Storm warning

When a hardline reelected Israeli leadership meets an inflexible second-term president

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

US President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while walking from the Oval Office to the South Lawn Drive of the White House, after their meeting May 20, 2011. (Photo credit: Avi Ohayon/Government Press Office/FLASH90)
US President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while walking from the Oval Office to the South Lawn Drive of the White House, after their meeting May 20, 2011. (Photo credit: Avi Ohayon/Government Press Office/FLASH90)

And the sky turned a forbidding dark gray. And the heavens opened. And the rains poured down upon the parched holy land.

It was a mini-miracle. A veritable Biblical deluge, lasting many days and many nights.

Our capital was briefly clothed in purest white. And when the snow and the snowmen and the snowrockets had melted away, we emerged to find the Sea of Galilee revived, healthy, swollen. And our minister of water, a stern and tight-lipped man, smiled and told us that the lean years were over. We were wet, and it was wonderful.

The perfect storm, in the best sense of the term.

I hope you made the most of it. For another storm is gathering, less beneficial. It’s the one in which an obdurate, sometimes insensitive right-wing Israeli leadership smashes into a confident, frequently wrong-headed and far more powerful American administration.

The United States has just reelected Barack Obama, a president who in his first term ensured the maintenance of Israel’s military strategic advantage, stood by Israel at critical diplomatic junctures, and assured Israel and the world of his “unshakable” solidarity with the Jewish state. He also refused Israel’s pleas to give the Iranians an ultimatum on halting their nuclear weapons drive, self-defeatingly elevated the issue of settlements to an insurmountable obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and conceived a growing irritation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s perceived efforts to undermine him anywhere possible, and notably on Capitol Hill.

Doubtless because these three men are allies whose judgment he respects, rather than as a deliberate effort to infuriate Israel, second term Obama has now named — in John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and John Brennan — a secretary of state, a secretary of defense and a CIA director of whom Netanyahu will be wary. Each of them can be relied upon to push for a deal, almost any deal, with Iran, and to stand firmly against a resort to force under almost any circumstances. Curiously, a president who has pledged to stop Iran and ruled out containment has chosen to surround himself with some of the politicians most likely to counsel him to rule it back in.

A week from now, meanwhile, Israel will elect a Knesset in which the right wing — itself more hawkish than in previous incarnations — will hold the upper hand. Why? That’s easy. Because our region is going to hell.

The Islamists are on the rise in Egypt and Jordan. Whatever happens in Syria will surely only be bad for the Jews. Hezbollah is armed and ready to the north, Hamas rearming to the south. Mahmoud Abbas, who is endorsing “reconciliation” with Gaza’s ruthless extremists, has won something akin to statehood from the UN, in a vote where all of eight countries — four of which I defy you to find on a map — stood with Israel. And credible word is that Iran is potentially all of two months away from that red line set by Netanyahu of enough 20% enriched uranium for one bomb.

Not good. And Netanyahu’s strategy of telling us that we had better hang tough because the Arab world loathes us and is out to get us, though bleak and rather unhelpful, is proving reasonably compelling.

His approach, reminiscent of the Yitzhak Shamir prime ministerial orientation, is not, it should be noted, a grand-slam electoral winner. Despite Netanyahu’s best efforts to placate the settler movement by promising building, building and more building over the Green Line, including in the hot-button E1 area — promises that have driven Israel’s various defenders, ambassadors and lobbyists to distraction — a goodly proportion of our electorate has been tempted further rightward by the untested and thus unsullied Jewish Home’s vision of expanded settlements and wide West Bank sovereignty, and never mind the consequent collapse of support for Israel worldwide, even among most of Diaspora Jewry. At the other end of the spectrum, a fairly substantial swathe of the electorate will still vote with the disunited doves, for one of the Yachimovich-Livni-Lapid trinity — despite their infighting, despite Shelly Yachimovich’s policy lacunae on Iran, the region and the Palestinians, despite Tzipi Livni’s disagreeable habit of flouncing off home when she doesn’t get her way, and despite Yair Lapid’s inexperience.

But Netanyahu will make it over the finish line. And that’s when the clouds will gather in earnest.

Broadly speaking, Obama’s course is set. He has nobody and nothing but his own worldview to answer to. And he reckons it has served him pretty well thus far. This week’s suggestions that Obama is convinced he understands far better than Netanyahu where Israel’s interests lie are nothing new; he has always been convinced he understands far better than Netanyahu where Israel’s interests lie — and that few of them are to be found beyond the pre-1967 lines. He does not believe the moment of truth has yet arrived on Iran. There is approximately zero likelihood that he will retool his policies to align with Netanyahu’s, and every prospect of consequent strain and confrontation.

Netanyahu’s course is less certain. Indeed, the extent of the likely storm damage will depend in good part on the nature of his coalition. And though he’s set to win on Tuesday, his options come Wednesday may not be especially attractive.

The “natural” ideological and traditional partners to his own Likud-Beytenu are the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home — a collection of parties which will likely hold a handy Knesset majority between them. Netanyahu could also try to supplement this grouping with Lapid’s Yesh Atid and/or the far more troublesome Livni’s Hatnua. But there’s no telling whether that unlikely coalition could be welded together, and it’s hard to see how it could long survive with budget battles and a law on national service among the new government’s first orders of business.

However, Netanyahu would probably quite like to consign Bennett’s rival Jewish Homers to the opposition benches — a move that would be applauded abroad, and would bring the coalition closer to the Israeli middle ground, but one that would narrow his remaining options dramatically. Without Jewish Home, Netanyahu would likely need at least one of the ultra-Orthodox parties and two or three of the Labor-Hatnua-Yesh Atid triumvirate for a majority, and this collection too would be inherently unstable.

Many of Israel’s best friends in the United States and beyond, meanwhile, would implore him to exclude the ultra-Orthodox, with their narrow outlook on Judaism and their wide avoidance of military service. The Orthodox monopoly on Judaism in Israel, exemplified by the intolerant treatment meted out to the Women of the Wall, may be minor news here, but it’s deeply damaging to Israel’s standing among the overwhelming majority of American Jews who happen not to be Orthodox.

Those friends would also stress that internationally, with all due respect to Lapid and even to Livni, it is Labor that is the known dovish party in Israeli politics, and thus it is only a coalition with Labor that could peel off the right-wing label from his government. A coalition of Likud-Beytenu, Labor, Yesh Atid and Hatnua would leave Netanyahu personally somewhere near the center of his own government, would likely reduce friction with the Obama administration and other countries, would delight much of Diaspora Jewry, and might please many Israelis.

But it is difficult to envision Labor — which pulled out of the last Netanyahu coalition, remember, and whose leader has sworn she won’t join the next one — living long and cheerfully in such an alliance. It’s beyond improbable that a collection of parties so at-odds on the Palestinian issue and most everything else could muster the unity to defy ultra-Orthodox opposition on the national service issue.

Such a coalition, furthermore, also might infuriate Netanyahu’s own Likud party and its voters, who might reasonably feel threatened by that strong center-left government component. Why invite in so much of the opposition, Likud members might ask, when we’ve just won the elections?

Any port in a storm, Netanyahu might choose to respond.

Or he might just shrug, take out his umbrella, and go with Bennett.

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