Benjamin Netanyahu has been so successful as a politician that he has managed to persuade large parts of the Israeli public that his political messages are axiomatically true:
- Anyone who disagrees with the permanent presence of settlements cannot be a true ally or friend of Israel. Any Israeli who holds such opinions can be suspect of being less than patriotic.
- Obama is the worst ever president of the US with respect to Israel and is the only one to have ever acted in the diplomatic arena against Israel’s interests.
- The Palestinians are not interested in a peace deal and indeed may never be. [Although he himself vacillates between the hard-right position of “the two-state” solution is dead, and the centre right position that we are interested in the “two-state solution” but that the conditions are not right.]
- There is no light between Bibi and the radical/extreme left. It is either Bibi or Haaretz (or worse).
- Israel’s diplomatic position has never been stronger.
- The settlements are not only not an obstacle to peace but are not even an obstacle to Israel’s improving diplomatic and trade position in the world.
- Netanyahu is the ONLY reasonable choice to lead Israel at this time.
- Although no longer an immediate issue, Bibi is the world’s true defender against Iran.
Ultimately Bibi holds a status quo position, which pits the long-standing position of the Israeli public in favour of the “two-state solution” against the failure of the Oslo process.
This lack of clarity is key to the success of the policy. Ministers like Hotovely, Elkin & Levin lead from within the Likud, towards a hard-line position, and are closer to Netanyahu’s great competitor on the right, Bennett and his Bayit Yehudi party (lest we forget that Bennett and Shaked worked closely for Bibi before joining and winning control over the Bayit Yehudi). This creates constant pressure on Bibi not to make too dovish signals to the Israeli public or the international community. Important to remember that Bibi (undoubtedly the most successful politician currently active in Israel) brilliantly shifted droves of the Bayit Yehudi voters at the finishing line of the 2015 elections to Likud. This tactical vote, mainly aimed at blocking the possibility of a more centrist or even national unity government, is fragile, especially if by the next election those same voters feel that Bibi still has half an eye on a national unity government and negotiations with the Palestinians.
Bennett’s message is clear and simple – annex, annex, annex. Setting aside whether he means it or if its feasible, or even whether it’s good for Israel, this has dramatically shifted the right wing agenda away from negotiations or even discussing the possibility of negotiations with the Palestinians to a position that seeks to take the initiative through increased sovereignty in the territories. Bibi needs to respond to this politically in order to maintain his default position as the unchallenged leader of Israel’s right.
Netanyahu has also driven messaging that he is actually improving Israel’s diplomatic standing. He has claimed persistently that rather than Israel weakening in the international community, under his leadership it is strengthening. Supporting this claim he points to legislation across the US against those promoting BDS, Congressional support for him/Israel, ever increasing and successful trade across all the key markets and of course massive support and cooperation with the leading nations of the free-world. Increased diplomatic activity with Africa and Muslim nations are added to his warming relations with Putin, who has made Russia a player again (and especially in the Middle East) and China that has dramatically increased its financial and economic ties.
Whilst I am wouldn’t suggest that much of this may be not true, it tries to create the reality that this ALSO translates into a more accommodative approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and in particular the settlements.
What then does the UNSC decision highlight (although frankly does not innovate)?
• All of Israel’s key allies consider settlements in Judea and Samaria as illegal
• In their mind, building further settlements decreases the possibility for final agreement with the Palestinians.
• Status quo diplomacy has a price.
- Unbridled verbal attack against our most important ally (of course he would say personally against Obama (their clash of personality politics has undoubtedly amplified their very core differences on world-view))
- Sanctions against some frankly irrelevant countries (Senegal, New Zealand). Diplomatic equivalent of a school play-ground row.
- Calls for diplomatic sanctions against key allies who voted in favour: (UK, France etc) (I HIGHLY recommend watching or reading UK Prime Minister’s speech to the Conservative Friends of Israel – possibly the most pro-Jewish, pro-Israel speech ever made by a sitting UK prime minister, in which she briefly, but very specifically made the point that the settlements are illegal in the view of the UK government.)
