Israel will hold an early general election on March 17. The campaign is already in full swing—and it is not confined to Israel’s borders.
In the wake of anti-Semitic attacks in Copenhagen, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Europe’s Jews to return “home.” This has infuriated some of Israel’s key European allies, and critics include Denmark’s chief rabbi, Jair Melchior, who said:
Terror is not a reason to move to Israel … People from Denmark move to Israel because they love Israel, because of Zionism, but not because of terrorism. If the way we deal with terror is to run somewhere else, we should all run to a deserted island.
Netanyahu’s remarks may seem like a piece of miscalculated rhetoric, but they actually fit into a very marked trend in the 2015 election campaign.
From domestic to diplomacy
In Israel, the phrase “election economy” is used to refer to populist policy decisions that create a positive buzz, aimed at pleasing the voting public before elections. The 2015 campaign takes this further with what might be called “election diplomacy”—to appeal to voters, Israel’s leaders are mounting ostentatious diplomatic spectacles all over the world.
In particular, Netanyahu’s gauche way of taking the election campaign abroad—like his comments on returning Jews—is also starting to alienate some of Israel’s closest allies.
His first stunt of the campaign came in late December 2014, when Jordan issued a bid to the UN Security Council demanding Palestinian statehood within a year. Around 135 countries already recognized Palestinian statehood, and Palestinians were optimistic about their bid—until Rwanda and Nigeria abstained in the vote. It led to the failure of the bid, but also meant the U.S. did not have to resort to using its veto.
Netanyahu promptly took credit for the abstentions: “I spoke with both of them, they promised me personally that they would not support this decision, and they stood by their words. That is what tipped the scales,“ he said.
But Israel’s largest news website, YNET—which Netanyahu recently accused of targeting him—reported instead that the positive result also “demonstrated the importance of the visits made by foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman to the African continent.”
However, it was not only the Israeli right that was practicing election diplomacy. John Kerry, the American secretary of state, told a group of European ambassadors that the UN Security Council resolution would strengthen Israeli hardliners. He attributed this analysis to Tzipi Livni, Netanyahu’s fired justice minister who had recently aligned with Labour party leader Isaac Herzog to form the left-of-center party Zionist Camp. It led Naftali Bennett, minister of the economy and head of the religious Zionist Jewish Home party to accuse Livni of “political sabotage”, essentially because the move was bad election diplomacy.
So clearly, Netanyahu’s opponents can play at the election diplomacy game—and so it went in Paris after the January attacks there.
Push to the front
After the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish supermarket Hyper Cacher on January 7 and January 9, a massive memorial march took place.
It is not surprising that Israeli politicians came to Paris and participated in the march, not just because of the anti-semitic aspect of the later attack, but because of as many as 200,000 French-Israelis are seen as more likely to support right-wing parties.
But French president François Hollande requested that Netanyahu not attend. According to Haaretz journalist Barak Ravid, Hollande feared that Netanyahu would use the occasion for politicking, as he did before the 2012 election following the deadly attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse.
Netanyahu initially complied, but after discovering that both Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman would be in Paris, he decided to participate after all.
In such a moment of crisis for French Jewry, fighting to exclude Netanyahu would have been a big blunder on Hollande’s part. Still, the visit that ensued was a strange one, especially considering Netanyahu’s reputation as a relatively media-savvy politician.
Netanyahu was filmed pushing his way onto the bus to the march, and photographed slyly sliding towards the front row of the leaders' photoshoot—and later that Sunday, at a ceremony in Paris’s Grand Synagogue, Hollande left just before Netanyahu rose to say exactly the sort of thing Hollande had feared: calling on French Jews to migrate to Israel.
Bennett had a more successful visit. He had his picture taken at the Hyper Cacher before the march, and used the opportunity to address the Israeli press. He criticised the presence of Palestinian and Qatari representatives who came to Paris “with blood on their hands”, and offered a “message to every French Jew: you have a home, the home is in Israel.”
Lieberman issued a similar call. Attending an immigration information fair that received 500 visitors, he declared that “we [have] decided to augment the embassy and the representation of the Absorption and Immigration Ministry,” thereby aggrandizing two governmental offices under the control of his own party.
Even more daring was another “election diplomat,” Knesset hopeful Eli Yishai, who distributed an amateurish video from Paris. Like Bennett, Yishai attempted to visit Hyper Cacher. However he was not able to get to the site itself. With the supermarket far in the background, Yishai attempted made some statements to camera that were all but undecipherable due to the noise of the wind.
Meanwhile, things were hotting up on Israel’s border with Syria. In mid-January, the Israeli Defence Force attacked a Hezbollah convoy in the Syrian Golan Heights, killing five people. Hezbollah retaliated, killing two Israeli soldiers, and the situation almost became a serious cross-border confrontation.
The incident stirred accusations that the IDF attack was a political stunt—and surprisingly came from a high-ranking former IDF official and current Knesset candidate, Yoav Galant.
Galant is the number two candidate in the newly formed Kulanu party, which is expected to become one of the larger parties in the next Knesset. He drew parallels between the Golan Heights incident and a strike in Gaza during the 2012 election campaign, when the IDF assassinated Hamas deputy military commander Ahmed Ja’abari. The ensuing IDF operation, “Pillar of Defence,” claimed 87 Palestinian and four Israeli civilian lives.
Galant argued that the decision to eliminate him at that particular moment, so close to the general elections, must have been a matter of political expedience.
Perhaps the most extreme case yet of Israeli leaders using diplomacy for campaign purposes, and of what can happen when they go too far, is Netanyahu’s speech to the U.S. Congress on Iran, scheduled to be given on March 3, just two weeks before the Israeli elections.
However, Netanyahu’s calculated delivery of fiery rhetoric to the American Congress so shortly before the elections has been much to the chagrin of the White House, his usual supporters among American Jewry, and even acting Israeli diplomats.
It was only recently revealed that the White House had stopped updating Israel on the status of negotiations with Iran because Netanyahu has been using the information for campaign purposes.
Whether in Paris, Syria, or the US, this grandstanding will not help Israel. Alienating his country’s strongest allies—especially as the Iranian nuclear negotiations face another vital deadline, which all parties are desperate to meet—will not keep his country safe in the scrambled Middle East of 2015.