Netanyahu and Israel are stuck in the status quo as the Palestinians go in another direction.
by Nahum Barnea
We’re living in a period of dramatic change, but that doesn’t mean there will be changes in Israel’s politics, particularly the politics of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
One big change is the Palestinian mindset. At some point, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, decided that because of the policies of the Netanyahu government and the limits and constraints of Barack Obama’s administration, the Palestinians have no chance of getting the agreement they want by diplomatic means. I believe the Palestinians came to this conclusion a long time ago, even before John Kerry’s initiative, but they agreed to participate because they were afraid of the Obama administration’s reaction if they said no. But they correctly didn’t believe an agreement would materialize.
Now they have a new strategy: to go to the Security Council and seek a resolution containing a commitment to demand from Israel a return to the 1967 borders and a specific date for the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces, whether there is an agreement or not.
For the United States, this is a real problem. It indicates—another change—that the Palestinians are no longer afraid of the American reaction. Even if the Obama administration vetoes such a resolution, as it presumably will, the Palestinians can still go to the General Assembly—where they can expect to do well—and then to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. This could significantly speed up movement toward boycotts and sanctions, if not in the United Nations itself, then by individual European states.
Worse, it will force the U.S. Administration to stop funding 16 UN agencies, under congressional order. This could mean major changes in the relations between United States and the UN.
For the Palestinian Authority, this should be a win-win situation: The pressure will make Israel more willing to negotiate, or it will hound Israel and weaken it. Though there are riskier outcomes, it is also the only alternative Abbas believes he has left. Either way, it’s a strategy they are likely to follow unless there is a major change in Israel or Washington.
Which brings us back to Netanyahu, who has a single vision in regard to the Palestinians—to maintain the status quo. He believes—I think genuinely—that any alternative is much more dangerous to the security of Israel, to his government and to himself (not necessarily in that order). He continually markets to the public the view that any change will expose Israel to greater risks from Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere.
It’s a dark, pessimistic view of the world—with one minor exception. Time and again—most recently at the United Nations—Netanyahu has hinted to audiences that he sees positive indications that the Saudis, and maybe some other players in the Arab world, are interested in some kind of regional cooperation in the fight against Iran, and maybe even against the fundamentalist groups that threaten not only Syria and Iraq but also Jordan and Saudi Arabia. This alternative could offer gains, but only small, secret ones.
Netanyahu’s conduct during his recent U.S. visit reflected this aversion to change. The White House naturally wanted to talk about the Palestinian issue. (President Obama sees this as an area where he holds the moral high ground, having supported Israel in the Gaza war both internationally and by supplying arms.) Netanyahu wanted to talk about Iran. Obama thinks Netanyahu is lobbying Republicans (and some Democrats) on the Hill to sabotage any kind of negotiations with Iran—something the president believes is essential to his foreign policy.
So what happened? Netanyahu showed the kind of chutzpah that Israeli prime ministers are normally reluctant to display. At the UN, he gave a speech timed for and aimed at the Israeli audience, not the Americans. He lunched publicly and visibly at an expensive restaurant with his friend Sheldon Adelson, who, as is well known, was willing to invest $100 million to oust Obama in the 2012 election. Sources say the White House did not appreciate this. Aides recall former prime ministers staying safely in their hotels while members of their entourage shopped and ate out; as one pointed out, if you take the trouble to leave your hotel, you’d better take Elie Wiesel to lunch, not Sheldon Adelson. The visit ended badly with a sharp exchange over the building of new housing in Jerusalem.
Did any of these challenges weaken Bibi’s position at home? Not really. He came back to the same Israel he left. On the one hand, his coalition has major problems; on the other, there is no natural alternative. Partly this reflects the Israeli system. The U.S. presidential primaries create alternatives automatically: Candidates gain prestige and media exposure simply from declaring their ambition to be president. Israel doesn’t have a primary process that “builds” candidates in this way. I don’t mean that if Netanyahu resigned today, we wouldn’t have a prime minister—only that the people who aspire to replace him generally don’t have the stature to do so.
There is another, deeper factor. With so much dramatic news that comes and goes, we Israelis don’t have the time or the patience to seriously process what happens to us. We find it very hard to judge the long-term consequences of any event. There is, for instance, no commission of inquiry regarding the Gaza operation (which was supposed to take a maximum of eight days). The operation affected many aspects of daily life and thinking: There is bitterness and disappointment, there are questions concerning the military’s share of the budget and the preparations for future confrontations with other players, such as Hezbollah. Are we living from one crisis to another, or are military operations an interlude in a country that is basically stable? We don’t know.
We are very talented at recovering, or, rather, at putting aside what happens, especially regarding terrorism. There’s something very fresh and promising about this: Unlike some of our neighbors, we don’t swim in our misery or get drunk on it. But it’s also a problem. We fix everything, but we resolve nothing. And so it is with our politics.
Nahum Barnea is the chief political columnist for Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s biggest daily newspaper. He won the Israel Prize in 2007.