Analysis: The country nods to Netanyahu, who now needs to nod to Obama

After surprising win, Netanyahu's first call should be to the White House

March 18, 2015 08:11
White House

US President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, October 1, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)

He is an imperfect leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. He has faults and foibles that have been laid bare in great abundance over the nine years – spread over three noncontiguous terms – that he has been in power.

Yet on Tuesday, the country went to the polls and, for the fourth time, apparently crowned him again as prime minister.

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It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t convincing, it wasn’t done wholeheartedly, but it was done. The reign of “King Bibi,” despite the legion of naysayers both in Israel and around the world, has not yet come to an end.

Why? Why has a man who has not made himself beloved of his people, even of his own party supporters, been given another shot? How has a man who many leaders in the free world hoped would be pushed off Israel’s stage managed to keep standing for another day? How? Because most of the country – meaning those who voted for the Likud and the other parties that can be grouped in the center-right bloc, namely, Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beytenu, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Yahad, and, we’ll see, Kulanu – agrees with his basic message: the region is dangerous; Iran is a threat; the Palestinians are not really interested in peace; Israel needs a leader who will stand his ground.

They may not love him personally, they may dislike his wife, they may feel that he is cut off from their problems, but they believe that he will stand his ground.

More than anything else – more than housing prices or Iran – this election was a referendum on Netanyahu. And the verdict: the country wants more. Maybe not more of Netanyahu the man, but at least of what Netanyahu represents: standing tall, hanging tough.

To understand the verdict, it is necessary to understand the changes that have swept over this country since the second intifada in 2000, changes brought about by terrorism and rockets and an unstable region that has made everyone feel insecure. And that insecurity trumps all. To understand Israel is to understand that real, genuine sense of insecurity.

Some mimicked Netanyahu when, following the comptroller’s damning report last month about how he dealt with the housing crisis, he tweeted that “when we talk about the price of housing, about the cost of living, I don’t forget life itself for a single moment. The greatest challenge in our lives is currently Iran’s bid to acquire nuclear weapons.”

That message – first life, first security, then the price of living – resonated with the public. It may be mocked abroad, but it resonates here where the voters actually live, and where the insecurity is real, and not, as some of Netanyahu’s critics would maintain, as just more fear and paranoia that he is trying to sow.

And now, for Netanyahu, the hard work begins.

And that hard work, following three months of endless mudslinging, will include not only trying to cobble together a coalition out of the jigsaw puzzle the electorate created on Tuesday, not only mending fences inside the country, but also reengaging with a world that for the last two months has – more or less – let us stew in our own campaign juices.

As we’ve been preoccupied with Sara Netanyahu’s bottle deposits, and Meni Naftali’s antics, and campaign ads seemingly equating public workers with Hamas, and whether it’s primitive to kiss a mezuza or go to the graves of righteous rabbis, the world has for the most part stood back.

Oh, yes, there was that Iran speech thing in Congress, but that was of Netanyahu’s own making.

Sure, there were subtle and less subtle attempts to influence our vote – the subtle attempts coming from the White House, which took advantage of the opening Netanyahu gave it with the Congress speech and did not miss an opportunity to knock Netanyahu, and the less subtle ones in the form of foreign money to support NGOs supporting the Left.

But on the big diplomatic marquee issues, the world gave Israel a break for the last two months. More than that, the Europeans pressed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas not to take high-profile diplomatic steps against Israel, so as not to shore up support for Netanyahu.

Since January 1 there have been no leaks of new sanctions coming out of the EU, no news of a new French/Palestinian resolution at the UN Security Council, no new plans for new peace initiatives.

Everyone was waiting for the election.

And now that the election is over, the pressure will again mount. As we were busy with ourselves, the world continued to turn: the P5+1 negotiations with Iran continued, Palestinian initiatives in the world moved forward (though on a smaller burner), and the instability in the region continued to deepen (Syria, Iraq, Yemen).

Therefore, the first phone call Netanyahu needs to make after contacting his likely coalition partners, if not before, is to US President Barack Obama. He should not wait for Obama to call him and “congratulate” him on his victory.

Netanyahu should call first.

Following the weeks of tension between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office, there is now a need to push the proverbial reset button.

That need is obviously in the interest of Israel, but also very much in the interest of the US.

The two capitals need to stop quibbling publicly about the emerging Iran deal, and coordinate privately about how to deal with it. Netanyahu will no longer gain any political benefit from being seen going head to head with Obama, and Obama will not be able to impact the Israeli polls by snubbing Netanyahu.

Both countries share the same strategic goal of keeping Iran from reaching a bomb, and now the leaders – following the election – need to responsibly work together to ensure that if there is a deal, it is a good one.

With all the bad blood between the two men, pushing reset will not be easy.

The US may likely demand that in order to push reset Netanyahu will have to replace Ron Dermer as ambassador to Washington. That will be extremely difficult for Netanyahu, but a reset is necessary.

It is necessary not only regarding Iran, but also to deal with the Palestinian front as well. The Palestinians are planning to go to the International Criminal Court in a couple of weeks, and there are plans in the works for a joint Palestinian/ EU resolution to the UN Security Council.

Israel will need the US’s help in fending off these initiatives.

In the conversation with Obama, Netanyahu will have to distance himself from certain comments made in the heat of the campaign, especially the one he made Monday to NRG, saying that a Palestinian state would not be established under his tenure, and that anyone who evacuates territory now “gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel.”

While the State Department refrained from responding to those comments on Monday, the White House will demand clarifications now that the election is over, and Netanyahu will be forced to backtrack in order to fend off a diplomatic tsunami. It is difficult to see the US standing by Israel in the UN Security Council on Palestinian statehood if Netanyahu’s position on this has changed.

The Europeans are also not expected to give Netanyahu any grace period.

Their impatience with him – already abundant – has only grown following his recent comments. He will have to shore up his relationship with the three pillars of the EU: Germany, France and Britain. To do that he will have to come forward quickly with an initiative for jump-starting the diplomatic process with the Palestinians. He will have to convince them of his seriousness in finding a diplomatic solution.

Though Abbas has done nothing to show his “seriousness” to compromise or accommodate, the onus of proving good will will fall on Netanyahu. One of the first measures that he will likely take will be to release the Palestinian Authority tax revenues frozen after it turned to the ICC.

Expect that other “goodwill measures” may follow. It will be interesting to see how Netanyahu’s prospective coalition partners will deal with them.

But then again, the campaign is over. Now real life begins again. Part of that real life will entail engaging with an impatient world, even more impatient and skeptical of Netanyahu’s true intentions after the campaign, than they were before it. And, as everyone knows, they were plenty skeptical before.

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