Benjamin Netanyahu, what a politician. You don’t get to be the longest-serving prime minister of Israel after David Ben-Gurion without the most acute antennae and the deftest political skills. Not in a country this riven and opinionated.
You don’t manage to perpetuate the perception, year after year, that there’s simply no realistic alternative to your leadership. That takes the credibility that comes with years of experience, combined with the capacity to project an image of competence, allied to oodles of media savvy.
True, Netanyahu has been assisted by the mediocrity and/or political naiveté of some of those who would love to oust him: Labor’s former opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich, with a black hole where her diplomatic policies should have been; her successor Isaac Herzog, helplessly mild; Yair Lapid, the great force for change defanged in the Finance Ministry; Tzipi Livni, who missed her moment of greatest potential impact in 2009…
Now Netanyahu is being required to display those consummate political survival skills again. There’s growing opposition to him within his own Likud party, where the radical right-winger Moshe Feiglin’s constant recruitment of supporters to the party’s membership list last week reached critical mass, and only some dubious maneuvering prevented an embarrassing defeat on a key vote in the Likud Central Committee. And his coalition members are at each other’s throats. On the right, Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett and Uri Ariel are urging more settlement building and tougher policies to tackle the new wave of Palestinian violence and terrorism. Ariel wants to see the status quo changed on the Temple Mount, the West Bank annexed, and hang the consequences. On the left, Lapid and Livni are pushing for moderation — anything but more West Bank construction and Temple Mount-centered agitation.
Will the government fall over the budget, over the “Israel as a Jewish state” legislation that Livni failed to derail on Sunday, over the law transparently aimed to destroy the free Israel Hayom daily newspaper of Netanyahu’s ally Sheldon Adelson? Or will it improbably hang together for a while longer, in paralyzed disunity, because more of its members fear elections than welcome them?
However the crises afflicting his government play out, and despite the surging popularity of Bennett, and the not-to-be underestimated acumen of Avigdor Liberman, it would be foolish to bet against Netanyahu emerging triumphant again, retaining sufficient public support, outsmarting his rivals.
The question is: Why?
As in, why is Netanyahu surviving? To what purpose? What is he seeking to achieve? What can he be expected to achieve?
The track record, while impressively lengthy, is hardly stellar.
The right is angry with him because he’s let it down. As it sees things, he hasn’t pushed ahead with settlement construction throughout the West Bank. He released dozens of Palestinian murderers in the cause of an inevitably collapsed diplomatic process. He’s reacted defensively to the violence surrounding Temple Mount, doing little to highlight its centrality as the holiest place in Judaism to an Arab world that seems entirely unaware of the connection. Having talked so tough in opposition, he emphatically did not seek to oust Hamas from Gaza this summer, and would have agreed to a ceasefire that left the Islamists’ cross-border terror tunnel network intact.
An attempted dispassionate overview of Netanyahu’s recent years does not yield a pretty picture
For its part, the left is furious with him for achieving the worst of all worlds as regards settlement: announcing building plans beyond the 1967 lines as a kind of punishment in the wake of acts of Palestinian terrorism, alienating the United States and most of the international community in the process. He has constantly undermined Mahmoud Abbas, blaming the Palestinian Authority president for an upsurge in violence manifestly incited largely by Hamas these past few weeks, even as the PA worked to prevent its spread to the West Bank. He doomed the Kerry-led peace effort with clumsy handling of the crisis over releasing Israeli Arab prisoners last spring. He’s picked public fights with Kerry and the Obama administration over the Gaza ceasefire effort, West Bank security arrangements, and stopping Iran, having long since made dangerously plain his preference for alternative American leadership. He’s presided over an ongoing weakening of the connection Arabs in Israel feel to this country.
Netanyahu himself might argue that the simple fact that both wings of the Israeli political spectrum assert that he’s doing a lousy job demonstrates the sagacity of his leadership, steering the ship of state adroitly through treacherous seas. And there’s little doubt that many of his would-be successors would have fared worse; indeed it’s astounding, given the stakes — given that incompetent leadership can have existential consequences for our tiny country — that inept and arrogantly deluded politicians still line up for the job of prime minister.
And yet, an attempted dispassionate overview of Netanyahu’s recent years does not yield a pretty picture. Centrally, it finds modern Israel largely bereft of optimism and hope — essential components of a nation’s resilience.
Relations with the United States, Israel’s vital ally, are indeed in crisis, albeit not entirely of Netanyahu’s making. More sensitive handling of the settlement issue, of the peace effort, and of basic communication during the summer war, would have helped reduce it.
Relations with the Palestinians are in free fall.
