New Tactics, Same Netanyahu

New Tactics, Same Netanyahu

Israel's new unity government shouldn't be a surprise. Bibi is pursuing familiar ends through novel means.

Earlier this week, I sought to explain to National Interest readers why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to call for early elections, before November 2012, rather than seek to stay in office until the official date in November 2013. I mentioned that, according to the polls, Likud now is by far Israel’s most popular party and has a strong chance of expanding the prime minister’s coalition and extending his political and economic maneuverability. I suggested this would reduce the leverage of the smaller parties in his government as the debate over the 2013 federal budget unfolds. I wrote that early elections also would allow Netanyahu to reach the ballots after initiating several bills that were blocked by his Orthodox partners, who threatened to bring down the government on this account . The most popular of these bills would amend the law exempting tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox young men from any military or civil service.

In that column, I made clear that an instant-elections campaign would limit the period for one of Netanyahu's strongest opponents, Shaul Mofaz (who recently won the primaries in Israel's largest party, Kadima, against its former chairwoman, Tzipi Livni), to establish himself as a national leader. It could also have undermined the efforts of Yesh Atid, former journalist Yair Lapid's new secular–central party, to reach out to the Likud's constituency. But, I stressed, Netanyahu’s primary motive for ending his second term fourteen months ahead of schedule was the timeline of the American presidential elections. He had a clear interest, and still does, in having the next U.S. president find him armed with wide and fresh public support and strong parliamentary backing, diversified by central parties.

Then Netanyahu’s plan for early elections was dramatically replaced by an initiative to form a unity government with Kadima's twenty-eight Knesset members. Netanyahu has changed his tactics. But his motivation and strategy remain intact.

Whether the U.S. president after January 20, 2013, will be Obama or Republican Mitt Romney, Washington will have more freedom to form its Middle East policy in accordance with American strategic interests that don’t necessarily match the ideology and the interests of the current Israeli government. Yet any American president will have less leverage over an Israeli leader who enjoys the backing of 94 out of 120 Knesset members, including those from a central party that supposedly supports generous concessions to the Palestinians.

As to the Iran issue, Netanyahu expects the sanctions and diplomatic pressure will produce some kind of compromise that will not satisfy Israel. The Iranians also may accept an invitation to attend the Conference of the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction, scheduled to take place in Helsinki no later than the beginning of 2013. A new American administration likely would pressure Israel to join it as well. Netanyahu has a clear interest in surrounding himself with a wall-to-wall coalition to preempt or fend off American pressure over the Iranian nuclear program as well as on the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, not to mention the peace process.

The Israeli public is intolerant of leaders who jeopardize what is perceived as its most vital strategic interest, its relationship with the United States. Most probably, Netanyahu remembers that a rift with the White House contributed twice to the Likud's defeat. It happened in 1992, when a disagreement over the settlements policy deteriorated into a crisis in the relationship between Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and the Republican administration of George H. W. Bush. A similar rift between Netanyahu, during his first term as prime minister, and President Clinton, helped Ehud Barak win the 1999 elections. In both instances, Congress stood firmly with Israel, but that did not balance the image of the right-wing Israeli government failing to maintain the special relationship with its greatest ally.

It's no secret Netanyahu does not have much trust in President Obama’s commitment to Likud's conservative policies. And Netanyahu knows enough about American politics to have no illusions about the strong statements against Iran that Republican candidates uttered repeatedly during their campaign. He must have read Yitzhak Rabin's memoirs, in which he quotes President Gerald Ford's response after the Israeli prime minister reminded the him of his support, while in Congress, to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Ford responded with a wide smile: "I realized that life looks different from the Oval Office."

Netanyahu needed the support of a central party in order to balance the growing power of Likud's "Tea Party"-like camp, which gives the party the image of a messianic movement. On the other side, he was confronted with strong criticism from the military establishment for perpetrating the occupation and thus consolidating the binational situation. Former head of the Israeli Secret Service Yuval Diskin and former head of the Mossad Meir Dagan have endorsed publicly the Palestinian and Arab argument that Netanyahu—and not Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas—is the spoiler in the negotiations on borders and security. These statements did not come as a surprise to the White House, which is fully briefed by the Palestinians. Abbas has informed the administration that since the peace process has reached a deadlock, he is determined to go back to the UN General Assembly and request recognition of a Palestinian state. It is well known the Palestinian leadership accepted Obama's request to hold diplomatic fire until the day after the American elections. This will save Obama from a difficult choice at a vulnerable time. It is a choice between voting in favor of the Palestinians and provoking the Jewish electorate; or voting against a Palestinian state, isolating the United States in the international community and playing into the hands of radical anti-American forces in the Muslim world.

Akiva Eldar is the chief political columnist and an editorial writer for Haaretz. His columns also appear regularly in the Ha'aretz-Herald Tribune edition.