Showdown time for Bibi

Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership is being tested as never before, both at home and abroad

Binyamin Netanyahu’s leadership is being tested as never before, both at home and abroad (photo credit: MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS)
Binyamin Netanyahu’s leadership is being tested as never before, both at home and abroad
(photo credit: MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS)
IN HIS late September address to the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a “new template” for peacemaking. Instead of peace with the Palestinians leading to accommodation with the wider Arab world, it would “work the other way round... a broader rapprochement with the Arab world would help facilitate peace with the Palestinians,” he declared.
Netanyahu argues that the newfound commonality of interests between Israel and the moderate Sunni states in containing regional radicals like the Islamic State (IS) and Shi’ite Iran could be exploited to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The thinking is that to consolidate their mutually beneficial relationship with Israel and promote regional stability, the Sunni states might be ready to pressure the Palestinians into concessions they would not otherwise make – for example, accepting long-term Israeli security control over the West Bank or compromises in Jerusalem endorsed by relevant Arab players like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
It would work something like the way Egypt pressured Hamas during Operation Protective Edge. Indeed, Gaza could be a test case. Plans for reconstruction after the destructive 50-day war in the summer in return for demilitarization of the en - tire enclave could be a catalyst for a wider Israeli-Palestinian peace. It would take a high degree of Israeli, regional and international cooperation in rebuilding while preventing Hamas from rearming, and eventually installing the Palestinian Authority as the solitary ruler and “single gun” in sole control of Palestinian armed forces in Gaza.
But the chances of any of this happening are not high.
For one, the Arab states are unlikely to normalize ties before a full-fledged Palestinian peace is achieved. As for Gaza, although the PA may establish itself as the party through which large-scale reconstruction takes place, it is hard to see a circumstance in which Hamas hands over its guns or agrees to integrate its forces in a new security regime under PA control – unless it is part of an overarching Israeli-Palestinian peace, including both Gaza and the West Bank.
Moreover, despite his talk of broader rapprochement with the Arab world leading to peace with the Palestinians, Netanyahu has not put any regional peace plan on the table; nor has he accepted the Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002, which offers full normalization of the Arab world’s ties with Israel in the event of an occupation-ending Israeli-Palestinian peace deal; nor has he outlined a suggested mechanism for moving forward.
All he has done so far is to call on the Arab side to come up with a “fresh approach” – presumably an updated version of the API, which he might accept as a basis for negotiation. Ironically, as far as Netanyahu is concerned, the initiative for testing his new insight – peace with the Arab world leading to peace with the Palestinians – must come from the Arab side. If he really were excited about new opportunities for peacemaking in a changing Middle East, wouldn’t he be making the early running? Indeed, according to his critics on the center-left, the prime minister is bluffing.
In their view, his region-first approach is simply a new form of disingenuous lip service to peacemaking designed to keep the international community off his back. The underlying aim is to justify not engaging the Palestinians on the grounds that business with the region needs to be settled first, and so enable Israel to continue its occupation ad infinitum.
The Americans share these doubts. In their view, peace between Israel and the Palestinians will ultimately have to be made in negotiations between the parties and not through any regional fiat. In his October 1 meeting with President Barack Obama, in Washington, Netanyahu failed to convince the president of the viability of his region-first approach or to assuage Obama’s qualms about the sincerity his commitment to peace.
On the Israeli side, Obama sees three tough conditions undercutting peace prospects: Netanyahu’s refusal to accept the basic American and Palestinian demand for terri - torial negotiations on the basis of the 1967 lines plus land swaps; his demand, after the summer war in Gaza and IS’s gains in Syria and Iraq, for full Israeli security control over the West Bank, a demand that cannot be squared with Palestinian independence; and his insistence on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
THE EXTENT of Obama’s frustration with Netanyahu was underlined just hours af - ter the White House meeting when the two governments clashed over newly announced Israeli building plans in Arab East Jerusa - lem. In a particularly harsh public rebuke, a spokesman for the president said the plans would “call into question Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians” and distance Israel from “even its closest allies.” It is unlikely that the Americans would have used such strong language if Obama and Netanyahu were even close to being on the same peace - making page.
