Who said President Obama dislikes Benjamin Netanyahu? It is simply not possible to imagine a bigger favor the President could have done for the Prime Minister than the “accidental” (wink-wink) report by Jeffrey Goldberg about the depth of Obama’s frustration and disgust with the soon-to-be-reelected Israeli leader. If there was a phone call between Jerusalem (you know, this mythical city which is most certainly NOT the capital of Israel per the Obama administration) and the White House, it should include Netanyahu’s “I owe you one” to Obama.
The biggest problem of the united list of Netanyahu, and Avigdor Liberman of the Israel Beitenu party, which plagued the new Likud-Beitenu partnership in the polls from the very beginning, was the disturbing lack of a credible foe. The telling inability of the wannabe leaders of the Israeli Left to put aside their egos and unite in the face of an apparent mortal threat to Israel’s future both as a Jewish state and as a democracy not only exposed the hollowness of their apocalyptic propaganda, but also deprived Netanyahu of an enemy to be vanquished. Arthur Finkelstein, Netanyahu’s political guru and acclaimed purveyor of negative campaigning, found himself on unfamiliar ground and failed to adjust. In America, the two-party system and the territorial voting structure always provide for a credible opponent. In Israel, for the first time, the reelection of Netanyahu being a foregone conclusion, both camps, the Left and the Right, turned inward, trying to score points in a frustrating zero-sum game, with the tandem Likud-Beitenu list emerging as the main loser.
Buttressed by the displeasure of the Right-wingers over an abrupt and indecisive ending to the recent “Pillar of Defense” operation, Naftali Bennett and his redecorated National-Religious “Jewish Home” party were rising steadily but stealthily, until the Likud campaign decided to pounce on Bennett’s heartfelt prime-time confession that he, as a combat officer, wouldn’t be able to follow an order to evict Jews from their homes. What followed provided a great deal of joy to those who hope one day to see Israeli society free itself from knee-jerk veneration of the Army. Instead of heeding the accusations that Bennett is a dangerous dissenter, the public (both religious and secular) signified its approval of Bennett’s honesty in the polls. Nor did it help that a few days later, the Israeli State Comptroller released a damning report on the so-called “Harpaz affair,” exposing the office of the then-Chief of General Staff of the IDF Gaby Ashkenazi as a hub of nasty, dirty and borderline criminal intrigue against the Minister of Defense Ehud Barak and his designated appointee to replace Ashkenazi – Yoav Galant.
In the long run, the exposure of moral nakedness in the highest office of the army will be incredibly beneficial for the development of healthier relations between the military and civil society in Israel. In the short run, it gave weight to the primacy of moral values of the individual over military orders, but also helped Netanyahu, when the ex-Chief of the SHABAK secret police Yuval Diskin came forth with a new batch of personal accusations against the Prime Minister and Ehud Barak. In the face of the “Harpaz report,” Diskin’s assertion that “the security professionals” – himself, Ashkenazi and ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan – acted only in the best interests of the country, while Netanyahu and Barak played politics, rung hollow and made almost no discernible impact.
Yet the Likud-Beitenu list continued to hemorrhage mandates almost to the end of the campaign, when the decision to switch to a more positive tone emphasizing the achievements of the outgoing coalition and the importance of securing a large faction behind the Prime Minister changed the trend somewhat. Looking desperately for worthy opponent that could help unite and “bring home” Likud voters, Netanyahu was clearly relieved when the leaders of three “Center-Left” parties – Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yachimovich and Yair Lapid – made a last-ditch effort to develop a common agenda. Here it was – the threat of a united Left, an ultimate bogeyman for any true Likudnik. How disappointed Netanyahu must have been when this “triumvirate” collapsed in a matter of hours!
So the unexpected missive of the American President via Jeffrey Goldberg couldn’t have come too soon for Netanyahu. Here, finally, was a worthy opponent that could be used to wake up and gather home those elusive Right-wing voters. And while Netanyahu himself was careful not to get into a direct conflict with Obama, he had no shortage of proxies to drive the point home – the best answer to the man in the White House is the strong Likud.
Nobody can predict whether Obama’s intervention will indeed help Netanyahu or that the centrifugal effect of the Israeli political system will win over. The proportional structure of the Israeli parliamentary system does not encourage unity. So long as the voters of the Right believe that Netanyahu will remain the Prime Minister whomever they vote for, they feel themselves free to vote for other parties within the block – Bennett first and foremost. Netanyahu is also struggling against the decade-old memory of the Israeli public– in 2003, Ariel Sharon brought Likud to 38 mandates, which grew to 40 after the absorption of Nathan Sharansky’s “Yisrael B’Aliya,” and a year later he used all this might to set in motion the “disengagement” plan, which ended in the uprooting of ten thousand Jews from the Gaza Strip, the creation of the Hamas enclave on Israel’s Southern border and thousands of rockets fired at Israeli civilians. Moreover, for the majority of Israelis the most pressing concerns are economic – Netanyahu himself just recognized this when in a brilliant but slightly desperate move he appointed Moshe Kahlon, the hero of the Israeli middle class, the conqueror of the fat cats of the mobile communications industry, as the Chairman of the Israeli Lands Authority, and charged him with lowering housing prices.
Nevertheless, Obama’s standing in Israel is so low, that his disapproval of Netanyahu and his indirect endorsement of Tzipi Livni (whose standing in the polls went into a free fall immediately after its publication) may yet help Likud Beitenu. One proof of that can be found on Naftali Bennett’s Facebook page. Trying to seize the new opportunity, Bennett cheerfully updated his friends that the White House is apparently very concerned with his meteoric rise. “We will hear what America has to say,” – he promised – “but we’ll do what’s best for Israel.” Obama’s monumental arrogance, his apparent lack of belief in the intelligence of the Israeli voter, his disgraceful treatment of Netanyahu and, more than everything else – his disastrous courting of the Islamist movements throughout the Middle East, has brought American influence and prestige to a new low in the one place where it was never considered possible to happen. Any proposed settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict requires the Israeli public to have full and complete trust in the American President. The results of the elections on January 22nd will show just how much this trust is now absent.