Ariel Sharon learned two important lessons between his failed tenure as defence minister in the early ‘80s, and his much more successful term as prime minister, starting in 2000. First, maintain eye contact with Israel’s centre, and make sure that even the liberal left doesn’t really hate you. Second, make sure to work closely with the US government. These two cannot guarantee personal success, but they are key to having relative political calm.
Binyamin Netanyahu will have to decide soon whether he wants to take Sharon’s lessons to heart. He will need to choose whether he wants to pick a fight with an American administration, and select the issues on which he is not ready to compromise, while keeping the Israeli public in mind.
Israelis will be willing to follow Mr Netanyahu if they feel that Barack Obama’s plan is harmful, but for them to accept that a more contentious relationship with the US is necessary, Mr Netanyahu will have to present a strong case. Mr Netanyahu’s refusal to utter the “two-state solution” formula, for example, does not help. As 57 per cent of Israelis tell pollsters that Mr Netanyahu “should tell Obama that he supports a two-state solution”, the Prime Minister should not expect much sympathy if his refusal leads to a rift with the administration.
What parts of the Obama plan might make it possible for Mr Netanyahu to resist it? What we know about the plan at this time comes mostly from undependable leaks and rumours, but some items already raise suspicion.
Some of them are tricky. The demand for “settlement freeze”, for example, is a big headache for Mr Netanyahu within his mostly right-wing coalition, but will hardly resonate with most Israelis as something over which Israel should endanger its relations with Mr Obama. However, there are also issues on which it will be easier for Mr Netanyahu to unite Israelis. The suggestion (if true) of putting the old city of Jerusalem under UN forces or supervision could be one such example. Israelis, for good reason, have little trust in the UN. And not even Mr Obama can change this.