Is Obama right that Netanyahu is too ‘strong’ to make peace?

An assessment of Obama himself must be taken into account when assessing the peacemaking possibilities; Netanyahu says repeatedly that in the Middle East it takes 3 to tango. In that trio, he includes the US.

August 11, 2014 07:05
4 minute read.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Ukraine at the White House in Washington, July 21, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Ukraine at the White House in Washington, July 21, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)

In his weekend interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, President Barack Obama offered some political analysis on the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Asked whether he should be more vigorous in pressing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas to reach a land-for-peace deal, Obama said it has to start with them.

Netanyahu’s “poll numbers are a lot higher than mine” and “were greatly boosted by the war in Gaza,” Obama told the newspaper. “And so if he doesn’t feel some internal pressure, then it’s hard to see him being able to make some very difficult compromises, including taking on the settler movement. That’s a tough thing to do.”

Obama then contrasted Israeli politics with the internal politics in the PA, where there has not been a presidential election since January 2005.

“With respect to Abu Mazen [Abbas], it’s a slightly different problem,” he said. In some ways, Bibi [Netanyahu] is too strong [and] in some ways Abu Mazen is too weak to bring them together and make the kinds of bold decisions that Sadat or Begin or Rabin were willing to make. It’s going to require leadership among both the Palestinians and the Israelis to look beyond tomorrow....

And that’s the hardest thing for politicians to do is to take the long view on things.”

It is worth examining Obama’s political analysis.

First of all, the notion that Netanyahu is too strong is a thesis that can certainly be supported.

A poll Haaretz published Friday found that 77 percent of the public believes that Netanyahu’s functioning during the campaign in the Gaza Strip was “excellent” or “good.”

Netanyahu is indeed unquestionably strong on paper. But unfortunately for the prime minister, there are ways in which he is very, very weak politically.

In his own party, Netanyahu lacks political allies beyond Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who themselves are not the most powerful figures in the party.

Who is extremely popular in the party? The answer is Netanyahu’s nemesis, former deputy minister Danny Danon.

Danon, as the chairman of the powerful Likud central committee, has the power to take revenge against Netanyahu for firing him and is waiting for the right time to do it.

If a serious competitor, such as Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, challenges Netanyahu in the next Likud primary, due to the hawkishness of the Likud members, there is no guarantee that the incumbent will win. Therefore, there is no guarantee that Netanyahu will even run again.

And even if he does win the Likud leadership race and wins the most mandates for the party in the next general election, there is no guarantee that his adversary, President Reuven Rivlin will ask him to form the next government. If haredi parties recommend a left-wing leader, as they have threatened to do, such a scenario is quite realistic.

Obama’s second theory is that Netanyahu is susceptible to pressure. There is plenty of evidence throughout his three terms as prime minister to prove it. He has been criticized for taking too many polls and changing his mind on key issues.

But there have also been many incidents in which Netanyahu withstood pressure.

That happened before the operation in Gaza when he showed restraint despite tremendous internal pressure to attack.

Netanyahu has also shown repeatedly that he can resist pressure from the international community. But Obama, who asked for IDF troops to leave well before they did, does not need to be reminded of that.

Obama’s third theory is that Abbas is weak. You don’t need to be a Palestinian political analyst to know that is true.

But the Palestinian unity agreement states that elections are supposed to be held in January, 10 years since the last Palestinian presidential election.

So what does it matter if Abbas is weak, if he has said he will not run again and he is about to be replaced? The final analysis of Obama was that Netanyahu’s strength and Abbas’s weakness are the reason why peace – and “bold decisions” – have not yet been made by either leader.

But another analyst, Netanyahu himself, says repeatedly that in the Middle East it takes not two but three to tango. In that trio, he includes the US.

In the past, when Israelis trusted an American president, they were willing to go a long way. They embarked on the Oslo process, in part because they trusted then-president Bill Clinton.

They withdrew from Gaza, in part because they received promises on West Bank settlement blocs from George W Bush, who they felt was on their side.

Polls in The Jerusalem Post and elsewhere have found that Israelis do not trust Obama as much as his predecessors.

That hinders Netanyahu’s ability to make peace. An assessment of Obama himself must be taken into account when assessing the peacemaking possibilities of Netanyahu and Abbas.

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