Given Israel’s proportional representation electoral system, it is governed through governmental coalitions. Coalition management in the past decade has tended to amplify the disproportional strength of the small right-wing parties, some of them with messianic underpinnings that contest the need for territorial concessions to the Palestinians or for diplomatic overtures. In their eyes, the solution to the Palestinian conflict is more detrimental than continuing to manage the problem itself. Holding on to and settling Judea and Samaria has metamorphosed from being a strategic instrument to achieve peace into being a divine end in and of itself. Netanyahu, as a risk-averse politician dependent on the votes from the right, has become very attuned to these sentiments.
Netanyahu’s grouping with the right-wing and religious parties has given him the opportunity to reduce institutional constraints on executive powers and to weaken the media. The narrative in Israel has become very discrediting, those who oppose the government’s policies are “unpatriotic,” “naïve” or “out to weaken Israel.” This nationalistic setting confluences with the government’s resentment of the perceived bias of the international community towards Israel. Nationalism in Israel is going hand-in-hand with a diminishing belief in internationalism, in the objectivity and effectiveness of international mechanisms and order. This weakened belief in the mechanisms of the liberal international order converges with the attack on Israel’s internal liberal institutions like the high court and the media.
Regional realities, though in-part more positive for Israel, have failed to transcend Israel’s innate sense of insecurity. The hostile intentions of Iran, Hezbollah and Jihadi extremists are prevalent in strengthening the belief that Israel, with U.S. security assistance, is destined, as is written in the scriptures, to be a “people that shall dwell alone.”
Continued Palestinian intransigence and hostility reinforces this view. Very few in Israel believe that the Palestinians can be offered more than the rejected proposals that former Prime Ministers Barak (2000) and Ehud Olmert (2008) extended them. The international impunity granted the Palestinian refusal of President Barack Obama’s proposals (2014) to renew the peace process, combined with the continued condemnation of Israel’s policies, reinforces the belief that the world cannot be relied upon and that international diplomatic levers are of limited efficacy.
Even though Netanyahu understands that Israel cannot continue indefinitely to rule over millions of Palestinians, the interplay between domestic pressure, Palestinian intransigence and international bias has led Netanyahu to decisional paralysis, backtracking from his 2009 Bar Ilan policy speech for solving the conflict.
During Netanyahu’s extended leadership, Hezbollah and Hamas have grown stronger and more dangerous than ever before, as has Iran’s malign regional presence. Israel has no real Palestinian partner, and its peace with Egypt and Jordan are centered around security and lack substantive depth. Israel’s special relationship with the United States—a critical component of its national standing—is becoming more and more partisan, and the rupture between Israel and American Jewry is growing.
In short, Netanyahu is an exceptional politician but an unexceptional leader. He has managed to forge and manage difficult government coalitions and to mobilize his partners in order to diminish the influence of the civil bureaucracy, the media and opposition groups. He has also presided over the military and economic strengthening of Israel and has taken advantage of changes in the interests of the pragmatic Sunni Arab states, African nations and Israel’s eastern Mediterranean neighbors to improve its diplomatic standing. While Netanyahu has been very apt in adapting to emerging circumstances, he has, however, failed during his extended tenure to shape a long-term grand design for Israel’s place in the region, or to solve or substantially moderate any of the big national-security issues facing Israel. The parameters of Trump’s policies towards Iran and the Palestinians will define the contours of Israel’s national security far more than anything that Netanyahu has done over the last ten years.
The circumstances that have shaped Israel’s national-security decisionmaking under Netanyahu are not going to change dramatically following his departure. It will take an exceptional and brave political leader to overcome the constraints and make the difficult formative decisions, especially regarding the Palestinians, that will ensure Israel’s physical well-being and its existence as a democratic Jewish state.
The present lineup of politicians waiting for Netanyahu’s demise in order to step in and take over is not encouraging. They all have exceptional egos but have yet to demonstrate exceptional leadership qualities. None of them have yet to set out a clear strategic vision in trepidation of political backlash, not exactly the measure of exceptional leadership.
Shimon Arad is a retired Colonel of the Israeli Defense Forces. His writings focus on regional security matters.