So entrenched is the dominance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahuin Israeli politics that he can afford to use the parliamentaryprocess for political theater that's the lesson ofIsrael's on-again, off-again election. On Sunday, Netanyahucalled a surprise poll for September 4. But just as quickly,Netanyahu on Monday night canceled the election after a"dramatic" late night meeting with the leader of theopposition Kadima party, Shaul Mofaz. Instead of going to theelectorate, the two sides agreed to form a "unitygovernment" for the remainder of Netanyahu's term,which ends in October 2013. The "drama" appearsentirely staged: Kadima seems to be something of a spent force inIsraeli politics, having recently ousted its leader, former foreignminister Tzipi Livni, and having no clear platform, polls showed itwas likely to lose two-thirds of its current bloc of seats in theKnesset. |
In other words, it represented no significant challenge toNetanyahu. But if the Prime Minister was looking to create theimpression that Israel is shaping up to attack Iran then, creatinga "unity government", as Israel has often done in timeof national security crisis, might underscore his message. Netanyahu was favored to win the September 4 election so muchso that many pundits had sought geopolitical rather than domesticexplanations for his decision, seeing it as an attempt to preemptany pressure on Israel from a potential second-term PresidentBarack Obama, or even to consolidate his home front ahead of afateful decision to bomb Iran. Of course, Mofaz, a former chiefof staff of the Israeli military, has lately publicly challengedNetanyahu's rhetoric on Iran, warning that an early attack onits nuclear facilities would be "disastrous." Hispresence could therefore also arguably strengthen the voices inIsrael's cabinet urging restraint on Iran. And the presencein his coalition of Kadima, which remains the largest party in thecurrent Knesset, also strengthens Netanyahu's hand againstsmaller factions such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman'sYisrael Beiteinu party being able to impose their own agendas.
( MORE: Netanyahu Calls for Elections, But Will It Change How Israel IsGoverned? ) Whatever Netanyahu's reasoning, though, his political teaseis a reminder of his freedom of maneuver, given his currentdominance of the Israeli political spectrum. Polls taken over thepast week showed that Netanyahu would likely to cement hispolitical control in any new election, and entrench the hawkishpolitical stability that has taken root in Israel over the pastdecade. Securing reelection would make Netanyahu only the secondIsraeli Prime Minister in two decades to win successive elections.(The first was Ariel Sharon.) Moreover his key challengers, who lagfar behind in the polls, were not planning to campaign on Iran andthe Palestinians the two questions on which Netanyahu hasclashed with the Obama Administration. Israeli politicians oncerisked being voted out of office (as Yitzhak Shamir was in 1992,like Netanyahu himself in 1999) if they were perceived to havejeopardized Israel's relationship with the White House.Netanyahu in his second term of office has shifted theparadigm. "Bibi Netanyahu is willing and able to playpolitics in Obama's backyard, talking directly to the American political class, in a way that has pressured theAdministration to change its posture," says Daniel Levy,former Israeli peace negotiator now with the New America Foundationin Washington.
"Obama, despite being the leader ofIsrael's most important and cherished ally, is in no positionto do the same by appealing over Netanyahu's head to theIsrael public. That's a reflection of how things have changedin Israel, and also in Washington." Back in 1999, the Clinton Administration left little doubt of itspreference to see Israelis vote for a leader more amenable thanNetanyahu was to completing the Oslo Peace Process. The Likudleader had run for office on the basis of his fierce opposition tothe land-for-peace idea. Netanyahu allies complained, after hisdefeat by then-Labor Party leader (and current defense minister)Ehud Barak, that the Clinton Administration had actively intervenedto help unseat the incumbent, by cold-shouldering the PrimeMinister, and because of the involvement of key Clinton strategistssuch as James Carville, Bob Shrum and Stanley Greenberg in planningBarak's campaign, and the fact that some key Clinton donorshad also backed the Labor leader.
Clinton partisans countered thatthe strategists and donors got involved in their personal andbusiness capacities, reflecting the increasing Americanization ofIsraeli politics. (There were Republican strategists working forNetanyahu in the same campaign.) ( MORE: Why Israeli Challenges to Netanyahu on Iran May Help Obama sNuclear Diplomacy ) If anything, the connections between Israeli and U.S. domesticpolitics have only deepened, most recently exemplified by the roleof key Netanyahu backer, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, in fundingthe Super PAC backing the presidential bid of Newt Gingrich. Still,the Obama Administration knows better today than to expect, muchless to actively seek a sea-change in Israeli politics.
Unlike BillClinton, Barack Obama is not widely loved by the Israeli public.And the fact that Netanyahu faces no serious challengers for job ofprime minister affirms the fact that he personifies the newconsensus. Netanyahu also appears to have repudiated the maxim that clashingwith the President of the United States is a fatal error for anIsraeli leader. On the contrary, he has repeatedly taken on theObama Administration, using his public messaging on issues such asthe peace process and Iran to rally opposition on Capitol Hill, andamong pro-Israel voters and donors, to successfully walk back theAdministration on its peace demands. The differences betweenNetanyahu and Obama were plain to see from the moment both tookoffice: Obama hoped to crack the whip on the long-stalled peaceprocess with the Palestinians and demanded that the Israelisdemonstrate good faith by halting all settlement construction inoccupied territories; Netanyahu pushed back on that issue, rallyingbipartisan support in Washington against President Obama'scall for peace talks based on the 1967 borders, and eventuallyforcing Obama to concede defeat and park the peace process in afuzzy limbo.
( PHOTOS: Inside West Bank Settlements ) Netanyahu, in fact, had insisted from the get-go that Iran, ratherthan the Palestinians, should be the priority issue in theU.S.-Israel conversation, and he created pressure for Westernescalation of sanctions through his constant threat to launchunilateral military action. His repeated use of Holocaust imageryin framing the Iran issue also has the effect, intended orotherwise, of painting President Obama as a fecklessprevaricator in the face of an apocalyptic threat. But hisrhetorical excesses may also signal that he's simply keepingup the heat on Western powers; Israel doesn't typically gothrough years of saber-rattling before launching military action. Given their obvious differences and tense encounters, itdoesn't require a clairvoyant to deduce that Netanyahu andObama would each prefer to see the other fired by his electorate,but both have likely resigned themselves to the limits of theirability to effect that outcome. At the same time, prospects forconcluding peace process that has always depended on thewillingness of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to voluntarilyaccept an international consensus on the terms of a two-statesolution look more remote today than at any point in the past twodecades.
And just as the end of the Oslo era will, in the monthsand years change the rules of the Palestinian political game, so,too can it be expected to profoundly change the rules of Israelipolitics. MORE: 10 Questions for Shimon Peres.
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