The main headline in Tuesday’s Yedioth Ahronoth blared in white on red that “Netanyahu is leading us to disaster.”
Quoting an unnamed “very senior diplomatic source,” the full story inside, under a headline most politely translated as “Netanyahu is thumbing his nose at the whole world,” listed a series of the prime minister’s ostensibly disastrous actions and inactions paving the dismal route to national catastrophe.
The prime minister’s stated crimes: Only caring about Iran. Placing impossible conditions on a return to talks with the Palestinians, when Mahmoud Abbas — who has kept the West Bank quiet, admirably supports an accord based on the pre-’67 lines, and has made plain that he seeks no personal refugee’s “right of return” — is Israel’s last realistic hope of a Palestinian partner. Infuriating the entire international community with his settlement building plans, and leaving a fuming US untenably isolated as Israel’s key strategic ally. Legitimizing Hamas by indirectly negotiating with it after last month’s Operation Pillar of Defense, weakening Abbas in the process. And refusing to apologize to Turkey despite the imperative for reconciliation given the savage instability in Syria.
Take that dire list of purported failures, add in the legal difficulties besetting his political No. 2, Avigdor Liberman, and the gradual decline in support for their joint Likud-Beytenu list as ex-right-hand-man Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home list rises, and you might think there’d be a crisis atmosphere in the Prime Minister’s Office with elections less than a month away.
You’d be wrong. The PMO, and the PM, sail serenely, undentably forward — whether to ever-greater national flourishing, as the Netanyahu camp would have us believe, or into the iceberg, as the critics are warning.
If he bothered reading the Yedioth piece at all, Netanyahu will doubtless have dismissed it as the typical ranting of an old-school Labor-leaning Foreign Ministry veteran too weak to so much as identify himself, given prominence by a newspaper that pursues a relentless anti-government agenda. That newspaper, furthermore, has long since lost its hold as Israel’s most-read daily, overtaken by the unstintingly pro-Netanyahu free daily owned by the prime minister’s multi-billionaire supporter Sheldon Adelson.
As for the specific charges, Netanyahu would plead unashamedly guilty to obsessing about Iran — the key threat to Israel’s physical well-being and an issue on which Israel faces the most acute of dilemmas: the US Air Force is increasingly well-prepared to surgically set back Iran years if President Barack Obama gives an order to strike; Netanyahu believes Obama is capable of giving such an order when the next round of diplomatic engagement fails (as the prime minister is convinced it will) but is by no means certain that the president would do so; Israel does still have a military option, but it’s less effective than that of the US and that window is closing; and Iran is showing no sign of reconsidering its march toward the bomb.
His aides will tell you that, far from seeking to avoid talks with Abbas, Netanyahu has repeatedly shown a desire to re-engage — and that this is recognized everywhere from Amman to Washington. The problem isn’t Netanyahu, it’s Abbas, they insist in the PMO. The PA president wants a state all right, but he doesn’t want to make peace with Israel — hence his material breach of the bilateral process and his scamper to endorsement by the UN General Assembly.
That breach simply had to be met by some kind of unilateral Israeli response, the PM’s circle would further argue — hence the rash of new building plans, including in the E1 corridor between Jerusalem and the settlement city of Ma’aleh Adumim. Israel needed to show that it does not accept the purported new legitimacy of “Palestine” and the consequent asserted international legal designation of the West Bank as occupied Palestinian territory — and will not be deterred from taking actions to underline its claims to that land, and to defend itself in the face of international criticism, potential legal rulings at the International Criminal Court, and even sanctions if necessary. (An Abbas effort to have settlements branded as war crimes by the ICC in The Hague is deemed to be a matter of when, not if.)
There is an acknowledgement in the PMO that Israel is firmly on the defensive where the Palestinians are concerned, and that some kind of “new focus” will have to be formulated for dealing with the PA to at least signal Israeli goodwill — perhaps by means of a declared building freeze in isolated settlements. But to echo that Yedioth headline, they most emphatically do thumb their noses at the assertion that building in E1 — which, it is claimed in the PMO, was on Ehud Olmert’s 2008 map for Abbas of West Bank territory Israel would retain — dooms a two-state solution. Gaza and the West Bank are 50 miles apart, and that’s no bar to a two-state solution, runs the derisive counterargument, but building in E1, where overpasses, underpasses and bypasses can maintain Palestinian contiguity, is the death blow?
