Op-Ed: The veteran Prime Minister's passivity suits the Israeli public, interested in neither war nor peace. Still, to turn the short-term success into a lasting legacy Netanyahu must radically change his strategy -- and coalition partners.
Love him or hate him, you can't argue with Benjamin Netanyahu's success. Since his return to the Prime Minister's office, Israel has been enjoying the calm that comes with greater security, economic growth and a level of political stability not seen in generations. The public prefers political deadlock and Netanyahu's restraint on security matters, following the policies of his predecessor Ehud Olmert, who combined bold politics with military adventurousness. Israelis are in love with the status quo, and don't want to be bothered with either wars or peace initiatives. Netanyhu's passiveness suits them perfectly.
In his foreign policy, Netanyahu turns out to be a skillful diplomat who knows how to leverage crises, and turn them into opportunities. He used the political difficulties of President Barack Obama to shake off the settlement freeze and push back on the American peace initiative. His assessment that he can bend the President, with the help of the Congress and the Jewish community in the US, proved correct. Obama struggles for his reelection for a second term and drops the occasional love message to Israel, even though he cannot stand Netanyahu and his policy.
When Turkey and Israel clashed over the flotilla crisis, Netanyahu was quick to establish a strategic alliance with Greece. And when Ankara's relations with Damascus wobbled, and Greece faced economic collapse, Netanyahu went back close to Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He used the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas to duck international pressure over concessions to the Palestinians and keep his hands free. Now he's battling Mahmoud Abbas' initiative to win UN recognition of the Palestinian state. September's General Assembly is still far off, but Abbas' determination is already showing signs of softening.
Fallout from the Arab spring
The revolution in the Arab world only strengthened Israel's strategic position. The US and its European partners have run out of allies in the region. The Arab regimes are falling apart, or struggling for survival, and Israel stands alone as an island of stability and relentless support of the West. Iran continues with the nuclear program, but is torn up by internal strife and has difficulty securing the rule of its Syrian protégé, Bashar al-Assad. There's no real pressure on Netanyahu to wage an urgent preventive war against Iran – but there's also no one to stop him if he decides to send the air force to Natanz, Bushhehr and Qom.
Under such circumstances, no wonder Netanyahu radiates smugness and ignores warnings by Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres, his devotees of yesterday who now caution of "a political tsunami" and crumbling walls. Instead of listening to them, he's celebrating with his extreme right wing allies the "victory over Obama," getting compliments from the ever hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
The problem is that Netanyahu's stances gradually drift from his coalition, which is recklessly pulling rightwards. His declarations in favor of a Palestinian state are deemed unacceptable by his partners who preach for Israeli annexation of the West Bank. His statements at the Government's meeting earlier this week about his wish to separate from the Palestinians and to maintain a solid Jewish majority within Israel's future boundaries, are closer to those expressed by Olmert than those who have argued with the Prime Minister over "the demographic threat".
If Netanyahu believes in dividing up the country, as he has now announced several times, he should change his political partners. There is no other way to realize his vision, which indeed enjoys the support of most of the public. Tzipi Livni should enter the Foreign Ministry instead of Lieberman so the negotiations with the Palestinians can resume and the world can start believing that Israel is serious and not only making up excuses for continuing the occupation and expanding the settlements.
There is no greater danger to good statesmanship than the intoxicating influence of success. That's what has brought down the greatest leaders and statesmen in history, and what now threatens Netanyahu. If he keeps dancing with Lieberman and the settlers' rabbis, he would push the Palestinians to a third Intifada, and would lead to the materialization of the gloomy predictions of the Defense Minister Barak and the President Peres. To prove them wrong, Netanyahu needs to form a different coalition.
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Photo - Masa Israel Journey