Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu enjoys enormous public support. Most Israelis, including many of those who generally oppose his policies, supported his single-handed global campaign against a nuclear Iran and the delicate diplomacy he employed in resisting unreasonable demands from President Obama whilst retaining the support of the American people and Congress.
Given this level of support, Netanyahu has a rare opportunity of developing a coherent policy strategy, which is currently lacking, particularly with regard to the settlements.
He has a better understanding of the world of diplomacy than any other Israeli politician. But heading a coalition government comprised of conflicting groups ranging from Tzipi Livni’s dovish Tnuah to Naftali Bennett’s hawkish Bayit Yehudi – not to mention the factions within Likud itself – has made it extraordinarily difficult to develop a coherent strategy.
Besides this, Netanyahu faces ceaseless pressure from the Americans and Europeans, is often intimidated by a rabidly hostile media and unduly influenced by fickle public opinion polls. These elements combined, frequently divert him from his course and result in paralysis, zigzagging and the implementation of contradictory policies and statements which benefit our adversaries and confuse our friends.
For example: Netanyahu condemns Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority for their intransigence, incitement to hatred, calls for the demise of the Jewish state and criminal behavior. Yet, in order to placate the Americans and the dovish elements of his coalition, he frequently praises Abbas as a “genuine peace partner”.
But it is the absence of a coherent policy in relation to settlement construction which has most undermined our global status. On this explosive issue, over which there are serious and legitimate divisions within Israel, the Prime Minister’s inconsistencies have been a major contributing factor towards alienating our allies.
Netanyahu reassures right-wing elements that he will continue authorizing settlement construction. But in response to American pressure, settlement construction has largely been frozen. This erratic approach and repeated contradictory ill-timed statements have heightened divisiveness within the country and enabled our adversaries to depict us as duplicitous.
It has also led to a bizarre blurring of issues. For example, Netanyahu sought to compensate the abominable decision to release Palestinian terrorists with blood on their hands by authorizing more construction, unintentionally conveying the perception that settlement construction was a form of retribution against Palestinian malfeasance and terror.
Virtually the entire world is deluded into believing that settlements represent the principal obstacle to peace. In addition to making Israel appear dysfunctional and devious, our contradictory policies enable our enemies to blur the distinction between construction in the major settlement blocs and east Jerusalem which will always remain part of Israel, and the isolated outposts and settlements located in heavily Arab populated areas within the disputed territories.
Our enemies exploit this confusion to convince much of the world to denounce all construction over the green line as illegal, even including the Jewish suburbs of east Jerusalem. They leverage this further by using it as a benchmark to define our future borders as limited to the green line with minor adjustments – without reference to defensible boundaries.
With the ongoing confrontation with the Americans, domestic party political considerations can no longer justify the government’s burying its head in the sand and avoiding this issue. To avert disaster, Netanyahu must now seize the moment to develop a coherent and consistent government policy.
He must strive, initially behind closed doors, to formulate a long-term strategy to be endorsed by leaders of the coalition. They should resolve, as a matter of policy, to commit to intensifying construction in those areas over the green line which would unquestionably be retained by Israel. But in isolated settlements primarily located in the disputed territories in Arab populated areas, a status quo in relation to expansion should be maintained.
Adopting such a policy would deeply distress some of the most idealistic and Zionist elements in the country. But nevertheless, even those who unreservedly support all aspects of the settlement enterprise and the legitimate right of Jews to live anywhere in Eretz Yisrael must face the harsh realities confronting us and recognize that the time has come for clarity and tough decisions. The government must act rationally and adopt policies promoting the national interest and protecting the security interests of the nation which is facing a bitterly hostile world.
To persist with maximalist positions in this situation could threaten core security and other crucial areas where we are being pressured to make additional concessions. For example, it is insufficient to merely demand that Israel maintain a presence in the Jordan Valley. We must also resist efforts to impose the 1949 armistice lines with minor adjustments. We must insist on adherence to UN resolution 242 which refers to defensible borders. We must never concede to the division of Jerusalem. The government must accept the daunting responsibility, set aside emotions and act rationally and pragmatically. Our leaders should realize that if they do not succeed in achieving minimum long term security and recognition of the need for defensible borders, their failure will haunt future Israeli generations.
We are under no illusions. The current Palestinian leadership has displayed virtually zero intentions of reaching a settlement. They depict themselves as occupied underdogs in order to obtain more territory from us. Whatever concessions we make, they will readily accept but their goal remains the dismantling the Jewish state in stages.
Regrettably, the Americans are promoting an Alice in Wonderland scenario based on the false premise that there is a Palestinian peace partner and are pressuring us into further unrealistic concessions that would threaten our security. This is compounded by Secretary of State John Kerry, who not so long ago described Syria’s Bashar Assad a as a “reformer”, now frenetically seeking to compensate for his dismal political failures by engineering a cosmetic peace settlement at Israel’s expense.
If, when negotiations collapse, we become the losers in the blame game, we could face devastating repercussions.
The potency of our adversaries should not be underestimated. It is highly unlikely that we will be able to accept the Obama Administration proposals. The BDS movement has made massive progress in Europe and is gaining ground amongst liberals and in academia in the United States. Our enemies are determined to replicate the boycott against apartheid in South Africa and bring Israel to its knees. We are dangerously isolated.
Netanyahu’s leadership qualities will now be put to the test. He has popular support and no real competitor and thus in a position to pressure his coalition leaders Lieberman, Lapid, Bennett and Livni – and the hawks dominating his own Likud party – to work together in the national interest to craft common denominators for achieving a comprehensive strategic policy. This must be designed to enable us to stand firm and united to confront the mounting international pressures facing us in the months ahead.
If extreme right or left ideologues are unwilling to agree to a consensus on these issues, Netanyahu must seriously consider dissolving the government and creating a new coalition committed to broad policy guidelines which 75% of Israelis would enthusiastically support.
Should he achieve this goal, he would undoubtedly be recorded in history as a great leader who overcame partisan politics and intrigues and succeeded in adopting a coherent policy reflecting the national interest.
This column was originally published by the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom.