Analysis: Netanyahu tests waters with upcoming mayoral elections

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem September 5, 2018. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem September 5, 2018.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has some difficult choices to make next week, choices that will affect the rest of his political path and his future, as well as ours. They all connect together – that’s the beauty of interconnected worldwide and local politics.
Netanyahu is preparing for a few different scenarios, and his choice to help candidates in the local elections – taking place next Tuesday, October 30 – is both admirable, and it allows him to step out of the bunker he has built for himself and meet the public. Particularly those parts of the public who see him as a king and declare their love of his wife, Sara.
Netanyahu is testing the water. He is starting a pre-election campaign, all the while struggling with the notion of going for early elections. One thing to consider is the ongoing criminal investigation into his affairs, and the indictments that may follow.
Earlier this week, the police hinted they are nearing a final decision; Netanyahu knows he can preempt this problem with some tried-andtested public trust as seen in the ballot box. But there is one more, equally important motivator at play here: US President Donald Trump’s peace plan. It would be easy enough to mock it. It doesn’t look serious, it sounds amateurish. The grandiose declarations off the “deal of the century” suggest that nothing about this plan is new, original or inspiring.
Still, there’s a good chance it will be presented in the next few months. This creates a dilemma for Netanyahu. Trump had made a promise and he sees himself as a man of his words: How should Israel react? Here’s another piece in the puzzle, from the Foreign Ministry’s Political Director Alon Ushpiz, an experienced and hardworking politician who knows the Washington and international political scenes well. According to Ushpiz, the French are now saying that if the US doesn’t present an initiative soon, they will. In other words, standing in the way of Trump’s peace plan will only lead to another French peace proposal.
“Another” is the key word here: the Élysée Palace has a knack for Middle East peace plans. So far they’ve all been fairly cliché; patched together from scratch, these initiatives have led France to one diplo matic failure after another. The latest was the unwarranted conference which was supposed to bring Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas together in Paris earlier this month. That embarrassing moment was attributed to former French president François Hollande’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who evidently was trying to build a last-moment legacy, like the powerful image of two rival leaders coming together.
The French must also remember Fabius’s earlier initiative, akin to blackmailing Israel, in 2015. At the time, Netanyahu spoke to Fabius and made it clear that Israel was interested in renewing negotiations with the Palestinians, but not if it was forced into it.
“A peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians can only be achieved via negotiations, and not through forced UN initiatives or any decisions dictated from outside,” Netanyahu told the French minister. That same initiative had stated that the UN Security Council will ask the two sides to return to negotiations for 18 months, and if no agreement is made during that time, it will unilaterally declare independence for a Palestinian state, inside the 1967 “Green Line” borders, its capital eastern Jerusalem. Not very tempting.
THE FRENCH seem particularly apt at angering the world. It makes the European Union angry every once in a while when it realizes that France is leading independent moves without consulting first. It makes Israel angry simply because Israelis can’t stand having an outsider telling them what to do. It even made the Palestinians angry, thinking France is not being hard enough on Israel. In fact, France suffers from poor international success elsewhere, too. Its work in Libya led to chaos; the attempt to legitimize Bashar Assad in former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s conference was its own failure. Assad was seen there only meters from then former prime minister Ehud Olmert.
The whole event became a shameful spot on France’s record after Assad decided to slaughter his own people, thus ending decades of French support to Damascus. France’s current leader, Emmanuel Macron, had said in the past that he has no intention of interfering in the mess that is the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but it is possible he is having second thoughts, particularly if Trump hesitates.
For Netanyahu, this is a real dilemma. If Trump places a peace plan on his table, Netanyahu’s ability to reject him is very limited. He can’t out-right-wing Trump – there’s nothing there but a deep abyss. But it’s also personal. Trump has given it all for Israel and for Netanyahu. He moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem; he withdrew from the nuclear treaty; he is doing to Abbas what Netanyahu himself doesn’t dare to do: cutting off support, dismantling UNRWA.
In short, he is the most efficient foreign minister Israel could hope for.
The most Netanyahu can say to any peace plan coming from Washington is “Yes, but.” He will consider, he will test, he will try to amend, but the idea of dividing the land and creating a Palestinian state will not go away. The recent media leak regarding Jerusalem’s status as capital of both states is the first sign of Netanyahu’s dilemma; of the struggle over rhetorics, of empty promises. As Trump sees it, he has every leverage over Netanyahu. He has given Netanyahu a lot, and Netanyahu owes him one. It’s that simple, it’s that simplistic.
This time it’s also correct. The only problem is that for Netanyahu, only months before elections, this spells disaster. He cannot afford to be seen as a leftwing softy in front of his rivals. Netanyahu always follows his base and the Right. He can’t appeal to centralists, who are too fluid for him, too sensitive to indictments and inappropriate behavior toward employees.
What it comes down to is that Netanyahu is dependent on Abbas and on Hamas. His most efficient and most consistent policy is avoidance and putting off decisions. If there is in fact a plan, and if it does rear its head in the next few weeks, Netanyahu could use war and elections to postpone making any decision in the matter. The explosive situation in Gaza could allow Netanyahu an easy leeway into war with Hamas without it seeming politically motivated. This is always true: a confrontation with Hamas is the best protection from diplomatic initiatives.
The message would be clear: how can we sit and talk while the canons are booming? The Israeli public wouldn’t hear of any “arrangements.” The second option is to focus on the elections: you can’t make any dramatic decisions while campaigning, the PM’s insiders will explain to Trump’s insiders. And there you have it, another six months’ wait.
The elections could buy Netanyahu time, maybe even support, but at the other side await some tough decisions that will need to be made. Maybe that’s the reason he acts as he does. He is stuck between overconfidence – promising to gain 40 Knesset seats, brutally attacking the media, giving provocative speeches – and his fear of losing and paranoia over former minister Gideon Sa’ar trying to (allegedly) take him down alongside President Reuven Rivlin.
At the end of the day Netanyahu needs to choose correctly if he wants to win the elections. Either way we will be the ones facing the consequences. The author is an anchor and Chief Political Analyst for Reshet 13.