The emptiness of his talk of new opportunities to build ties with the moderate Arab world was exposed in the conspicuous non-invitation to Israel for the Gaza rehabilitation conference in Cairo last month.
The delicate fabric of ties between Jews and Arabs in Israel is tearing more deeply week by week.
Israel is increasingly unloved internationally — again, that’s certainly not entirely Netanyahu’s fault, but when you’re up against a terror-government in Gaza that’s using its not unsympathetic electorate as human shields, and the death toll is wielded as a weapon against your legitimacy no matter how hard you’ve tried to reduce civilian fatalities, the most eloquent interviews on American television are not going to safeguard your country’s reputation.
And now Netanyahu’s central preoccupation, the challenge he placed at the heart of his prime ministership, is all but lost as well: The United States and the international community appear to have abandoned the very notion of using economic and other pressure to ensure Iran dismantles its nuclear program.
So, again, why? Why is Netanyahu bothering to fight for survival? Why should he survive? Simply for survival’s sake? Or because his rivals would do a worse job?
Not good enough. Israel needs more from its leader.
I have a suggestion for the prime minister, for our articulate, experienced, ultra-savvy prime minister. Why not inject new purpose into your political battling, underpinned with fiery, constructive passion? Why not risk alienating the minnows on either side of you, and march out as the great consensual Israeli leader you still have the potential to become?
How exactly? It’s your conviction, shared incidentally by this writer, that the great elephant in the room, the great obstacle to normalized relations with the Palestinians and the Arab world, and by extension to Israel’s rehabilitation in the international community, is not the occupation, despite the spectacularly successful effort of the Palestinians and their supporters to depict it as such. It is, rather, the Palestinian and wider Arab disinclination to internalize that the Jewish nation has a legitimate, rooted right to sovereignty in this part of the world — the only place where the Jews have ever been sovereign and ever sought to be sovereign.
Set out, boldly and clearly, Israel’s territorial red lines — to put a decisive end to 47 years of bumbling incoherence
So make that the theme and goal of your leadership, as you seek to maintain your hold on power. And do what needs to be done in the service of that goal, given its centrality.
Two specific imperatives should lead your agenda.
In 2009, for 10 months, you announced a freeze in settlement building. You don’t even need to go that far as a first, vital step now. What you do need to do is set out, boldly and clearly, Israel’s territorial red lines — to put a decisive end to 47 years of bumbling incoherence as regards the future of the biblical Judea and Samaria. Make explicit the areas to which you believe Israel need expand its sovereignty under a permanent accord with the Palestinians, and as a logical consequence make explicit that Israel will not expand settlement construction in areas beyond those red lines. Critics from both sides, at home and abroad, will doubtless condemn you. Shrug them off, for you know that you will be securing Israel’s future. Israelis will know where they stand. The international community will better understand us. Palestinian extremists will be denied the potent recruiting claim that Israel is engaged in a relentless land grab. Moderates will gradually be emboldened. Israel has no desire to rule over millions of Palestinians; Israel, as you have said so often of late, must not become a binational state that, through weight of numbers, loses its Jewish determining identity. This is the first step to avoiding that destructive outcome.
And secondly, to enable the grass-roots growth of a desire for moderation on both sides, insist upon the implementation of the “culture of peace” framework that had been much discussed in the negotiations before they collapsed last spring. The Palestinians are not going to urge their leaders for compromise so long as their spiritual leaders, teachers, TV and newspapers tell them that the Jews have no history here, that there was no Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Marshal the goodwill of the international community, with the United States at the helm, but Europe deeply involved, to gradually inculcate a new reality: to fund schools, to promote spiritual leaders, and to invest in media outlets that remove the blinders, that complicate and counter the false Palestinian and Arab narrative of fundamental Israeli illegitimacy.
The Palestinians are not going to urge their leaders for compromise so long as their spiritual leaders, teachers, TV and newspapers tell them that the Jews have no history here
The transformation will not happen overnight, and Israel will not be able to relax its guard against its multiple enemies any time soon. For so long as it must do so, Israel will live by the sword. But the roots of any transformation are to be found in education and interaction.
Imagine the impact these moves could come to have. Internalize the potential of positive shock waves spreading across the Arab world. Think of the hope you would be offering to an Israeli society that, while extraordinarily invested in defending and protecting this country, looks to the future these days and sees only intermittent conflict and mounting global antipathy, potentially culminating in the very scenario it is the central task of Israel’s prime ministers to avoid.
“King Bibi,” you have ruled over Israeli politics for going on nine years now in total. But why rule? Isn’t the task to steer Israel to a better, safer future? Aren’t you uniquely placed to do that? Isn’t now the time?