Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu may be many things; stupid is not one of them.
It is safe to assume that Netanyahu, no less than Finance Minister Yair Lapid, no less than Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, no less even than Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz, understands that declaring 400 hectares in Gush Etzion as state land is not exactly going to win Israel any points abroad.
Especially not coming out of a war in which the international community gave Israel an unprecedented amount of time to prosecute its war aims; especially at a time when Israel will be seeking help from the US and the EU to fend off Palestinian initiatives at the UN this month.
“This is the payback?” one diplomatic official asked on Monday, frustrated and flabbergasted by the move.
According to Peretz, “This only causes diplomatic damage. Sometimes it is permitted not only to be right, but also smart. Sometimes it is permitted to say, perhaps this is not the time to push on this very, very sensitive issue.”
And Lapid had this to say about the move: “We need more measured policy conduct, and not to generate unnecessary disputes with the United States and the world. What is this good for now, of all times?” Lapid, however, knows full well what this is good for. Politics. The same reason he is floating an idea of some kind of international conference, trying to chisel out a diplomatic niche for himself to attract voters in the center.
Netanyahu – who feels the pressures of the world on Israel more than anyone else in the land, who will have to field the angry phone calls from US Secretary of State John Kerry and German Chancellor Angela Merkel about the move – understands perfectly well the troubles such a step causes Israel in the international arena.
Yet, he opted to got through with it anyhow. Why? Politics.
More than an indication of Netanyahu’s genuine intention regarding a two-state solution – the West says all settlement plans belie such an intention – this move provides an indication of his political concerns and a sign of his perception of the political pressures he faces.
Netanyahu is coming out of a war with two of his coalition partners (Bayit Yehudi and Yisrael Beytenu) bashing him from the Right for not toppling Hamas and – according to some polls – gaining ground by doing so. And, although the Likud is also polling better now than it did before Operation Protective Edge, Netanyahu is facing a restless rank-and-file inside his own party – a rank-and-file being convened in the form of a Likud central committee meeting later this month.
It is that restlessness that concerns Netanyahu the most. Netanyahu made clear in a television interview over the weekend that he intends to run for a fourth term in the next elections, whenever they may be. But to run, he will have to win the party nomination.
And, although it presently does not look like anyone inside the party can realistically put up a challenge, he needs to shore up his base.
One way to do so is with moves like the one he approved in Gva’ot. This is low-hanging fruit, giving to his right inside the Likud what they want – an appearance of construction in Judea and Samaria.
An appearance, mind you, because nothing will move on those particular plans for years. Which is also part of the package: To his right he can say I’m approving building, while to the world he can – truthfully – say that building won’t begin there for ages.
Statesmen around the globe will privately, as well as in off-the-record conversations that will find their way into print, slam Netanyahu for “playing politics,” charging that he is not doing what best serves the country’s interests, but rather isolating it diplomatically.
Attacks for playing politics, however, are disingenuous, because let the leader abroad who does not “play domestic politics” cast the first stone. Domestic political considerations color the decisions of all leaders, from Barack Obama, to François Hollande, David Cameron, Mahmoud Abbas, Yair Lapid and Isaac Herzog.
A leader must lead, the counter argument goes, not do only what is good for him politically. Granted. But to lead, the leader also has to be in power – something Netanyahu obviously feels will be facilitated by the types of steps he took with the Gush Etzion decision on Sunday.