As for strengthening Hamas in Pillar of Defense, Netanyahu warned in interviews last weekend that Israel’s “account” with Hamas is still open, and that the Islamists’ celebrations are premature. The military operation unfolded as planned, it is argued, and no less a routinely Israel-bashing NGO than Human Rights Watch this week hurled savage allegations of war crimes — not Goldstone 2009-style, at Israel, but at Hamas for its indiscriminate rocket salvoes and for deliberately placing Gaza’s civilians in the line of Israeli counter-fire.
And finally, on the Yedioth charge sheet, the riposte on the need to heal ties with Turkey is that Netanyahu absolutely wants to do so, that he hoped Ankara’s gesture of sending two fire-fighting planes to assist in dousing December 2010’s Carmel fire would open the path to reconciliation, but that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan just isn’t interested. He’s an Islamist, they note in the PM’s circle. Say no more.
As for Netanyahu’s domestic pre-election status, the slowly sliding polls have done nothing to dent his towering self-belief. He doesn’t want Bennett, or Shas for that matter, gnawing into support for Likud-Beytenu. But marginal difficulties for the Likud, and a few disgruntled not-going-to-be MKs low down the merged party list, are not desperate headaches for Netanyahu personally. The right-of-center bloc is holding at 65+ seats. His alliance with Liberman’s party means he’s certain to be heading the biggest faction come January 23. And he’ll have all manner of coalition options: Bennett’s Jewish Home to the right, the two ultra-Orthodox parties — desperate for their slice of the budgetary cake, no matter how earnest Shas leaders may sound when telling the electorate that they are prepared to sit in opposition — and that collection of mediocrities on the left and center-left, all too egotistical to join forces against him before January 22, and all ready to ride roughshod over each other in the scramble for ministerial positions the day after.
Hours of radio coverage were devoted Tuesday to claims and denials about contacts between Netanyahu’s people and Tzipi Livni’s people. Top-level officials on both sides have been talking. No they haven’t. She’ll take the Foreign Ministry job, but only if he promises to support a substantive peace process. No she won’t.
Likewise with Labor, whose Shelly Yachimovich might be given a “senior economic post” — but not the Finance Ministry — to bolster consensual support for Netanyahu on her pet socioeconomic issues. She’d say yes in an instant. She absolutely wouldn’t. And on and speculatively on.
The fact is that Netanyahu has long since learned the value of a center-left coalition ally — to keep doors open internationally, to offset hardline right-wing pressure, and to enable him to appear as the middle-ground Mr. Consensus. Ehud Barak filled the role admirably in the last government, and happened to be fairly good at defense ministering too. Yair Lapid might be the least ideological, the most personally palatable, the most like-minded when it comes to getting the ultra-Orthodox into the IDF and into the workforce, and the exploitably most inexperienced politically. But any one or more of those middle-rank parties could do the job, Netanyahu figures.
And central to his air of supreme self-assurance, to the current ease that marks his body language, to the semi-permanent little smile, is the fact that, even as the polls wobble, there is just no credible alternative prime minister in the public’s mind. Yachimovich? How many Israelis would want her finger on the red button? Livni? Her own party Kadima (that’s the second of the three she’s been in so far) booted her out as its leader. Lapid? A political neophyte. Naftali Bennett? Popular on the growing Orthodox far-right, but nowhere else.
A delightful Haaretz poll Tuesday found only 20% of Israelis would want to spend a night out with Netanyahu and only 9% would buy a used car from him. But those figures actually put him ahead of all his rivals in those categories. He was also polled as more believable overall than his rivals (at 18%, with Bennett at 14% and Livni at 10%), was far ahead as most dependable on economics (at 37%, with Yachimovich at 14% and Livni at 6%), and was out of sight as most dependable on security issues (at 38%, compared to Bennett at 9%, Livni at 8% and Yachimovich at 4%). Only when asked “which politician do you think cares most about you and your problems” did the respondents rank him second, at 9%, below Yachimoch at 17%.
That survey marked an unusually original path to a conclusion with which Netanyahu is cheerfully familiar. For better or for worse, in sharp contrast to 1999, there is next to no prospect of the Israeli public ousting him as prime minister four weeks from today.
Hence the indifference with which he meets criticism such as that leveled in Yedioth on Tuesday, be it spot on or way off, honestly or impurely motivated. Hence his Obama-esque supreme self-confidence. And unlike the US president, it is noted in the PMO, Netanyahu, 63, is not limited to two terms.
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