Unlike President Obama, Bibi Netanyahu calculates his survival in the short term amidst the uncertain sea of Israeli politics, as he can be thrown out by a vote of no-confidence.
Leading a coalition of conservative parties, Netanyahu broadened the government by including Labor, which lost dramatically in the last election, and he has tried to entice his biggest rival Kadima to join. The head of Kadima, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has refused, fearing that her supporters will feel betrayed. But many in Kadima don’t agree and seem willing to split and join the government.
If that happens, Netanyahu will have eliminated any significant opposition and have completed an extraordinary political coup.
By including opponents in his coalition, he has created a new form of consensus politics in Israel and destroyed his most potent political rivals. Marginalized, the extreme left and Arab parties are irrelevant. That provides the government with not only political clout but a true national position as well. That may well have changed the face of Israeli politics.
Against the backdrop of scandal-ridden regimes led by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, former Likudniks who broke away and led Kadima to power, Netanyahu’s mandate was not only to restore a sense of honesty and responsibility to government but to ensure that Likud would become Israel’s leading party. His primary concern is not Obama’s demands or the EU’s anti-Israel policies, but creating a political base upon which he can rely and from which he can lead.
If Netanyahu can convince members of Kadima that it is in their and the national interest to join his government, he will ensure his survival and establish himself as Israel’s most important political leader.
Netanyahu’s second strategic move is to change the international alignment against Israel. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been successful in reaching out to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and especially to Russian-speaking states in the former Soviet Union. Speaking the same language is an enormous advantage; whether it will influence Russia’s antipathy to Israel is the question. Moreover, by drawing Russia into the picture, Israel has sent a message to the U.S. that it is not the only player.
That could be a brilliant move, and although it competes with Russian interests in Iran it might influence EU member states and even blunt Obama’s crusade against Israel.
Netanyahu’s tightrope walk, like Obama’s, will depend on the strength of the economy. Because Israel’s banking system is more tightly controlled, Israel’s economy is in relatively good shape. Israel’s real estate and housing markets — the key to economic stability and expansion — remain quite strong, and along with innovative Israeli technology the economy will strengthen. Despite political interference and serious strategic and security threats, Israeli leaders are not blind to reality.
A big question is where Israelis will be allowed to build. With all the talk about a “two-state solution,” there is a growing divergence between what some believe is a political necessity and the need to provide housing for Israel’s burgeoning population. Shifting priorities to the Negev and Galilee may be important politically, but irrelevant without adequate infrastructure, job possibilities, resources, and of course security.
In the foreseeable future, settlements in Yehuda and Shomron must expand not only because they are strategic assets but because of economic necessity. People need homes they can afford near places where they work. That may not be politically acceptable for those who look forward to another Arab Palestinian state devoid of Jews, but no Israeli government will commit suicide to satisfy them.
Put simply, the process of settlement or “occupation” of Yehuda and Shomron (the “West Bank”), Jerusalem, and Golan is far too extensive to uproot. Three hundred thousand Jews who moved into these territories are no less entitled to live there than Arabs; their forcible removal would be a clear violation of civil and humanitarian law. Morally and economically, it’s unthinkable.
A terrorist-based Palestinian state of the kind demanded by Arab leaders, the EU, and now Obama is unrealistic not only because an overwhelming majority of Israelis won’t accept it, but because Palestinians themselves are, at best, ambivalent. They don’t like Israel, but they don’t trust the PA.
Forcing a solution, as President Clinton tried in 2000, will probably provoke the next round of violence against Israel (“intifada”) because it raises expectations that can’t be met: Israel’s return to the 1949 armistice lines (including eastern Jerusalem), return of Arab “refugees,” and more. Fatah’s recent convention confirmed this. Palestinians define their identity in terms of the absence of Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinian nationalism must replace Israel, not coexist.
Despite the Arab world’s rhetoric, they don’t care about the Palestinians and supported them primarily as proxy warriors against Israel. They view a Palestinian state as a threat to their regimes as well. The status quo, a Middle East without a second Arab Palestinian state, may not be as bad as some think.
Whether or not Obama learns the facts of life in the Middle East and the facts of history, Netanyahu’s mandate is to keep Israel strong and viable — not to establish a Palestinian state. Netanyahu may not have a vision, but he has a strategy; Obama has a vision, but no strategy.
If politics is the art of survival, then Bibi may prove to be Israel’s next Ben Gurion. His canonization, however, will take longer. Barack Obama’s has already begun.