security, too. And in a close election, Netanyahu’s experience, tough exterior, political skills, and risk-averse nature may well make him the kind of default candidate that enough Israelis who are worried about their own security, the fate of their European co-religionists, and the craziness of the world that surrounds them, may be willing to vote for again.
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