Netanyahu’s challenge: Eat the cake but keep it whole

The coalition harmony over the past year was primarily a by-product of the premier not having to make any difficult decisions.

netanyahu cabinet good 311 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu cabinet good 311
(photo credit: AP)
On March 31, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will celebrate a year since his government was sworn into office. Ironically, one of the dilemmas he is likely to face in the upcoming weeks is the same one he faced during the coalition negotiations – what price to pay to get Kadima head Tzipi Livni inside his government.
Livni, back then, demanded a rotation agreement, arguing that as the head of the party that won the most votes in the election, she was entitled to take turns with Netanyahu in the prime minister’s chair.
Netanyahu, asserting that the Right won a clear mandate, even if his party did not, balked at this notion and was able to set up a 74-member government without her and with Israel Beiteinu, Labor, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Habayit Hayehudi instead.
Netanyahu was also able to get through the first year pretty much without any major coalition hiccups.
Interestingly, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in an interview with Jackson Diehl of xxThe Washington Post last year, said – a day after meeting US President Barack Obama – that he was in no particular hurry regarding the peace process. He could wait, he argued.
“I will wait for Hamas to accept international commitments. I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements,” he said. “Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality... the people are living a normal life.”
Diehl wrote that Obama “revived a long-dormant Palestinian fantasy: That the United States will simply force Israel to make critical concessions, whether or not its democratic government agrees, while Arabs passively watch and applaud.
“The Americans are the leaders of the world,” Abbas said in that interview. “They can use their weight with anyone around the world. Two years ago they used their weight on us. Now they should tell the Israelis, ‘You have to comply with the conditions.’”
But Abbas was not the only one comfortable with waiting; Netanyahu, too, was not in any particular rush. The Kassam rockets stopped pounding the western Negev, the security situation inside the country was better than it had been in a decade, the economy was humming along just fine and, most importantly, he faced no serious coalition crisis.
But this lack of coalition problems was deceptive. Netanyahu had few outward coalition problems not because there were not deep ideological rifts between his main partners, but rather because he wasn’t forced to make any major decisions.
Israel Beiteinu could sit with Labor, Shas could sit with both of them, because all the big diplomatic decisions – primarily because of the Palestinian refusal to negotiate – were kept at a safe distance.
The coalition harmony of the last year was a product of Netanyahu’s not having had to make any difficult decisions that would have disrupted it. That one-year period of grace, however, has now come crumbling down, and the US – capitalizing on the embarrassment of Vice President Joe Biden last week – is forcing the issue, telling Netanyahu he can continue placating his coalition partners with settlement construction and risk losing Washington, or please Washington and risk losing his coalition.
IN TRYING to decipher how Netanyahu will answer, it is instructive to look at two aspects of his modus operandi over the last year: First is his constant consultation with his inner cabinet, known as the septet, and the second is not falling into an all-or-nothing trap and always looking for a magic “bridging formula.”
Regarding the septet, it is interesting to note the degree to which Netanyahu convenes this body – consisting of himself, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor and Minister without Portfolio Bennie Begin – before any major decisions are made, including how to respond to the US’s newest demands.
By convening this forum, which consists of the heads of each of his major coalition partners, plus key representatives from the Right and Left of his own party, he is able to reach decisions there before they go to the wider forums, either the 12-member security cabinet or the 30-member cabinet. The heads of the parties get together in the septet, come to a decision, and then each of their parties pretty much follows suit. This way of doing things has contributed greatly to his industrial quiet.
But the quiet has come at the price of Netanyahu yielding some of his autonomy. While every prime minister has his group of counselors – Ehud Olmert met with Barak and his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, and Ariel Sharon met with his clutch of close friends and trusted advisors known as the “ranch forum” – Netanyahu, by bringing key decisions not to his trusted professional advisers, but to his political partners, is making key decisions primarily on the basis of what is politically possible and expedient. By bringing everything to this political forum, he is yielding, to a certain extent, his ability to lead.
By convening the septet a number of time this week, during the height of the crisis with the US, Netanyahu also signaled to Washington his political constraints and dilemma, and illustrated to the Obama administration that he had to take into consideration what the right-wing of his Likud, and what the right-wing Israel Beiteinu and Shas, had to say.
The problem is, however, that Washington isn’t all that concerned or moved by Netanyahu’s political troubles and constraints. In fact, one could argue that quite the opposite is true, and that the administration’s heavy-handed handling of the Biden/Ramat Shlomo flap was designed precisely to make Netanyahu’s political woes even worse.
If last summer there was a certain sense in Jerusalem that the Obama administration had come to grips with the existence of the Netanyahu government and – though not enamored of it – was concerned that bringing it down might bring something “worse” from its perspective, that sense has recently dissolved.
While Olmert and Sharon could signal the Bush government not to push too hard because it would endanger their continued rule, the Obama administration doesn’t really seem to care.
Indeed, some argue that the whole episode has turned into Washington’s attempt to get Livni and Kadima into the coalition.
The problem with this, however, is that Livni has no great interest in throwing Netanyahu a life preserver. The only way it seems that she would be willing to enter the government and free Netanyahu of reliance on Shas and Israel Beiteinu, if he indeed wanted to be freed of that reliance, would be to get him to agree to a deal rotating the prime ministry with her over the next three years. But don’t bet on that happening any time soon, although she might lower her demands if she feels pressure from her own party to enter the coalition now, and senses that if she doesn’t she might face an internal mutiny.
The other aspect of how Netanyahu operates that should be kept in mind is that he has shown repeatedly that he does not believe all questions have yes or no answers, and that things are not black and white.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly asked Netanyahu during her blistering 43-minute phone call last week for three things: cancellation of the Ramat Shlomo housing project; confidence building measures – such as a release of Palestinian prisoners – to Abbas; and an agreement that all core issues, such as borders, refuges and Jerusalem, be discussed during the proximity talks.
Clinton, at the obvious behest of Obama, expects Netanyahu to quickly give a direct reply. We have already seen, however, that the reply will not be quick (the septet is dealing with it), nor is it likely to be all that direct.
Anyone expecting Netanyahu to say he will cancel the Ramat Shlomo project, thereby calling into question building in any Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the 1967 lines, is fooling himself. Number one he doesn’t agree with that in principle, and number two, three of his coalition partners – Shas, Israel Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi – won’t let him.
Netanyahu’s way of operating over the last year when faced with similar dilemmas was to look for a creative formula that leaves everyone thinking he got what he asked for.
Last year the US demanded that he accept a two-state solution, so he gave a speech at Bar-Ilan University accepting the idea, but making clear that his definition of a Palestinian state was at odds with the widely accepted notion of statehood. Yes, the Palestinians could have their state, but it had to be completely demilitarized, with safeguards assuring that it would remain so, and would have to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Same with the settlement freeze that Obama called for very clearly in the early stage of his presidency. What was Netanyahu’s answer? A housing-start moratorium in the West Bank, but not in Jerusalem, and assurances that 3,000 units in various stages would continue to be built. Again he gave an answer, but it was neither yes nor no, it was somewhere in the middle.
Expect the same this time around. Netanyahu and his senior ministers are looking for a formula that would affirmatively answer some of the US demands, without forcing Israel Beiteinu, Shas or Habayit Hayehudi out of his coalition – something along the lines, perhaps, of a pledge not to build new Jewish housing in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem beyond the Green Line, but reaffirming, even if not stating it directly, the right to build in Jewish neighborhoods there.
This type of formula would then send the ball sailing back into the American court, forcing the Obama administration to choose how far it really wants to push this particular envelope.