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Euroviews. Netanyahu has everything to lose and nothing to gain from deescalating

 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Sheba Tel HaShomer Hospital in Ramat Gan, June 2024
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Sheba Tel HaShomer Hospital in Ramat Gan, June 2024 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By Shlomo Roiter Jesner, President, Co-founder, Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Once known as Mr Security, Netanyahu has made a career out of the persona he built for himself: the self-proclaimed "King Bibi" who can save Israel. Now, he'll do anything to ensure self-preservation, Shlomo Roiter Jesner writes.

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The statement by Israel Defence Forces Spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari earlier this week took many by surprise, considering the severity of the picture he painted of the ongoing escalation on Israel’s northern border.

Warning that “Hezbollah’s increasing aggression is bringing us to the brink of what could be a wider escalation”, his statement was followed by Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, not known to skimp on words, warning that the country was ready for an “all-out war” that would “change the rules of the game”.

What inspired statements as strong as these coming from Israel’s military and political leadership was the most violent week so far on the border with Lebanon — that is, since the recent escalation began following Hamas’s 7 October attack.

A similar escalation in rhetoric has been seen from Hezbollah’s side, which, for the first time in a number of days, took direct responsibility for UAV attacks near the Israeli city of Metullah.

Considering the death of the most senior Hezbollah official thus far, commander Taleb Abdullah, coupled with Hezbollah launching what has been some of its heaviest rocket barrages to date, in addition to overt threats from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to attack Israeli critical infrastructure using footage filmed by the terror organisation’s reconnaissance drones, the threat of escalation is very real.

Spats with Washington are not helping

With Amos Hochstein, US President Joe Biden’s senior aide, who has been serving as Biden's mediator since the conflict began, visiting the region with an eye towards preventing further escalation, the question begging to be asked is what the US administration can practically do.

The state of relations between the United States and Israel is currently at an all-time low, rivalled only by the end of President Barack Obama’s time in office when Washington, in a rare move, abstained from a controversial UN Security Council resolution demanding an end to settlements.

While Washington tries to reign in Israel’s prime minister ... what the Biden administration is missing is that they are dealing with a man who quite literally has nothing to lose.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as he meets with President Joe Biden, October 2023
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as he meets with President Joe Biden, October 2023AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Relations between Biden and Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu reached their own low this week when Netanyahu, in an English-language social media video, accused the Biden administration of withholding military aid to Israel, the single largest recipient of American military aid globally.

The spat led to the rare cancellation of a strategic dialogue on Iran only a day before it was meant to take place in Washington with members of the Israeli delegation, including Israel’s National Security Advisor, already en route. “This decision makes it clear that there are consequences for pulling such stunts,” a US official, referring to Netanyahu’s clip, said.

And while Washington tries to reign in Israel’s prime minister, setting demands regarding Israeli operations in Rafah and cancelling the discussed meeting, what the Biden administration is missing is that they are dealing with a man who quite literally has nothing to lose.

Mr Security's fall from grace

Israel’s longest-serving PM, once known as Mr Security, lacks the vast public support he once had, finding himself fourth out of six Israeli politicians, with only 42% support in a poll conducted in March.

He was followed only by Israel’s hard-right leaders, Bezalel Smotritch and Itamar Ben Gvir (with 37% and 33%, respectively).

The 7 October massacre and the intelligence and military failures that will forever be associated with that day saw all preconceived notions of Netanyahu as the only one who could ensure the safety and security which Israeli citizens so desperately seek shattered.

Indeed, calls for accountability are only getting stronger. Just this week, tens of thousands of protesters from all walks of Israeli society demanded a commission of inquiry, something that Netanyahu has been blocking State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman from putting together.

Charged with fraud, bribery and breach of trust in three separate cases, it is obvious what Netanyahu has to gain by prolonging, if not escalating, Israel’s security situation.
Israeli mounted police officers disperse demonstrators blocking a road during a protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, June 2024
Israeli mounted police officers disperse demonstrators blocking a road during a protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, June 2024AP Photo/Leo Correa

Despite his 17 years in power, shockingly, not one commission of inquiry has ever been formed, making “the likelihood of an inquiry very, very low,” according to professor of public policy at Hebrew University Raanan Sulitzeanu-Kenan.

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On a personal level, it cannot be forgotten that Netanyahu is still facing an ongoing corruption trial, which resumed this December despite the war in Gaza.

Charged with fraud, bribery and breach of trust in three separate cases, it is obvious what Netanyahu has to gain by prolonging, if not escalating, Israel’s security situation.

In this light, only three months ago, Netanyahu’s lawyers petitioned the Jerusalem District Court to postpone testimonies “as long as there is no substantial change in the security situation in the country”.

Vast arsenal of tools for self-preservation

With Netanyahu in a position where he exemplifies what James Baldwin called “the most dangerous creation in any society, the man who has nothing to lose”, Biden and the US must tread carefully when calling for deescalation.

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Commonly known by his favourite nickname, Bibi, he has made a career out of the persona he built for himself: the self-proclaimed "King Bibi" who can save Israel.

Vilifying the US Democrats in an election year and perhaps subtly doing everything in his power to ensure an administration change are only some of the tools in his vast arsenal of self-preservation.

Although Hezbollah does not see a severe escalation with Israel to be in its strategic interest, it may nevertheless take advantage of Netanyahu’s desperate need for an ongoing security crisis ... to score a much-needed win on the security front.
Fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah carry out a training exercise in Aaramta village in the Jezzine District, May 2023
Fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah carry out a training exercise in Aaramta village in the Jezzine District, May 2023AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

President Biden himself is also limited in this regard, needing to ensure the pro-Israel vote while painting a picture of someone who also cares about the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Netanyahu easily takes advantage of this delicate balance, portraying every action by Washington as calling into question US' unwavering support for the Jewish state.

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Although Hezbollah does not see a severe escalation with Israel to be in its strategic interest, it may nevertheless take advantage of Netanyahu’s desperate need for an ongoing security crisis, coupled with what it perceives to be a lull in the US-Israel relationship, to score a much-needed win on the security front.

Nasrallah is even less restrained than Netanyahu, with little regard for the future of Lebanon.

Who will shoot first?

Hezbollah will win in the eyes of the Lebanese public if it is seen as keeping Israel’s military at bay and will win the battle for hearts and minds if an escalation occurs, too.

This is due to the military losses that Israel would undoubtedly suffer, including on the home front and during an eventual reconstruction process in Lebanon.

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Although Hezbollah would be responsible for the country’s destruction, it would also play an important role in its rebuilding, given the virtual non-existence of a central government in Lebanon.

However, with recent polling in Israel showing 60% support attacking Hezbollah with full force and 36% wanting to see this in the immediate term, it is impossible to know which side the US has little to no control over will be the first to escalate.

Shlomo Roiter Jesner is President and Co-founder of the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum. He is also CEO of London-based F&R Strategy Group, a geopolitical consultancy at the intersection of politics and business.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at view@euronews.com to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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