Netanyahu’s ill-considered response only made things worse. His assertion that the criticism ran counter to “American values” cut to the quick. Not only was it a case of a foreign statesman pontificating out of turn on what American values ought to entail, it evoked McCarthyist “un-American activities” associations and recalled false Republican “Birther” claims that Obama was not American-born. An angry White House dismissed Netanyahu’s argument as “odd,” and listed a small fraction of what Israel owed to “American values.” Personal ties between the leaders, never the best, sank to a new worrisome low.
In terms of high diplomacy, Netanyahu’s autumn visit to the US must go down as a resounding failure. His contention that ISand Hamas are one and the same was not taken on board by the American media or the administration; his region-first approach went virtually unnoticed; and his American values gaffe not only hurt Israeli-American ties at a time when Israel needs America in its corner, it also opened Israel to scrutiny of just how American its “shared American values” are in light of its continuing occupation.
Netanyahu’s public altercation with the administration could hardly have come at a worse time: Israel wants to have maximum input on the Iranian nuclear issue when the US-led negotiations with Tehran come to a head in November; it also wants the US to play the leading role in blocking Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s upcoming bid for statehood through the UN.
Netanyahu’s latest run-in with Obama also comes amid signs of the beginnings of erosion in Israel’s standing in Europe. In early October, the new Swedish government announced it would recognize a Palestinian state irrespective of progress in peace talks; the British parliament debated an opposition motion on the issue; the French government announced it would hold a joint session with the government of Palestine; the French city of Lille suspended its twinning with Safed; the EU was due to add milk to its earlier barring of poultry and dairy products originating in the territories.
So given the delicate international situation, why did Netanyahu allow himself to get into a slinging match with the administra - tion? On the center-left there are two diametrically opposed takes. Some see Netanyahu as a weak leader whose only goal is staying in power; others argue that he is a skillful and highly successful die-hard ideologue.
On the first reading, he does primarily whatever he thinks he needs to do to survive politically. His region-first peace talk is a gambit to keep the international community at bay; and his fierce defense of Israel’s right to build anywhere in Jerusalem is meant to shore up flagging right-wing support in his Likud party. On the second reading his goal is to make Israel a more right-wing country and to maintain overwhelming support for continuing the occupation indefinitely. His key message – and profound belief – is that Israel’s security is dependent on continued occupation. In this case, too, open conflict with the administration serves his purpose – convincing Israelis that they can rely on no one but themselves, and, with that in mind, that they need to keep all the land they can.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that his smooth UN appearance and later clash with Obama won him points at home – mainly on the Israeli right – Netanyahu still faces formidable leadership challenges. There are strong rumblings against the prime minis - ter in the Likud, where the latest beef is that bona fide party loyalists are being squeezed out of positions of influence. Party activists are particularly irked by the fact Netanyahu wants to bring in outside stars to strengthen the appeal of the party list come the next election. They argue that the party membership is already cluttered with people who do not share its ideology and culture – people brought in en bloc from various large works committees, ultra-Orthodox and the hawkish religious settler Jewish Leadership group, all of whom joined the party simply to influence its leadership and the composition of its Knesset list.
To combat Netanyahu’s mobilization of stars and the influence of the large groups, the loyalists propose going back to the old system in which the select 3,000-member Central Committee, where they hold the whip hand, serves as the electoral body for both leader and Knesset list – rather than the entire party membership, with large pres - sure groups calling the shots, as is the case today.
This will mean taking Netanyahu head- on. The showdown could come within the next few weeks. Whatever the outcome, some party stalwarts like Energy Minister Silvan Shalom and Transport Minister Yisrael Katz are said to be considering mount - ing a challenge for the party leadership.
Another threat to Netanyahu comes from outside the coalition. According to Shas leader Arye Deri, the strategic relationship between his ultra-Orthodox Haredi party and Likud is over. After the last two elec - tions, it was Haredi support that guaranteed Netanyahu the premiership. But last time around, after receiving their support, he went on to form a coalition without them.
Deri now says he would rather back a government under Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog. This could throw the next election wide open.
As international and domestic pressures mount, Netanyahu’s leadership is being tested as never before. Despite the currently flattering polls, if he is to survive politically, he may have to develop bold new gambits that disarm his many opponents in high places at home and abroad.