14 challenges for Netanyahu in 2014

Heading into the new year, the prime minister faces a myriad of tests: Keeping his coalition together, the peace talks with the Palestinians and getting a good deal on Iran are just the beginning.

Netanyahu and Kerry overlooking Jerusalem 370 (photo credit: Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv   )
Netanyahu and Kerry overlooking Jerusalem 370
(photo credit: Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv )
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon have been described as complete polar opposites.
Netanyahu performs well on television and in speeches to huge audiences, but is less endearing in interpersonal relationships and in small meetings. Sharon always detested television and was never a good speaker, but behind closed doors and in meetings that were more intimate, his charm came through.
Being such different people, Sharon and Netanyahu never built mutual respect. When Netanyahu built his first cabinet, he tried to exclude Sharon. And though Sharon appointed Netanyahu as his foreign minister and then finance minister, he mocked him in closed conversations.
Sharon probably would have liked to know that he stole the attention away from Netanyahu one last time on Wednesday. The same day that a small polyp was removed from Netanyahu’s colon, the nightly newscasts were devoted solely to the medical condition of Sharon.
While there were times in their political careers when Netanyahu envied Sharon, Wednesday clearly was not one of them. There are those who say that as long as you have your health, other challenges do not matter.
That saying does not hold true for the prime minister.
He has his health, but the other challenges are critical.
When January 2013 began, the main challenges for Netanyahu were winning a general election, persuading the world to take action in Iran, and resisting international pressure related to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
One year later, the latter two challenges remain, joined by many others.
Here are 14 challenges that await Netanyahu in 2014: 1) Iran – Insisting on a good deal Netanyahu’s goal is to ensure the world reaches a deal that will permanently prevent Iran’s military nuclearization and avoid the need for a military strike. In a speech to last month’s Likud convention, he made a point of saying numerous times that it is only the military nuclearization that must be stopped. He has backed off on preventing Iran from keeping a nuclear capability that cannot be militarized, and has clearly softened his talk on Iran in favor of behind-the-scenes work helping world leaders get a deal with Iran that could be effective.
2) Syria – Staying out of it The Washington Institute estimated this week that there are fighters from 74 countries in the Syrian civil war, which has become what in wrestling is called a battle royal. While Israel is included on that list because there are Druse from the Golan who went there to help their families, the Jewish state has done a good job so far in staying out of the fighting. The last thing Israel wants in 2014 is for all those fighters to stop attacking each other, and decide to turn their guns against their common enemy.
3) Palestinians – Avoiding war Hamas’s ability to attack Israel has been hindered by the new Egyptian regime closing hundreds of tunnels from Egypt to Gaza. Hamas loses millions in monthly revenue from the tunnels. But terror tunnels to Israel are still being built and rockets are still fired regularly. The West Bank, which had no Israelis killed there in 2012, did not see similar success in the past year. Diplomatic talks historically have led to violence; avoiding an escalation there is key to Israeli security in 2014.
4) Palestinians – Making peace The prime minister is under intense pressure from US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has learned from his predecessors’ mistakes. Kerry had a team of 170 people, led by four-star Gen. John Allen, work on proposals for guaranteeing Israeli security in a twostate solution. If Netanyahu’s goal is to stall and avoid concessions, it will be harder than ever in 2014. If his goal is to reach an agreement, then – as usual – his success will depend on whether his Palestinian counterparts have the same goal.
5) Coalition – Keeping it together Past coalition governments in Israel were built on similar ideas on the conflict with the Palestinians, which kept the parties glued together. Netanyahu’s coalition has rightists like Bayit Yehudi’s Uri Ariel and Orit Struck, and leftists like Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz in Hatnua. The four factions in the coalition were supposed to have common views on matters of religion and state, but that has turned out to not be issues will cause Netanyahu coalition headaches in 2014. This is not the coalition he wanted, and he will soon learn that he was right.
6) Lapid/Bennett – Alliances unraveling? The bond between Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett forced Netanyahu to create a coalition without the haredi parties and with Bennett, who he would have preferred to leave in the opposition. Now that Lapid and Bennett think less highly of each other, every fight between their two parties will be magnified. Netanyahu needs the two men to settle their differences quickly, or his government could be in trouble. The fact that Lapid and Bennett both control ministries in which they need much more time to prove themselves works in Netanyahu’s favor.
