There’s one very simple, very clear conclusion to be drawn from the sudden decision of President Obama to visit Israel, without waiting for Shimon Peres’ Presidential Conference in the summer, without there being any fundamental progress in the “peace process” to support – Netanyahu has won.
For almost four years, the strategy of the White House vis-à-vis Israel was built around the assumption that Benjamin Netanyahu is an unfortunate aberration, a sad and annoying throwback to the past that was obviated by the ascension of Obama. At various points, the prevailing opinion among Obama’s inner circle was that the Israeli Premier must be pushed, marginalized or replaced. Despite the series of setbacks along the road (including the record drop in the American President’s popularity in Israel), and the negative reaction of the American public to the perceived slighting of the trusted ally in an attempt to score points with the “Arab street,” the underlying expectation never changed. No matter what the polls told, Israelis were supposed to follow the American cue and to get rid of the leader who failed to appease the newly reelected President.
To be fair, those expectations were not baseless. After all, how hard should it have been for Netanyahu’s opponents to prevail when they had an entire propaganda machine (also known as Israeli press) on their side? With exception of “Israel Ha-Yom” (where the defense of Netanyahu never matched the frenzy of attacks on him elsewhere), the Israeli chattering classes, leaded by the media empire of Yedioth Ahronoth, made the defeat of Netanyahu a priority and pursued it single-mindedly. During the electoral campaign, any politician suspected of possible cooperation with Netanyahu was relentlessly attacked. Those attacks caused Labor leader Shelly Yachimovitch to change strategy mid-campaign and declare that under no circumstances will she support Netanyahu as a Prime Minister and join his coalition.
What happened next was instructive. The centrist voters, who up to that point considered voting for Labor as an option, abandoned Yachimovitch in droves for a leader who never had any qualms about joining forces with Netanyahu – Yair Lapid. Not just Labor – Tzipi Livni, who just a few years ago was considered in Washington to be a desirable replacement for either Netanyahu or his erstwhile Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, tried to replicate her “Tzipi or Bibi” campaign of 2009, betted heavily on the “peace process,” and lost dramatically. Out of 12 mandates that she was expected to win on the day of her return to politics, she lost half at the polls.
If having the American President and the local press in their camp wasn’t enough, Netanyahu’s foes were ably assisted… by Netanyahu himself. The united list of Likud Beitenu campaigned poorly, failing to present a positive vision for the future until it was too late, vacillating between attacks on its past and future partners, trying simultaneously to outbid Naftali Bennet on the Right and denounce him as a dangerous extremist, and missing the threat of Lapid and his centrist appeal altogether. As unbelievable as it may sound to an American reader, who is accustomed to Netanyahu’s masterful performances in English, the Prime Minister’s rhetoric in Hebrew frequently failed to connect, conveying a feeling of insincerity and condescension. The lack of credible opposition on the Left put the Likud rank-and-file activists to sleep, spreading the feeling that the elections had already been won. The welcome assist from Obama (via Jeffrey Goldberg) came too late.
The Israeli political system, which encourages pluralism and hampers any attempts at uniformity, worked against Netanyahu and Liberman. Seeing the numbers, many right-wing voters who didn’t like the personal union between the leaders either stayed home or drifted to other parties, including those who stood little chance of winning. At the elections, a record number of Right wing and religious votes were lost in support of four lists which failed to cross the electoral threshold. Believing that Netanyahu’s reelection was guaranteed, some of Likud’s supporters voted with their wallets and backed Lapid, whose promises to protect the middle class were shrewdly coupled with manifest friendliness to the worldview of the Right. Finally, for many voters, Netanyahu’s request for voters to grant more power to the united list sounded suspiciously like Ariel Sharon’s exactly ten years ago. Then, Sharon triumphed with 38 mandates, swallowed two more of Sharansky’s “Yisrael B’Aliya” party – and went on to destroy the Jewish presence in Gaza Strip and four settlements in Northern Samaria. Voters wanted Netanyahu to remain Prime Minister, because they supported his outlook and valued his expertise, but they did not trust him or love him sufficiently enough to allow him to rule unrestrained.
In the final count, the Right-religious core of support for Netanyahu has shrank from 65 mandates to 61. Yet, when asked to recommend a candidate for Premiership to the President of Israel, 82 deputies of the new Knesset named Netanyahu. That is the real measure of the Prime Minister’s triumph – for the first time, he stands in the middle of a wide consensus of Right and Center, religious and secular. He is without peer; there is no alternative. Far from being “weakened,” Netanyahu today is more indispensable than ever.
Obama’s decision to visit Israel acknowledges this new reality. There will be no more attempts to bypass Netanyahu or to ignore him. Carrying on his back a Defense Secretary with a pronounced “Jewish problem” and a Secretary of State who in talks with various Arab potentates has already given half of Israel away, Obama can’t realistically expect to wrestle the Israeli public from its reelected leader on his home turf. If there’s no point in waiting for a breakthrough, best to get the unpleasant experience of paying Netanyahu a visit over with as soon as possible. At least, after that Obama won’t be badgered by the likes of J Street, who still believe that with a burst of verbiage on Israeli soil the President will convert the Israelis to the peace faith.
If Obama, as reported, intends to use his visit to press for a moratorium on an Israeli strike against Iran, his task will be no less arduous. Netanyahu would be perfectly happy to rely on Washington if he could trust Obama’s reassurances with regard to Iranian nuclear ambitions. Yet the diminishing American presence in the Gulf and the appointment of Chuck Hagel speak stronger than any words. If Obama is really considering a military option against Iran, it has never been more impressively concealed, and without a credible military option there won’t be any diplomatic progress – unless the West is prepared to allow Iran a “bomb-in-the-basement” status, which is anathema to Israel and to Iran’s Arab neighbors.
Not for nothing, the reports conveyed a subtle hint of blackmail. Since the belief that the most painful spot for a Jew is his pocket, has never really disappeared in Europe, the Europeans seek to enable Obama to threaten Netanyahu with sanctions if he remains uncooperative on Iran and “peace” with Palestinians. Some of the ideas reported, such as a renewal of visa demands for Israelis wishing to enter the EU, are guaranteed to destroy whatever influence Europe still possess and as such, are clearly intended to serve as a ruse – if Netanyahu plays along, Obama will be able to calm the anti-Israeli sentiments in Paris, London and Brussels.
On the Palestinian front, it is worth remembering that the “return to direct negotiations without preconditions” was the Israeli demand all along. If during his visit Obama succeeds in strong-arming Mahmoud Abbas into renewed negotiations, that will be a major win for Netanyahu, who’ll be able to satisfy Lapid’s ritualistic demand for “restarting the peace process” at almost zero cost, probably by refraining from building in E1 and other sensitive areas. To undo the damage he’s done to Palestinian-Israeli dialog during his first term will be enough for Obama – after all, it was his demands – to freeze settlements, to end negotiations by September 2011 and to accept the “1967 borders” as a basis for territorial compromise – that drove Palestinians up the tree. In the current atmosphere of complete mistrust due to Abbas’ unilateral actions in the UN and his newfound love for Hamas and Iran, the very act of getting Palestinians and Israelis to talk to each other like it’s 2008 will be a huge success – one which is not guaranteed to happen.