Israel Pulse

Netanyahu losing his diplomatic ‘magic touch’

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Article Summary
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, master of international diplomacy, seems to be losing his magic touch: Ties with Jordan and Russia are shaky, the alliance with Saudi Arabia draws criticism and the Trump team might present its peace plan at any moment.

After a long period of time in which it seemed that all of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dreams were coming true, the winds have shifted in recent weeks. Netanyahu’s magic touch has eroded, and clouds are starting to darken the prime minister’s horizons on almost all sides. These include his relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, freedom of action on the Syrian front, the stinging crisis with Jordan and the Khashoggi affair. To all of this, we add the first sounds of discord from the Washington-Jerusalem axis and an additional heating up of Israel’s southern front; the latter has elicited sharp criticism from Netanyahu’s right-wing base, criticizing his seemingly restrained approach to Gaza.

Netanyahu’s life had been on easy street ever since President Donald Trump entered the White House in January 2017. Whatever he dreamed of at night came true the next morning. Despite all the talk about a peace program, Trump put the Palestinians into freezer-mode, recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and caused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to slam the door on US negotiators Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt. On the northern front, the Israeli air force enjoyed absolute freedom in Syrian skies and carried out more than 200 assaults on Iranian bases and other Iranian strongholds in Syria. Israel’s Mossad smuggled out Iran’s nuclear archives to Tel Aviv, Trump abandoned the nuclear agreement with Iran, relations with Egypt went up another notch and Netanyahu’s popularity in the polls went sky high.

However, sometimes dreams come to an end and waking up to reality is difficult. We have the impression that an imposing flock of black swans is making its way past the blue skies above Netanyahu.

It all began with the downing of a Russian plane over the Mediterranean Sea by Syrian anti-aircraft batteries that targeted Israeli air force activity on Sept. 17. Moscow blamed Jerusalem for the incident. Today we know for sure that this incident was what changed the rules of the game — rules that had tilted toward Israel. No more. Now the Russians have changed the rules: They quickly transferred three S-300 air defense missile systems to Syria. These missiles are operated by Russian teams in a way that will not allow Israel to attack them, even if they should try to knock out Israel’s planes.

In spite of Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s statements that Israel continues to operate in Syria, there is no evidence that this is true. Even if there is some truth to it, everyone knows that things have changed and Israeli activity in Syria is much more limited and calculated. Moreover, Netanyahu bragged about his close relationship with Putin, but we get the impression that this, too, is not what it once was. More than two weeks have passed since Netanyahu announced that he’d be meeting with Putin soon, yet no date for a meeting has been made public. In the past, when Netanyahu wanted to meet with the Russian leader or announced it, the meeting was held within a few days. No longer. The winds from Moscow to Jerusalem have become frosty, and Israel is aware of the problem.

Some members of Israel’s security system play with the idea of continuing to operate in the skies above Syria and not be deterred by the idea of friction with the Russians. There are those who fondly recall when Israel’s air force knocked out five Soviet MiGs in 1973 above Syrian skies. But fond memories are one thing — reality is another. There is no decision-maker in Israel today who will dare even think about clashing with Russia.

Jordanian King Abdullah II announced Oct. 21 that his kingdom would not extend the leasing agreement with Israel for another 25 years. This arrangement was included in the 1994 peace agreement in which Israeli farmers cultivate two enclaves under Jordanian sovereignty. The Jordanian announcement fell on Jerusalem like a thunderbolt, even though anyone who bothered to listen to the voices in Amman over recent months knew that this was inevitable. In fact, Netanyahu has in recent months been lacking attentiveness and tools for confronting such structural failures. His office has long since emptied. His lawyer and confidant, Yitzhak Molcho, stepped back due to police investigations, and most of Netanyahu’s advisers have also left. Even the National Security Council is emptying out and functions more as a body providing support and services for the prime minister rather than as an entity tasked with uncovering and dealing with crises of these sorts (such as the Jordanian crisis). Netanyahu took Jordan for granted and did not recognize the storm clouds overhead, even after the prime minister was photographed with the Israeli security guard who shot and killed two Jordanians in Amman in July 2017. This incident caused a deep rupture in relations with the king and forced out of Amman the Israeli ambassador there, Einat Schlein.

But the trials and tribulations have not ended here. On the contrary, they are only beginning. Even Jerusalem’s close alliance with Washington and Netanyahu’s fruitful cooperation with — and tremendous influence over — the chaotic White House now seem vulnerable. According to Channel 10 on Oct. 22, Trump held a conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron in which he sharply criticized Israel. Trump continues to talk about the “deal of the century,” and there are leaks insinuating that the American offer will include recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of two states — all of which has aroused great anxiety in Jerusalem. To this, we add American concern over the strengthening of Israel-China ties (China’s Vice President Wang Qishan visited Israel on Oct. 23), and we are left with much tension and nervousness on the diplomatic front.

According to a senior Israeli Cabinet member, the reason Netanyahu is forced to capitulate to Hamas in Gaza is to avoid inflicting a military blow on them and instead “contain” the violence on the border fence — to the chagrin of his voters. The main reason for that is because he is waiting tensely for Trump’s peace program. Meanwhile, Netanyahu does not want a flare-up on the Palestinian front, as he fears this would create a false impression of emergency and goad Trump into publicizing his program. The prime minister is playing for time, and this foot-dragging arouses criticism from his voter base.

Netanyahu’s Garden of Eden is showing signs of wilting on the internal front as well. The police have finished their investigations. The investigators are now writing up their recommendations regarding Case 4000 (the Bezeq telecommunications scandal), and, evidently, they will be submitted before the end of the year. Even the "Submarine Affair" (Case 3000) — in which many of Netanyahu’s close associates are expected to be put on trial — is nearing completion. Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh, Netanyahu’s appointee who morphed into one of the Netanyahu family’s most hated individuals, will leave no open files or debts behind. The educated guess is that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will make his final decisions on Netanyahu’s files in the first quarter of 2019. Meanwhile, Netanyahu continues to ponder whether to call for early elections — before the attorney general makes his decision. According to an Oct. 24 Israel Today report, the reason for Netanyahu’s indecision is that he suspects that even if he wins the elections, President Reuven Rivlin (another Netanyahu nemesis) will not offer Netanyahu the option to assemble a coalition because of the bill-of-indictment cloud hanging over his head. Now Netanyahu is weighing whether to try to change the law quickly to limit the president’s freedom of action (in Israel, the president tasks the person he estimates most likely to succeed with assembling a majority coalition).

Thus, Netanyahu is challenged by a tremendous workload on all sides. People who work with him daily see signs of stress on the part of the greatest sorcerer of Israeli politics.

Nevertheless, as Netanyahu has demonstrated many times in the past, he is far from throwing in the towel.

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Found in: police investigation, right-wing, jerusalem, elections, benjamin netanyahu, case 4000

Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit

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