Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu is Not a King
by Arik Elman
I would love to pretend that when I started my last column with “If there are to be no more surprises“, I really had some advance notion of the deal about to be forged between the Israeli Prime Minister and his wannabe arch-rival, “Kadima” leader Shaul Mofaz. No such luck. Contrary to Israeli political custom, Netanyahu and Mofaz had managed to keep their negotiations on the down-low, so much so that at the first joint press-conference given by Netanyahu and his freshly-minted deputy, the main issue wasn’t the deal itself but the acute embarrassment of the press corps, which found expression in snide remarks and “provocative” questions.
Since then, it became apparent that the bafflement of the Israeli media reaction to the deal has spread over to America. Otherwise it is utterly impossible to understand what brought about the now-famous TIME magazine cover story entitled, “King Bibi”. After all, the logic of the agreement and the motivation of its main beneficiary, Shaul Mofaz, shouldn’t be so hard to understand and it has nothing to do with the irresistible animal magnetism of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Trying to make sense of Netanyahu’s plan to hold early elections, your humble correspondent was forced to reject all explanations put forth by the Prime Minister’s men and Israeli commentators. Neither the internal political situation nor the coming presidential elections in the US, or the economy or the perennial problems with the ultra-Orthodox justified such a risky move. The only credible explanation had to do with Netanyahu’s desire to win a renewed mandate for preemptive military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. Should we be surprised, then, that when the opportunity presented itself to secure such an expanded mandate without elections and to bring into the tent the last credible critic of a possible strike – a former IDF Chief of Staff and Minister of Defense to boot – Netanyahu took it?
In the run-up to the internal “Kadima” elections, while trying to appeal to the supporters of Tzipi Livni, Mofaz said many things. Among them, he criticized the idea of an Israeli attack on Iran. To rely on those words now, like some Israel watchers do, would be extremely naÃ¯ve to say the least. Educated in the military tradition of being judged by the end result, Mofaz gave decisive proof that he treats his promises and public statements like yesterday’s newspapers, good only to wrap up fish the next day.
On the other hand, what did the arbiters of morality expect? Despite all entreaties from Mofaz, his increasingly leftist positions, the commitments he publicly took to stay away from Netanyahu’s government and even to lead the new wave of socioeconomic protests this summer, the so-called “white tribe” that worshiped Livni abandoned him and “Kadima”. Even before he won, without listening to a word he had to say, more than a half of “Kadima” supporters defected to the banners of Yair Lapid and Shelly Yachimovich, both Ashkenazim. Don’t believe those who claim that ethnic politics in Israel are dead – the flames may be gone, but the embers are simmering. Faced with such a crude rejection, the Persian-born Mofaz had a choice – either to lead Kadima to certain electoral defeat, or to enter a pact with Netanyahu and hope for the best, saving meanwhile the jobs and political careers of Kadima MK’s. He chose not to commit political suicide and landed himself a place at the table in the process.
Cue the rage.
While Mofaz at least had to swallow all those intemperate words he uttered against Netanyahu, for the Prime Minister, the decision to hook up with Kadima was a no-brainer and does not in itself indicate any dramatic policy shift or even intent to consider it. Unlike, say, TIME Magazine’s Richard Stengel, who spent hours with Netanyahu and apparently learned nothing, the Israeli leader recognizes one simple truth – he is not a king.
Netanyahu is not a king because the Israeli political system does not allow for a fully independent chief executive. He still has to manage his government and his coalition, and, however counter-intuitive that might be, the bigger this coalition grows, the more unruly it becomes. When the MK’s from Kadima look at the polls, which promise that, in the best-case scenario, only 8 out of 29 of them will survive the new elections, they are sorely tempted to distinguish themselves to garner attention and to secure places on the more propitious lists and this can only be achieved by rebelling against the majority.
The same syndrome is affecting the traditional coalition partners of Likud. Israeli elections haven’t been cancelled (although one can be forgiven for thinking that they have been after reading Thomas Friedman’s musings about there being “no checks” of Netanyahu’s power) – they’re still scheduled for autumn next year, and when December comes along, the coalition partners will become restless, since nobody likes to compete for votes from under Netanyahu’s shadow. In 2003, Nathan Sharansky’s “Yisrael b’Aliya” party was virtually wiped out because of its too cozy relationship with “Likud” under Ariel Sharon. Voters perceived both parties as ideological twins and went for the original.
In addition to the constraints of Israeli democracy and the inescapable dynamics of the political calendar, Netanyahu is not a king, because in Israeli minds he’s far from being anointed. Netanyahu is not the Israeli Obama and he isn’t a new Ariel Sharon or Yitzhak Rabin. He does not enjoy absolute trust and he doesn’t inspire blind loyalty. He’s just the best of a bad lot, and nobody recognizes this essential fact better than Netanyahu himself – that’s why his policies, at home and abroad, have been so cautious. If he could, he would steal from the White House the “No-drama Obama” slogan. Netanyahu recognizes the challenges for Israeli security and its economy. To meet them, he needs to preserve the fragile consensus that has congealed around him.
In this light, nothing looks more ridiculous than Hillary Clinton’s siren call (echoed by the liberal press in the U.S. and Israel) for Netanyahu to use his new coalition “in the service of peace”. Those who promote this nonsense are acting as if “peace” was a unique rare commodity kept in the Israeli leader’s vault, and if only Netanyahu would wish so, peace will break out all over the Middle East. Somehow, the idea that peace, like a tango, demands two partners, and that the Arab side has a significant, if not the overwhelming part to play, escapes those who implicitly blame Israel for the conflict between Arabs and Jews.
The newly-established Israeli “Grand Coalition” can weather the economic storm coming from Europe. It can take Israel into an existential struggle against Iran. But it cannot create peace out of nothing, because the Israeli majority cannot satisfy the Palestinian demands, and the Palestinians cannot abandon “the right of return” and accept the permanence of the Jewish state. If, contrary to his own history and common sense, Netanyahu will go down this road in pursuit of “his place in history”, his constituency will rebel, his support will collapse, and he will end up in a ditch – this time permanently.