Israel’s rather leisurely process of forming a new government following last week’s election continues. President Shimon Peres is yet to officially commission a new prime minister, but there is no doubt that it will be incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu, and no doubt that he will succeed in putting together a coalition that can command a parliamentary majority.
The precise shape of that coalition remains uncertain. Netanyahu suffered a setback when he named his disgraced former chief of staff, Natan Eshel, as chief negotiator for the coalition talks. Eshel was forced to resign last year after confessing to sexual harassment; Yesh Atid, the runner-up in the elections and the main party that Netanyahu wants to draw into his tent, promptly refused to take part in talks as long as Eshel was involved.
But after an election campaign in which peace and security issues were curiously absent from most of the debate, Netanyahu has dramatically returned them to the front page with an air strike in Syria on Wednesday. The Syrian government claims that the target was a military research centre, but most other reports say it was actually a convoy of weapons bound for Lebanon – specifically anti-aircraft missiles being sent to Syria’s ally Hezbollah.
Juan Cole explains that the Syrian government would be mostly concerned about keeping such weapons out of the hands of its opponents (the Syrian opposition seems to have got most of its arms from raiding government bases). From that point of view, having Israel destroy them is almost as good as sending them to Lebanon.
Israel, however, holds no brief for either side in the Syrian civil war, but would want to prevent any advanced weaponry ending up with Hezbollah – despite the fact that anti-aircraft missiles are fundamentally defensive weapons.
Whether or not the timing was coincidental, it suits Netanyahu for Israel’s politicians to have their heads turned towards security issues. The issues on which he is most likely to have trouble with potential centrist partners – some combination of Yesh Atid, Labor, Hatnuah and Kadima – are domestic ones, mainly economic and religious policy.
Conversely, what keeps them together, and what will stop the centrists even making an effort to somehow lock out Netanyahu, is their common inability to actually make a stand in favor of serious peace moves: their unwillingness to confront the settlers and extremists who prevent Israel from attempting the task of reconciliation with the Palestinians. That unwillingness was symbolised by Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, vowing that he would never join any sort of alliance with the Arab parties.
Bombing Syria, like demonising Iran or beating up on the UN, is a way for Netanyahu to remind them of that fact and tell them to pull their heads in and come on board with the new government. We’ll soon know how successful he’s been.