Benjamin Netanyahu: Thriving on the brink, 1996-2015

Benjamin Netanyahu cannot be sure how much longer he will remain at the helm, but he knows that he is at his best when faced with adversity.

US President Barack Obama (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Benjamin Netanyahu envied US presidents. He envied their relative independence from Congress as compared to the shackled Israeli prime ministers who were subservient to the Knesset and their government coalitions.
Because of this, Netanyahu was a central figure fighting for the passage of what would be the short-lived system of direct elections for prime minister.
Netanyahu also envied the close ties between US President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. But he was not willing to pay what he perceived as the price for that relationship – namely, that Rabin was ready to begrudgingly come to the White House lawn and shake Yasser Arafat’s hand, with Clinton at the center of it all.
When Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister in 1996, he felt he had entered a second-hand shop. The Oslo process of providing self-rule to the Palestinians already had been set in motion. What’s more, President Clinton nearly despised the new prime minister after the great admiration, nearly reverence, he had had for Rabin.
But even back then, Netanyahu tried to thrive on the brink. He decided that he had to maneuver the reality to his advantage.
First, he adopted the role of the right person for the prime minister’s job who would stop what he viewed as the wimpy Israeli and American approach to the Palestinians.
His “reciprocity” policy toward the Palestinians, of implementing something only if the Palestinians did their share, has been well documented.
However, he wasn’t finished. This Israeli prime minister, who had spent several years in the US, was determined to show that Israel would not be weak in its relationship with Washington.
When the potential existed to secure the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard in return for an Israeli agreement at the Wye River negotiations in 1998 for advancing Palestinian self-rule, Netanyahu felt he had been vindicated. He was the antidote to Rabin; he was willing to make what he viewed as a major Israeli concession, but only in exchange for a major US concession.
The two countries were now on an equal footing, he figured.
That is why when the Pollard deal failed, Netanyahu felt that his very essence had failed.
He then watched as Ehud Barak succeeded him, though not for long. Because of the direct election system, Netanyahu decided not to jump in as Barak made his quick exit, and not stand in the way of Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu’s nemesis within his own Likud party. His logic was that with only the prime minister’s post up for grabs in 2001, the Knesset remained unfavorable. He hoped he would get a better balance of power when both the Knesset and prime minister faced elections at some point later on.
Sure enough, he wound up in the Prime Minister’s Office again in 2009, but by the time he did, he had missed out on yet another extremely close relationship between a US president. Sharon and George W. Bush was the Right’s answer to Rabin-Clinton.
Yet again, Netanyahu could only watch with envy. Who did he get? Barack Obama.
As with the Oslo process that greeted him at the door of the Prime Minister’s Office at the outset of his first term, Netanyahu’s first inclination when confronted with the Obama administration might have been to shriek: “Why me... again?!”
Instead, he was determined to turn it around to his advantage. He was going to be the prime minister best fit for the challenge: a prime minister who would have the courage to take on a US president and not be an inferior ally that was totally dependent upon Washington.
What’s more, Netanyahu was using his great connections in the internal US political scene to stand up to the American commander in chief. From the financial likes of Sheldon Adelson to the sharp political differences in Congress between Republicans and Obama’s Democrats, the table had been set for the Israeli prime minister.
All through these years of dealing with US presidents, Netanyahu felt the same pressures that many prime ministers before him did of navigating coalition politics at home, both as a directly elected prime minister and now back to the old system, as a prime minister voted in only as the party leader. And he reached the point where he felt that if he could stand up to an American president, he could stand up to his local rivals, everyone from Yair Lapid to Avigdor Liberman.
But again, Netanyahu entered a seemingly thankless predicament. He was seemingly bamboozled by Liberman after the most recent Knesset election in March, and the result was the thinnest possible coalition of 61 MKs in the 120-seat Knesset.
Again, Netanyahu at first felt like the victim.
But then he reassured himself that he was a strong leader, a leader with such thick skin that he was the best qualified prime minister to run a razor-thin majority.
He is defiant. He did better than people expected in the last election. He is the antidote to Shimon Peres. The world and many of his colleagues might hate him, but many among the Israeli public love him.
And they love him because he can stand up to anyone.
Benjamin Netanyahu cannot be sure how much longer he will remain at the helm, but he knows that he is at his best when faced with adversity. As far as he is concerned, from 1996 to 2015, he has mastered the ability to thrive precisely when he is on the brink.
David Ze’ev Jablinowitz has been political and diplomatic correspondent at Israel Radio for over 25 years.