Prime Minister Netanyahu is a political genius or a political hack, a man of deep principles or pure expedience, a worthy captain of Israel’s fortunes during perilous times or a clueless, shifty, power-hungry follower of trends and polls. Or perhaps all of the above.
One thing is certain: more than most politicians he has learned from his mistakes in his first tenure as prime minister in the late 1990’s and is able to control his political destiny in a way that for most previous premiers was the stuff of dreams. Routinely, Israel’s prime ministers since the Six Day War have resigned in disgrace, lost re-election or met untimely fates. Few have been re-elected, and most have been forced into early elections through the collapse of their coalition and then scorned by the voters. Netanyahu has been spared that – essentially he can serve unimpeded until October 2013 or call for new elections at his pleasure – by undermining the main source of power in Israel: the hyper-partisan media that controls the popular and electoral fate of almost all public officials.
He accomplished that through a typically-clever and somewhat underhanded maneuver that he parlayed into media immunity: the co-option of the Labor party, and especially Defense Minister Ehud Barak (the keen strategist who presided over the hasty retreat from Lebanon in 2000), into his government. This took some doing. Recall that Likud had the second-most mandates after the election in 2009 – 27 seats to the 28 won by Kadima (itself a Likud offshoot). By all rights, Kadima’s Tzippi Livni should have been asked to form the government. But Netanyahu pre-empted that by offering the Ichud HaLeumi (the National Union Party, led by Ketzele) to join his coalition – giving him a guaranteed 31 seats to Livni’s guaranteed 28. Netanyahu then formed his coalition – and promptly betrayed the NU by summarily kicking them out of the coalition, bringing in Labor, and achieving his parliamentary majority. It was a scheme that the NU predicted, but classic Netanyahu – and the National Union remains in opposition.
That enabled Netanyahu to partner with Ehud Barak, a once-darling of the left, and that itself shielded the PM from accusations of being an “extreme right-winger,” a “warmonger,” a “destroyer of peace,” and several other monikers left over from 1999. It became impossible for the leftist media to assault Netanyahu – in either his peace-making or his defense policies – because Barak, the stalwart of Israel’s established leftist party, stood at his side. And even when Labor imploded and Barak detached himself and formed his own party, the die was already cast. Using and abusing the National Union was sneaky; linking with Barak was brilliant and an echo of Menachem Begin’s appointment of Moshe Dayan, another Labor icon, as his first Foreign Minister, to the consternation of the Likud even then.
In effect, it was brilliant maneuvering. Excluding the National Union on the right and Kadima/Meretz on the left enabled Netanyahu to position himself right in the center politically, diplomatically, and more importantly, popularly.
Of course, all these personnel games obscure a more basic point: Netanyahu’s policies are inscrutable, except to the extent that they serve to keep him in power. There is no good recommendation on how to resolve the Iran problem. Obviously regime change is the ideal solution, but it is not imminent or even foreseeable (for that missed opportunity, Barack Obama deserves obvious opprobrium). Regime change requires both resources that Israel does not have and the extensive cooperation and leadership of an American president that is absent, or so it seems. Diplomacy is an ongoing joke, as neither the pleas of the striped-pants set or the much-vaunted sanctions will have any impact. To bomb Iran is certainly not easy nor will it necessarily be effective. Israel’s plight is not helped by Obama administration officials’ musings about when Israel will bomb, how they will bomb, what they will target, and how they should not do it. My guess is that some combination of air power and inside sabotage will be necessary, with the latter playing more of a role. But Netanyahu is in an unenviable position – a strike against Iran will result in Hezbollah unleashing its 50,000 rockets that now pervade Lebanon (see, Barak, above) against Israel’s north and center. That will be devastating. A rocket and missile attack from the south can also be expected. So, it is untenable that Iran should acquire a nuclear weapons capability, and difficult to foresee how it can reasonably be prevented. I don’t envy the Prime Minister.
Iran aside, what has the Likud voter gained from his Prime Minister? Likud voters are nationalists, pro-free enterprise, pro-defense, pro-settlement and pro-tradition. They also seem to be among the least discerning voters in the world, because they never quite get what they vote for. The Likud’s inferiority complex usually induces them (Shamir was the exception) into reaching out to the leftist parties to occupy key positions. The odds are slim that Netanyahu would have been elected had he announced before the vote his intention to appoint Ehud Barak the Defense Minister. Certainly the votes Likud attracted from the settlers would have dissipated had they known of Barak’s second coming, recalling the stranglehold he placed on settlement during his prior tenures.
The Likud voter would have abandoned Netanyahu had they anticipated the first-ever settlement freeze that lasted almost a year that accomplished nothing diplomatically or politically, except – again – buying Netanyahu some peace and quiet from the Israeli media and the Obama government. But it set back the settlement movement for years, announced to the world Israel’s uncertain and hesitant claim to its ancestral land, and has still not been fully reversed. Barak maintains a tight lid on building permits, in effect sheltering Netanyahu from criticism – as if he is not supportive of the policy. But Likud voters look away.
