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Style and substance in Netanyahu’s governance

November 24, 2016 22:57

Dear all,

While sifting through my inbox this morning I came across this interesting piece of analysis of Netanyahu's current approach to peace talks, which frames it in the context of the wider conflict with Iran and its proxies against the "moderate" Arab world. It makes a refreshing contrast to the one-dimensional view we tend to get in the British press, which seems to be of the opinion that Israel doesn't want peace and is throwing as many rocks on the line as it can to derail the process. While some of the readers of the JC may agree with that position, personally I find it lazy and prejudiced and makes no attempt to even understand or explain Israeli public opinion, let alone the government's. It is little wonder that people in Britain have adopted such a simplistic view of the Arab-Israel conflict.

More discussion on this subject can be found here.

Now I'm sure I won't make many friends by saying this, but I've been an admirer of Netanyahu since I was a teenager and watched him on the BBC explaining Israel's position so eloquently. It was Benyamin Netanyahu that first awoke my interest in Israel, past and present, and I sincerely believe that he is one of the country's most capable politicians. Unlike his Kadima predecessors I believe his primary concern is the long term survival of Israel, and he is under no illusions about the rest of the world coming to Israel's rescue in the event of war. On that score I think he's spot on.

Here is the article:

Style and substance in Netanyahu’s governance
by Yitzhak Klein

The country is going to need a new policy to deal with the Palestinians, based on the assumption that no peace agreement is likely any time soon.

Since the formal expiration of the building freeze in Judea and Samaria on September 26, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has tried to negotiate a formula that will allow direct talks with the Palestinians to go forward. The Americans and Palestinians have been pressing him to extend the freeze, and while it lasts to reach a deal regarding borders – an issue Netanyahu insists must be deferred until the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and until its security requirements are met.

US President Barack Obama’s offer of American support in return for a freeze extension made it clear that the White House’s idea of security requirements are very different from Israel’s. In effect Netanyahu was being pressured to capitulate on the freeze in order to capitulate again in the actual negotiations.

For two weeks, the prime minister maintained silent regarding his intentions. The silence ended with his opening speech to the Knesset on Monday, when he revealed his position and offered a deal: a limited freeze extension in return for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish state. The offer, as anticipated, was quickly rejected in Ramallah.

Netanyahu’s proposal was directed at four different audiences.

1. The White House. The statement was a declaration of independence. Obama’s thumb has been pressing heavily on the scales, tilting America’s position in favor of the Palestinians. The Americans continue to demand that Israel comply with a precondition for talks, freezing building in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s position hitherto has been that negotiations should be conducted without preconditions. In his Knesset speech he rejected the White House’s tilt and said, in effect, that if Israel had to meet preconditions, the Palestinians have to as well.

Netanyahu chose his political ground carefully. Nothing is likely to generate sympathy for Israel’s position on Capitol Hill and within the American Jewish community as insistence that the Palestinians simply acknowledge that Israel is the Jewish state. Their refusal to do so will seem incomprehensible to most Americans.

2. The Arab League. Netanyahu’s statement was a challenge to let the Palestinian issue slide, and no longer allow it to interfere with the quiet alliance between Israel and moderate Arab states now shaping up over Iran. Formally, the Arab League backed the Palestinian position on a freeze, but was notoriously reluctant to back their alternative strategy – a unilateral declaration of independence. The league’s position can be interpreted as not caring whether or not the Palestinian issue is on the road to resolution. This, of course, undermines what is supposed to be one of the Obama administration’s rationales in pressing the Palestinian issue – making up to the Arab world.

3. The Labor Party. Labor’s policy is increasingly vulnerable to ideological purists insisting that the “peace process” continue at all costs. Labor is threatening to leave Netanyahu’s coalition if negotiations break down. Netanyahu’s chosen political ground is even more potent within Israel than on Capitol Hill. If Labor – and Kadima – want to fight an election on the grounds that Israel should not insist on recognition as the Jewish state, they’re welcome to try their luck.

4. Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu said, in effect, “Be damned.” Netanyahu is not generally a confrontational politician. Like most prime ministers, he has to spend an inordinate percentage of his time keeping his coalition together. He bends over backward to find negotiated solutions. To ensure maximum wiggle room, he keeps his mouth shut and plays his cards close to his chest. Someone is always accusing him of lacking courage or principles.

THE BIG difference between Netanyahu today and the Netanyahu who was elected in 1996 is that he seems to have developed an intuition for when he has no choice but to turn around and fight back. One such moment was when Obama manufactured a crisis over building in Jerusalem and dissed Netanyahu in the Oval Office. As he left the White House that day, Netanyahu appeared to have understood instinctively that he couldn’t let himself be cowed. Another such moment appears to have come this week.

Chances are about even that the Labor Party will pull out of Netanyahu’s coalition – probably around December (budget time), when it can obfuscate the diplomatic issue on which Netanyahu and the Likud can craft an electoral victory. Netanyahu can maintain a narrow coalition by adding the National Union, but it’s far from clear that that’s his best option. Perhaps his next step is to learn to anticipate a crisis he cannot avoid and precipitate it – on his own terms and in his own time. If the country is going to elections, the best time for the prime minister is ASAP.

I'd be particularly interested to hear what Israelis think about this analysis.

November 24, 2016 22:57

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