Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not want to call elections — not now, less than two years after the last ones were held in January 2013. But he and his rival party leaders will nonetheless spend this weekend engaged in frenzied political calculation, trying to work out whether their interests are best served in keeping the coalition alive or bringing it down to trigger a return to the polls.
Sources close to Netanyahu insist he’d really much rather avoid early elections, with the accompanying paralysis of government activity, but also that he has no fear of them. The prime minister, they say, was quite taken by a November 15 poll for Channel 1 TV which predicted 25 seats for Likud (up from its current 18) if elections were held now, along with 15 for Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party (up from its current 12), and 15 for Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu (up from its current 13) — findings which, if replicated on election day, would give Netanyahu no end of reasonable options for a new coalition. (Several other recent surveys, it should be noted, make for rather less pleasant prime ministerial reading, including a November 20 Knesset Channel poll which gave Likud 20 seats to Jewish Home’s 19.)
Already Israel’s second longest-serving prime minister, Netanyahu isn’t expecting to stay in the job forever. But in a country — like the UK and unlike the US — that has no term limits for its political leader, he has no intention of giving up the job anytime soon, not without a fight. Under fire abroad and at home for a whole roster of perceived missteps and lousy policies, Netanyahu’s confidence in his leadership is thoroughly undented, those around him aver, bolstered by survey after survey that still show him to be far and away Israelis’ preferred choice for prime minister. And he has an answer for every sniping critique.
Netanyahu sees himself as akin to the captain of a ship, a senior Israeli official told me this week, steering Israel through particularly dangerous waters. If that invites cynical thoughts of the Titanic or the Costa Concordia, what follows is Captain Netanyahu’s take on the potential icebergs facing the good ship Israel, and how to keep clear of them.
The next battle over Iran
Facing Iran’s drive for the bomb, Netanyahu regards the failure of the P5+1 to conclude a deal this week as a significant victory though plainly not a decisive one. The way he sees it, the US-led negotiations failed not because of insufficient American readiness for backtracking compromise — there was far too much of that for his taste, on the Arak heavy water plant, on the Fordo enrichment facility, on the whole principle of allowing Iran to continue to enrich uranium — but because the Iranians wouldn’t give even the relatively little ground they needed to give to enable the P5+1 to face-savingly assert that both sides had shifted their positions in the cause of a deal.
The Iran battle now moves to Congress, where Netanyahu’s stance is still more resonant following the Republicans’ mid-term gains
While the battle leading up to the November 24 deadline is over, the war goes on. Already there is fresh daylight between the US and Israeli positions, with the White House opposing new sanctions as counterproductive, and Netanyahu resolute that only stepped-up pressure on Iran is going to yield any greater readiness by Tehran for compromise. That struggle now moves to Congress, where Netanyahu’s stance is still more resonant following the Republicans’ mid-term gains.
Netanyahu’s critics fault him for having talked endlessly about a resort to force but done nothing and let the moment for action pass, and for having failed to make the progress on the Palestinian front that might have yielded more international empathy for his Iran concerns. Netanyahu remains adamant that a last-resort military option is viable, and rejects the notion that a different Israeli approach on the Palestinian front would have affected the P5+1 approach to Iran. And while he emphatically intends to still be running Israel in two years’ time, he knows that Barack Obama won’t be running the United States, and wants to believe the next US president might more closely share his thinking on the dangers posed by the Islamic Republic.
Settlement freeze? Been there, done that
On settlements, Netanyahu knows how central and damaging an issue this is for Israel internationally, and how the expansion of settlements is utilized by critics to assert that Israel does not genuinely seek peace. But he’s largely unmoved. Asked why the prime minister has not been willing to at least declare a freeze to settlement building outside the major blocs, the senior Israeli official told me this week that Netanyahu offered to do precisely that when US Secretary of State John Kerry was preparing the ground for his ill-fated peace effort last year, but Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rejected the idea as “not good enough. It was a non-starter.” Rather, Abbas demanded a halt to all building over the pre-1967 lines, said the official, “and there’s no Israeli prime minister who would halt building in Jerusalem.”
Netanyahu won’t resume talks so long as Abbas remains locked in the Palestinian unity government with Hamas
If asked about a freeze now, the official said, Netanyahu’s response is along the lines of “been there, done that” — a reference to the 10-month settlement freeze he did impose between November 2009 and September 2010, to no great avail.
Netanyahu, said this official, was ready to accept “unprecedented” language regarding the borders of a Palestinian state as part of the Kerry framework document, “albeit with wiggle room.” But that document, too, was doomed by Abbas’s intransigence — notably the PA chief’s refusal to accept text specifying the imperative of “two states for two peoples,” the official said.