7) Drafting yeshiva students – Avoiding civil war Lapid has stressed over and over that his goal is not to harm the haredim, but to bring them into the workforce and out of poverty.
The final haredi draft bill, which could be completed as early as next week, is expected to reflect that. But the haredim will not go into the IDF without a fight. Shas and all the factions in United Torah Judaism will join forces in mass demonstrations.
Netanyahu may have to intervene to prevent the disputes from getting out of control.
8) Electoral Reforms – Adding stability Around the same time that the haredi draft bill will be voted on by the Knesset, there will be final votes on the government’s electoral reform package. The number of ministers will be limited to 19, deputy ministers to four, and the electoral threshold is expected to be raised from 2 percent to 3.25%.
That would mean that the smallest faction in the next Knesset would rise from two to five MKs. Together with limitations on no-confidence votes, the political system will become more stable, and it will be easier for the government to function.
Whether Netanyahu or a different prime minister benefits from that in the next term remains to be seen.
9) Presidential race – Avoiding electing an adversary Barring a last-ditch attempt by President Shimon Peres to change the law and enable him to run for a second seven-year term, the 90-year-old veteran politician will be out of a job in mid-July. The race to succeed him must be held between mid-May and mid-June. It is already clear that two of the candidates will be Likud MK Reuven Rivlin, whom Netanyahu detests, and Labor MK Binyamin Ben- Eliezer, who is too far to the Left.
Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman have been vetting other potential candidates like Negev and Galilee Development Minister Silvan Shalom and former ministers Natan Sharansky and David Levy in hopes of picking not only an ally but a winner.
10) Post-presidential Peres – Ignoring an uncomfortable voice As president, Shimon Peres has irked Netanyahu by expressing different opinions about Iran and the administration in Washington. But the truth is that from Netanyahu’s perspective, it could have been a lot worse. Peres defended Netanyahu eloquently around the world and did not shoot off his mouth on politics nearly as much as Ezer Weizmann did in Netanyahu’s first term. That all changes in July when Peres will be unchained and ready to attack Netanyahu on everything from peace to poverty. Netanyahu will regret not changing the laws of Israel and the laws of nature to keep Peres in the President’s Residence for the next 30 years.
11) Likud central committee – Another annoyance Netanyahu won a battle against Likud activists last month when he blocked a vote that would have ended the bond with Yisrael Beytenu for the next election. Another Likud convention is set to be held next month, but there are already efforts to ensure that it will deal with only procedural matters. With the help of Transportation Minister Israel Katz, it is looking like Netanyahu could block the Likud central committee from deciding anything substantial in 2014. But the head of the convention, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, will fight to enable the committee to decide big issues that will impact Netanyahu’s political future.
12. Lowering the cost of living: Easing the burden The Lapid-led housing cabinet passed a plan to bolster the housing market by building 150,000 units in a decade, 6,000 of them in 2014. The government is also mulling a plan to reduce food prices – which cost 25% more than the OECD average – by spurring competition. Three years out from the social street protests that erupted over those costs, the government will be under heavy pressure to turn those plans into results that people can feel in their pocket books, an objective which it has so far failed to achieve.
13. Passing the budget Netanyahu and Lapid will also have to navigate the murky waters of cutting costs for the 2015 state budget, which they will have to pass by the end of 2014 or face elections.
Because expected income tax hikes were eliminated, the 2015 budget is set to overshoot its targeted deficit of 2.5% of GDP. According to the Bank of Israel, if people are going to keep their tax breaks, “it will be necessary to cancel some of the plans that the government has adopted.” That is certainly a prospect Netanyahu is not looking forward to in 2014.
14. Jonathan Pollard – Is this the year? Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard has been in prison since November 1985. Netanyahu is insisting on his freedom in his conversations with the Americans in a more serious way than he has ever done before. Peres has also vowed to do what he can do.
Does that mean Pollard will go free? The only man who knows is the man who decides: US President Barack Obama. Only he can commute Pollard’s sentence to time served. There is no other way for him to see the light of day in 2014.
Niv Elis contributed to this report.