Analysis: Netanyahu will survive, but at what cost?

By Anshel Pfeffer, April 1, 2010
Netanyahu seems safe on the domestic front

Netanyahu seems safe on the domestic front

Binyamin Netanyahu may be presiding over one of the most precarious periods for Israeli diplomacy in decades, but on the local political front, his situation has never been better. Whatever course he tries to chart out of the quagmire that his government's relations with the Obama administration has become, it is virtually impossible to sketch a scenario in which he is forced out of power.

If he remains steadfast in opposing the American demands, the current coalition will remain intact. It is not just the right wing and religious elements and his own Likud MKs; even supposedly left-wing Labour is not really contemplating jumping ship.

On Sunday, Labour leader Ehud Barak described the deepening crisis with the Americans as "an argument among friends" and in a private conversation, when asked why he was not leaving the government, answered rhetorically, "What do you want? That the [ultra right-wing] National Union should sit in the government instead of us?"

When pressed as to what he would do if Mr Netanyahu stays on a collision course with the administration, all he would say was "we will have to think then how we can best influence the situation".

There is another reason that Mr Barak is not interested in precipitating a coalition crisis - he wants to stay defence minister. If Mr Netanyahu is forced to bring Kadima in and form a centrist coalition, then there will be new redistribution of portfolios between the two largest parties, Kadima and Likud.

It is hard to see how, in such a scenario, Mr Barak will hang on to what is the most senior post in the cabinet after prime minister.

The Kadima option is of course always there. If Mr Netanyahu decides to bow to the American dictate and loses his right wing as a consequence, Kadima's leader Tzipi Livni will be forced by public and party pressure to compromise with her rival and enter his government.

So whatever the outcome, Netanyahu has a viable coalition.

But while on the political front he is on steady ground, on the diplomatic one he is anything but. The breakdown in trust between Jerusalem and Washington means that there is no reliable means of communication between the prime minister's office and the White House, and the Americans have any number of ways to surprise him.

For now, the defence aid - $3 billion a year - and close co-operation between the countries' militaries is sacrosanct; the administration, despite the crisis, has repeatedly committed itself to that.

Even General David Petraeus, commander of the US Central Command, who was quoted as saying that Israel's actions could be endangering American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, last week called IDF chief of staff General Gabi Ashkenazi to assure him that he never said such a thing.

But there are many other ways that the administration could continue making life difficult. They could decide not to veto the next condemnation of Israel at the United Nations; they could publish their own peace plan without consulting with Israel; and they could signal to other allies in the West, particularly in Europe, that this is the time to pile the pressure on Israel.

The days of the American diplomatic umbrella that shielded Israel from much criticism may be over.

The connection is so bad that the prime minister's office isn't even certain whether Mr Netanyahu should fly next month to the international anti-terrorism conference in the United States and risk another cold shoulder from the White House.

His instinct is still to play for time and hold back from giving any answers in the hope that events, domestic problems for President Obama, a terror attack somewhere in the world, or perhaps a surprise development in Iran, will change the diplomatic landscape.

But all the signals coming from Washington are that he is not going to be allowed much more time.

Last updated: 11:39am, April 1 2010