Middle East

Netanyahu Loses His Cool in a Summer of Crises

Israelis disapprove of uncharacteristic rash actions by the prime minister.

Mr. Security struggles.

Photographer: Stephanie Mahe/AFP/Getty Images

This summer has been a tumultuous one for Israel, and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with two-thirds of Israelis in a recent poll registering their dissatisfaction with his handling of the crisis at the Temple Mount. Long regarded as a master strategist, Netanyahu of late seems to be making bold moves that later back him into a corner.

The most recent example came this week in the case of Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier convicted of manslaughter for having killed an already incapacitated terrorist in Hebron last year. Although Netanyahu has recently been much more careful about expressing his views regarding Azaria’s appeal before a military court, few in Israel have forgotten that when news of the shooting first broke, Netanyahu was quick to show support for the soldier. When a military court convicted Azaria and sentenced him to a year and a half in prison, Netanyahu advocated that he be pardoned.

Azaria appealed his conviction. When the military appeals court on Sunday upheld the conviction and refused to reduce the sentence, many saw it as an implicit rebuke of the prime minister. Netanyahu continues to insist that he believes a pardon is in order. But Israel’s left-leaning press applauded the verdict (arguing that it shows that the military has not lost its moral moorings) and berated the prime minister for joining “the mob that sees judges as traitors.” If Netanyahu had taken a more measured position at the outset, he could have urged a pardon now as an act of statesmanship. Given his earlier interventions, however, any such appearance was beyond reach.

The ruling followed two debilitating weeks for the prime minister. After the killing of the two Israeli policemen (with arms that had been smuggled onto the Temple Mount), Netanyahu ordered that metal detectors be placed near the Temple Mount. On the surface, metal detectors are a natural and noninvasive response to violence. But on the Temple Mount, matters are different. Ever since Israel captured the Temple Mount in the 1967 Six Day War, Israel has given religious control of the area to a Jordanian trust.

Netanyahu had now given Muslim authorities a pretext for claiming that Israel was changing the status quo on the mount, an accusation that can arouse the ire of millions of Muslims. Things quickly spun out of control. Muslims rioted and insisted that they would not return to the Temple Mount until Israel removed both the metal detectors and security cameras it had installed.

In support of the Jordanians, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, canceled security arrangements with Israel for the first time since he took office in 2005. Much of the Arab world had been warming to Israel as an ally in combating Iran and Islamic State. Now, though, Netanyahu found himself facing warning from the Arab League that Israel was “playing with fire” -- a crisis of the prime minister’s own making.

Netanyahu, whose political capital comes first and foremost by portraying himself as “Mr. Security,” knew that he could not back down without great political cost. Salvation came in the form of yet another crisis, when an Israeli security guard in Amman shot and killed two Jordanians after being attacked by one of them. The guard found refuge in the Israeli Embassy, which was quickly surrounded by an angry Jordanian mob demanding that the guard be executed. Jordan announced that the Israeli team would not be allowed to leave. Suddenly, Netanyahu’s major task was extricating the entire Israeli diplomatic and security team without incident. Nothing trumps the safe return of Israelis home, so when Netanyahu agreed to remove the metal detectors as part of an agreement with Jordan that saw the Israelis returned to Israel, it seemed that the prime minister had narrowly escaped a political disaster.

Stunningly, though, he immediately created a new crisis, when he was filmed hugging the security guard upon his return to Jerusalem. Jordan’s King Abdullah, who understood well that he had risked antagonizing his rabidly anti-Israel street by allowing the release, was enraged by the hero’s welcome. He immediately announced that the Israeli ambassador would not be allowed to return to Jordan until Israel tried the guard, who had shot both his assailant and an innocent bystander, an orthopedic surgeon who owned the apartment the guard had rented. Once again, Netanyahu was in a bind. Israel announced it would investigate the guard, and with the king watching, that probe is not likely to be pro forma. Yet the investigation, which will raise many of the same sentiments as the Azaria trial, will take place because of the king’s insistence -- a sign of weakness for both Israel and its prime minister.

It was lost on no one that the entire episode might have been avoided had the prime minister showed some restraint. Haaretz suggested that Netanyahu’s judgment was clouded by his involvement in a series of corruption investigations.

Polls indicate that 77 percent of Israelis believe that “Mr. Security” caved on removing the Temple Mount metal detectors. Coupled with recent rumors that casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who singlehandedly funds the unabashedly pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Today, has tired of Netanyahu, the summer of 2017 has left the prime minister badly bloodied.

Netanyahu, though, is hardly the only diminished presence. Israeli security suspects that Abbas may be ailing, and U.S.’s undefined policy in the region has all the players guessing, and nervous. That is hardly the recipe for regional stability, and Israelis are keenly aware that the summer, often the season of renewed violence, is ominously far from over.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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