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Israel-Hezbollah clashes ‘play positively’ for Netanyahu’s re-election campaign

Menahem Kahana, AFP | Netanyahu's political rivals, including several former chiefs of staff, have contested his reputation as a safe pair of hands for Israel's security.

After the weekend’s clashes with Hezbollah, there is much suspicion in Israel that its tensions with the Lebanese militant group (and its master Iran) serve Benjamin Netanyahu’s interests ahead of the September 17 general elections.

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The antagonism between Hezbollah and Israel subsided on September 2 following the previous day’s violent confrontation on the Israeli-Lebanese border, a week after air strikes in Syria claimed by the Israeli government killed two members of the Shia militant group. Hezbollah also blamed the Jewish state for a drone attack on its south Beirut stronghold on August 25 and another strike in southern Lebanon the ensuing day.

While the spectre of a potentially devastating war between Israel and the Lebanese militant group – like that of 2006 – has receded for now, an increasing number of voices in the Jewish state have accused Israeli prime minister Netanyahu (who also, notably, holds the portfolio of defence minister) of exploiting ongoing tensions with Iran and its regional proxies to seek advantage in the forthcoming elections.

After the vote, the attorney-general will decide whether or not Netanyahu will be charged on three counts of corruption, fraud and breach of trust. In the meantime, one of the main thrusts of his campaign is the idea that he is a strong leader who guarantees Israelis’ security both inside the country and outside their borders – an image that plays very well with voters on the right of the political spectrum; a crucial constituency, whom Netanyahu is always keen to attract.

Netanyahu ‘playing politics at the expense of security’

“Many critics are saying that this security-led campaign by Netanyahu vis-à-vis Hezbollah is something that’s playing very positively for him in this election race,” said Sami Sockol, France 24’s Jerusalem correspondent. “He doesn’t want to highlight the corruption allegations that are looming over him.”

According to Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, there is a consensus within the Israeli intelligence and security establishment that Netanyahu is right to take the Iranian threat seriously, as Tehran bolsters its proxies across the Middle East. However, many people within these circles also doubt that Tel Aviv should publicise its responses to this menace – as Netanyahu did after the strike in Syria on the night of August 24 to 25.

>> Read more: Bolstered by Iran, Hezbollah 'capable of destruction on a whole new scale'

Normally, the Israeli government’s policy is to neither confirm nor deny that it has carried out air strikes on foreign territory, and Netanyahu’s unusual transparency and loquacity on this issue has provoked suspicion that he is acting in campaign mode.

On Sunday, a big beast of Israeli politics, former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, directly accused Netanyahu of breaking with this long-established norm in an attempt to curry electoral favour.

“The children of [Israel] find themselves in shelters because […] Bibi [Netanyahu] has violated the policy of ambiguity – which was successful – because of the elections,” the MP and deputy leader of Benny Gantz’s opposition party wrote on his Twitter account. “That’s what happens when you have a prime minister who plays politics at the expense of security.”

Others argue that this view is unfair on Netanyahu. “If a war breaks out, the elections will be postponed and in the meantime many Israelis will blame the prime minister because he’ll have been the person in charge when it all kicked off,” Mordechai Kedar, a former Israeli military intelligence officer, now an expert on Islamic culture at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, told FRANCE 24.

Nevertheless, many analysts contend that – as things stand – the situation is working out to Netanyahu’s advantage. “He is sending a message to the Israeli public: that he has everything under control, that he has control over the security situation,” said Sockol.

“His main competition in these elections is a party of generals headed by Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff – and we have in the same list two other prominents ex-chiefs of staff,” Sockol continued. "So in this kind of election he really has to portray himself as the kind of person who can manage the security situation – and so far events have very much played out in the direction in which Netanyahu would like things to go.”

Israel came away with ‘not even a scratch’

Experts say that – despite the fraught situation that saw military actions on both sides – neither Israel nor Hezbollah wants to engage in a large-scale conflagration. So far, there has been no major conflict between the Jewish state and the Shia militant group during Netanyahu’s 13 year reign (from 1996 to 1999, then from 2009 to the present).

Indeed, Netanyahu has hailed the fact that Israel came out of these recent clashes with Hezbollah without any “Israeli injuries, not even a scratch”.

Ironically, his antagonist Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Lebanese armed group and political movement, can also play to his base by pointing out that he kept his promise to retaliate on Israeli territory. Similarly, Netanyahu can justifiably claim to be responsible for a fierce response to Hezbollah, with the Israeli army firing around 100 shells and aerially bombarding the Shia group’s bastion of southern Lebanon.

Thus, it appears that Netanyahu has gone some way in restoring his reputation as a tough protector of Israeli security, after the rocket fire and attempts to infiltrate the country from the Gaza strip combined with legal troubles to mar his image last August.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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