- Phone call to Putin (since the UNSC decision). (In case you’re not following, they voted for resolution 2334)
- Several tweets and Facebook posts – among them challenging the allies who voted for 2334 and also wished the Jewish community a Happy Chanukah, that they obviously don’t know the real Chanukah story. (Seriously?)
- Lighting the menorah at the Western Wall (couple of hours after Bennett went to announce and reaffirm his response to all troubles – annex!)
Is Bibi’s policy with respect to the US and other major allies the right one for Israel? “Not really sure” is the most favourable answer I can give.
Does this policy hold strategic dangers for the country? I think it does. I would make some remarks as food for thought:
- By driving an agenda that Yitzhar and Amona is the same as the Old City and Gilo, we risk the world actually accepting this linkage and moving from the stage of making pronouncements to the stage of actions. By looking to preserve 100% of the settlements, he is risking them all and more.
- By “pretending” that being an ally can only mean accepting Israel’s view on the settlements, we undermine our very strong position with major Western powers, who are highly supportive of Israel, in spite of their extremely negative and longstanding views on the Settlements.
- Whatever Trump will do policy-wise, he cannot overturn this resolution.
- Bibi himself said in his address to the nation on Saturday night, that just like we turned over resolution 3379 (the infamous Zionism is Racism resolution) we will turn this one over too. Worth noting that it took 16 years to undo, and that in the original resolution (which was General Assembly and not Security Council) all of our key allies voted against. (USSR voted in favour of 3379 &2334, we weren’t so friendly in those days).
- If there was the remotest chance of this being avoided, then Bibi has overseen one of the great Israeli diplomatic failures that will take years to undo.
There is no meaningful alternative to Netanyahu today as Prime Minister of Israel. (This statement if correct reflects an unhealthy state of affairs, if it becomes a chronic lack).
Nobody (or nobody who’s prepared to share) really knows what his long term plan is, and hence it is almost impossible to judge whether the steps taken, or the policy implemented is actually taking us nearer that goal.
The idea that his leadership has no risks for Israel’s future is ludicrous. Anybody who believes that even without an immediate deal as a possibility, the question of the conflict with the Palestinians is irrelevant to our international standing is deluding themselves.
For there to be an alternative to Bibi someone needs to stand up with backbone, and not just say what the Prime Ministers is doing wrong, but what can be done within the parameters of the current situation that can be done significantly different.
Herzog – seems to be a dead horse.
Lapid – whilst improving, still lacks the gravitas to persuade the electorate (He will need to be patient in the meantime and look to make gains without creating the expectation he can beat Bibi).
Livni – has gravitas although deeply damaged credibility (she is on her fourth party), and other than Bibi is the ONLY Israeli active Israeli politician with past intimate knowledge of the Israel – Palestinian track. However, she has no party that can carry her to power (at least at the moment).
I don’t see any Likud-pretenders or Likud-refugees mounting any serious challenges to Bibi for the time being, and whilst there are the usual Generals on the sidelines, there is no show of intent, just yet.
Of course there is Bennett – he has a clear message, one that I find very scary for the future of Israel as envisioned by its founding fathers, and as expressed in our declaration of Independence.
I rarely spend time writing on this stuff – a) because I do not have the power to influence where it counts; b) I am really no expert on politics or diplomacy; and c) in some ways the status quo has been just that, without obvious far-reaching consequences.
The reason I have now: perhaps a combination of seeing the post-Trump euphoria in some quarters (just might be overstated) and the increasing acceptance that the Netanyahu doctrine has become the de-facto political truth (and only truth) in Israeli politics without ANY possible alternative.
Please feel free to challenge me on the assumptions of the facts, and feel free to present an alternative case. More constructive discussion on this can only be for the good.