Now, the diplomatic process has collapsed, and Netanyahu won’t agree to its resumption so long as Abbas remains locked with Hamas in the Palestinian unity government. After Kerry’s talks in Amman earlier this month on calming tensions, it was telling that neither the secretary nor the Jordanian foreign minister spoke of a possible resumption of talks, but rather only of creating a climate that could lead to resumed talks. Witheringly critical of Abbas for creating the opposite climate — for inflating and misrepresenting the issues surrounding the Temple Mount — Netanyahu believes the PA chief had the ideal opportunity to break with Hamas following last week’s Har Nof synagogue terror attack, the killing of Jews at prayer so celebrated by the Islamists. In Netanyahu’s assessment, the fact that the PA chief merely issued a condemnation of the attack, forced out of him by the US, says everything you need to know about Abbas’s viability as a partner.
Not saying no to the Arab Peace Initiative
On negotiations with relatively moderate Arab states, Netanyahu has never accepted or endorsed the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative, but the senior official told me firmly that the prime minister hasn’t rejected it either, and indeed regards it as “a basis for discussion.” Still, the official stressed that there has been no change in Netanyahu’s position, and that there is nothing new on the table as regards the Initiative.
The Arab Peace Initiative is potentially ‘a good thing’
“If it’s a case of take it or leave it, he’ll leave it,” the official said, “because it provides for a return to the pre-1967 lines, including East Jerusalem, and he won’t go back to the 1967 lines.” It’s also “a blur” on the issue of Palestinian refugees. But “if it’s the start of negotiation, a vehicle that can get negotiation going with the Arab world, [he thinks] it’s a good thing.”
Accused of an inflexibility on the Israel-Arab conflict that sees Israel increasingly isolated, Netanyahu — as his speech to the Knesset on Wednesday made clear (Hebrew text) — does not see salvation via irresponsible territorial compromise with the Palestinians. Opposition politicians urge him to “take the initiative, relinquish territory, jump off the cliff,” he sneered from the podium, “because at the bottom there’ll be a soft quilt and a bouquet of roses.” Actually, waiting at the bottom, he said, “are the Islamic State terror group and Hamas.”
And he doesn’t accept that his policies, including pushing “Israel as a Jewish state” legislation, are driving a wedge between Israel’s Jews and Arabs. The way he sees it, most Israeli Arabs are law-abiding citizens with plenty of complaints — some of which are justified. But if the likes of Britain and France are now grappling with home-grown Islamic extremists, it’s hardly surprising that Israel, too, has its Arab radicals.
Overall, with the region ever-more dangerous — the Iranians seeking the bomb, IS on the march, Syria collapsing, Hamas and Hezbollah armed to the teeth — Netanyahu prefers to see himself as maneuvering through rocks in treacherous seas. That doesn’t mean block-headed obduracy. It means judicious conduct — including setting and achieving limited, realistic goals in Gaza this summer.
Likud’s Tea Party problem
And finally, as for those elections, Netanyahu knows that a return to the polls soon — in these relatively tense times — could work in his favor as regards rivals such as centrist Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon. Voters right now are unlikely to obsess as much about the economy — the potential strong suit for Lapid, Kahlon, and the Labor party — as they would in calmer periods. And if the government is to fall, runs his thinking, better that it fall now over the “Israel as a Jewish state” legislation, where his home rightist camp should be reliably supportive, than, a few weeks from now, over the budget.
If the ‘Jewish state’ bill gets through a first reading next Wednesday, it could disappear into Knesset committee for as long as necessary
He’d like more time. He’d like to tackle what he considers Likud’s version of the Tea Party — Moshe Feiglin and his growing ranks of supporters. He’d like to first re-secure the party leadership, in a vote scheduled for early January, and then push through party constitutional changes aimed at marginalizing the Feiglin-ites he considers to be Likud infiltrators.
He worries, too, that spiraling violence in Jerusalem and beyond could play into the hands of his chief rival to the right, Naftali Bennett, whose Jewish Home is licking at Likud’s heels in some of those polls.
Again, Netanyahu doesn’t want elections now. He plainly left open the door to compromise over the “Jewish state” bill by making clear in the Knesset on Wednesday that he’ll be advancing his version of the legislation — a draft that Tzipi Livni and Lapid could decide they can live with — rather than the text drawn up by Ze’ev Elkin that both those party leaders have rejected. If the bill gets through a first reading next Wednesday, it can disappear into Knesset committee for as long as necessary, and the coalition could resume low-level bickering as usual, with elections staved off.
But if Livni and Lapid reject even his softened language on Wednesday, the coalition will indeed be over, and the political storm will gather force. Hence a weekend of feverish reckoning across the political spectrum. And a prime minister who is nothing if not confident that, when that storm has passed, he’ll still be at the bridge.
- Israel & the Region
- Israel Inside
- Benjamin Netanyahu
- Iran's nuclear program
- Barack Obama
- John Kerry
- Israel-US relations
- Mahmoud Abbas
- Israeli-Palestinian conflict
- Tzipi Livni
- Naftali Bennett
- Likud party
- Yair Lapid
- Avigdor Liberman
- early elections
- Moshe Feiglin
- Tea Party
- Moshe Kahlon
- West Bank settlements
- Islamic State
- Arab Israelis
- Jewish nation-state law