Netanyahu has also presided over a number of settlement demolitions in recent months, almost all carried out in the dead of night, and all under Barak’s auspices. This adds to the Likud’s sorry record of settlement destruction – including Gush Katif and north Shomron, and as far back as Yamit. It seems that only the Likud destroys Jewish settlements; if a leftist party would try, an opposition Likud would scream bloody murder, betrayal of the land of Israel, an exile mentality and even worse invective. But when it ascends to power, all that is forgotten by the leaders – and, apparently, by their voters. Curious.
The recent Migron “resolution” is a case in point. This “outpost” of approximately 90 families just a few miles north of Yerushalayim, who have lived there for years, in permanent housing, with community centers, shuls and even a basketball court, has been subjected to endless litigation based on the claim that it was built on Arab land. When that claim was rejected several months ago by the High Court – no Arab produced any title to the land and the whole lawsuit was a leftist fabrication – one would have thought that Migron’s status would have been finalized. Instead, a compromise was reached that Migron would be moved two hilltops over, and its buildings either razed or maintained (depending on who explains the compromise). But, if the land is state land, and Migron can be legalized, then why should it be moved ? This has yet to be explained, but it seems reasonable to suggest it is only to torment and weaken the settlement movement – that has, nonetheless, endorsed the resolution (probably hoping that it will never be implemented, which is always possible).
It is striking that Israel is a center-right country that is always governed by a center-left, or left, government. That is hard to fathom. There are persistent rumors about the mercurial Netanyahu who has alternately offered to surrender the Golan (14 years ago), the Jordan Valley (two weeks ago), and who consistently floats trial balloons of possible surrenders that lead his interlocutors to feel misled and betrayed, and should mystify his voters – if they paid attention. But they don’t. The Likud voter seems to respond to contrived grievances, the “dire” consequences if some other party is elected, and promises that are never kept. It is as if power is the real objective – and the patronage goodies being in power permits – and policies are secondary.
Most people on the right, and these days many on the left, always saw the “peace process” as a chimera, and today as a dead letter. It would be nice – and honest – to actually hear that from an Israeli prime minister, which would undercut the traditional Arab assertion – yesterday, it was King Abdullah’s turn, from the mythical kingdom of Jordan – that Israel is at fault for the lack of peace. (He is a tiresome figure.) The traditional Likudnik sees through that bogus argument and is unafraid about challenging it openly. Certainly the articulate Netanyahu can – but won’t, again, because such honesty is politically incorrect, even as the failure to articulate such truths sets the stage for the next round of concessions.
Credit Netanyahu for Israel’s economic vibrancy, and, in another wise departure from his last term, staying out of the media. His appearances in public are minimal, his interviews are rare and controlled, and he seems more in control focused on power and control, the politician’s stock in trade. He often leads “from behind,” like Obama. He is a weather vane, seeing where the people are and following them. He opposed the Tal Law (on Haredi service in the military) after the High Court invalidated it, after previously supporting it. He is outraged and rhetorically robust after a terrorist attack, when the people are, but usually tolerates the daily rocket attacks on the south, because the people do as well. He promises reform of the appointments to the leftist High Court, and then scuttles any reform proposals. He will toss the right a bone, and then the left another bone; he is adept at feeding the religious parties a glatt sandwich (money for their causes) and the seculars some “white” meat (legislation). He both co-opted and marginalized Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Everyone gets something of what they want but never all of what they want, which would be divisive and politically fatal.
It has been a masterful performance but the question remains: is this what the average Likud voter wants or expects? Perhaps. Is this the best that Israel’s right-wing voters can do? Likely not. The time has come for a genuine Religious Zionist to aspire to leadership – not of a small sector of the population, and not a flame-thrower – but a person of ideas, substance, wisdom and character. To those who suggest there is no such person extant, try this: Rabbi Professor Daniel Hershkovitz, current Minister of Science and Technology, a professor of mathematics at the Technion, the Rav of several communities in Haifa, and currently the leader of the Bayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party. While one can always pick out a policy or statement with which to disagree, he is judicious, honest, has good instincts and values and a strong ideological commitment that is delivered in reasonable doses.
The flirtations with secular-right parties have often ended as disastrously as the flirtations with the secular-left parties. Binyamin Netanyahu has been a solid bridge figure, and the current stability has to win him plaudits, but more leadership is required. The Likud might still win, but a strong Religious-Zionist contingent becomes a more powerful and natural ally. More importantly, it will show self-confidence of the religious voting public that there indeed are people who represent both Torah and political leadership.
Memo to right-wingers: if you want right, vote right.