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Politics, Strategy, or Saber Rattling

Politics, Strategy, or Saber Rattling


Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump have had a very close and apparently sympathetic relationship for the past three and half years.  From the perspective of the Israeli Government, Netanyahu has never felt Israel has had a stronger ally than Donald Trump in the White House. This positive mutual good feeling has given Netanyahu the ability to exploit his relationship with Trump to satisfy many of his political right-wing supporters and prevent losing control of the Israeli Government. (The fact that tactically this has enabled him to avoid a possible jail sentence is hardly inconsequential for Bibi.)

For President Trump, extending his virtually, uncompromising support for Israel has produced three clear results for him. First, he has secured political support from those in the American Jewish community for whom the only critical issue which they consider when voting is which candidate is more strongly supportive of Israel. Second, by being perceived as the most supportive of the candidates on the question of support for Israel, it has enabled Trump to tap some of the very deep pockets of many political Jewish donors for substantial campaign contributions. Finally, by maintaining this position, Trump also has satisfied many of his most ardent supporters in the evangelical community for whom support of the State of Israel is a critical component of their larger theology.

At the moment, however, there are some very significant political and geopolitical activities which have emerged over the past weeks which may be driving this relationship and the region in a more ominous direction.  After months of mis-handling his response to the pandemic, Trump now finds his re-election campaign increasingly in need of a dramatic boost. Prime Minister Netanyahu–who also botched a very successful early response to Covid 19 by opening up too fast—now finds himself facing saber rattling in Lebanon and on the Golan Heights. In addition, there have been numerous incidences of mysterious explosions and “accidents” which have occurred at or near a number of Iran’s nuclear facilities over the past few weeks.

Last Friday, to add to the mystery, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, General Mark Milley, made a surprise visit to Israel for a meeting with his Israeli counterparts in the IDF and the Defense Minister. While he reportedly had a remote conversation with Netanyahu, it would appear that the main focus of his visit was with the Israeli military. General Milley’s entire trip raises speculation of both a military-political agenda, following as it did on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s own 24 hour mid-May visit to Israel.

In the midst of the coronavirus crisis in Israel, there have been attacks against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon and Syrian-Iranian installations on the Golan Heights. Israel lost a drone overflying the Golan and Iran has protested the killing of some of its soldiers who were stationed with the Syrians. Coming in the midst of the unusual number of recorded explosions, fires, and incidents in Iran there is a curious question as to whether Iran is being sent a not so subtle military-diplomatic signal concerning Israeli—perhaps with the support or even encouragement of the United States.

There is also a more cynical possibility perhaps underlying all this activity. From a political perspective, a successful regional confrontation would be helpful for President Trump as he faces plummeting approval ratings 100 days before of the election. So too for Netanyahu, who has been suggesting that he might opt to go back to the voters in the fall, as the public demonstrations against his continuance in office intensify daily. For Bibi, a national security success could help in the polls.

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