from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Netanyahu Has the Last Laugh

March 23, 2015

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Elections and Voting

Wow. Just wow. The river of commentary about Israel’s recent election and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just keeps flowing. As I sat down to write this another piece popped into my inbox. Never has so much time been spent and ink spilled on what was a largely inconsequential event. Netanyahu called the election in order to consolidate his political position and he did precisely just that. The only places Netanyahu lost were North Tel Aviv, Twitter, and the editorial pages of most Western newspapers of record. For those who believed that a victory for the Zionist Union—a party list consisting of the Labor Party and Hatnuah, or “The Movement”— would produce a political dynamic conducive to a peace settlement with the Palestinians are either reality-denying optimists or simply do not understand the conflict. No matter the outcome of last week’s election there would be no peace deal because there is no deal to be had. The underlying structure of the conflict in which Israelis and Palestinians cannot satisfy the minimum requirements of peace for the other suggests prolonged stalemate. In the meantime, the annexation of the West Bank proceeds apace.

Even if it was not quite the watershed event that it was built up to be, the Israeli election was nevertheless revealing in a variety of ways.

Netanyahu: The Least Normal Politician in the World

It is pretty clear that Netanyahu has a knack for rubbing people the wrong way. Secretary of State James Baker banned him from the State Department in the early 1990s when Netanyahu publicly trashed U.S. policy in the Middle East, saying it was based on “lies and distortions.” President Bill Clinton disliked him. And then there is President Barack Obama, who seems to loathe being within five feet of the prime minister. There is also a lot of Bibi-hate on social media as well as some serious bile directed at Netanyahu from big-footed columnists. No doubt he represents a worldview that many people do not like and he happens to be a smug dude, but Netanyahu is first and foremost a politician, even if some people who are supposed to help us understand the world refuse to see him that way—I am looking at you Thomas FriedmanDana Milbank, and David Remnick. In all the commentary about Netanyahu, observers tend to dismiss the incentives, constraints, and cross-cutting pressures that people in his line of work face. He, they argue implicitly, is somehow different.

Here is a question: What do most politicians want above all? If you answered that they want to help their country “become great again” or “help people” you would be wrong. I am sure that many of them want these things, but it is not too cynical to suggest that politicians want most of all to be elected (if they exist in a democracy) and once they hold office, they want to keep that position. Very often—and not just in Israel—this leads politicians to say and do things that are calculated exclusively to win votes. Under these circumstances why is everyone so aghast that Netanyahu renounced his June 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University in which he indicated his support for a two-state solution? Did anyone actually believe him at the time? If so, I would like to meet them. Netanyahu’s acceptance of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel was grudging and caveated. The speech was a function of political duress borne of a popular new American president who took a different approach to Israel and the Palestinians than his predecessors. At the time, Netanyahu could not find safe haven in a Democratic Party-controlled Congress, which feared Obama. Back then, Netanyahu’s support for a Palestinian state was hardly credible and he has been walking away from it ever since. When the chips were down in the final hours of the Israeli election and he needed an extra push from the right, Netanyahu said, “I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel.” In one single sentence, Netanyahu blew every Israeli right-wing dog whistle—Palestinian state, evacuate lands, attack grounds, radical Islam—and it worked. Supporting something one day and repudiating it another? Whatever works. That’s politics.

Far more disturbing was Netanyahu’s “the Arabs are voting” statement, which was an appeal to the darkest instincts of some Israeli Jews who regard the Palestinian minority in the country to be a fifth column. The amalgamation of Arab parties—with some Jewish communists thrown in—known simply as the “Joint List,” gained thirteen Knesset mandates, which may help direct much-needed resources to the Arab sector. Still, Netanyahu’s plea, with all of its discriminatory undertones, has the potential to breed even further alienation among Arab citizens of Israel, which cannot be good for anyone.

What Suboptimal Outcomes?

It goes without saying that politicians say and do things that are in their own self-interest, but this can often lead to suboptimal outcomes for society. Netanyahu’s repudiation of the two-state solution and his warning about large numbers of Arab voters seem to fall into the category. The Sunday papers brought stories of the Palestinian leadership exploring ways to hold Israeli officials accountable for war crimes as well as considering to suspend security cooperation with the Israel Defense Forces, increase tension with the Obama administration, and threaten Israeli democracy.

All this trouble seems likely, but aside from targeting Israel’s senior commanders for crimes against humanity it is not at all clear that Netanyahu’s constituency is worried. The majority of Israelis do not seem burdened by an almost half-century occupation and, for the hardcore supporters of the settlement project, there is no suboptimal outcome when one is fulfilling the messianic vision of the “whole Land of Israel.”

Also, Netanyahu seems to have changed the dynamics of U.S.-Israel relations. Almost twenty-five years ago, the tension between the government of Yitzhak Shamir and the George H. W. Bush administration contributed to Yitzhak Rabin’s election in the spring of 1992. Analysts have thus come to believe that Israelis would punish their leaders who damaged the special relationship Jerusalem enjoys with Washington. Netanyahu has turned this idea on its head, making conflict with the United States a virtue in Israeli politics. The old rule may apply with a different American leader who may be more widely perceived to be friendly to Israel, but for the moment Netanyahu will not pay a price for being at odds with Obama.

Is Israel Polarized?

For a long time journalists, academic analysts, and the policy community have imagined Israel’s politics to be polarized between right and left. This view does not seem accurate, however. A rightward shift has been underway since 1977 when Menachem Begin’s Likud sent the Labor Party into opposition for the first time in Israel’s twenty-nine years of existence. Almost forty years later, Likud and other parties of the right and center-right have come to dominate the political arena with Labor Party interludes between 1992 and 1996 and again between 1999 and 2001. Since then Labor has joined Likud- or Kadima-led governments, but always unhappily and uneasily as one of a number of junior partners.

It is true that the Zionist Union scored twenty-four seats in the Knesset, which is only six seats less than Likud, but it only managed to do so in cooperation with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party and they still could not knock off Likud. The centrist Yesh Atid Party took a beating, losing eight Knesset seats while Meretz, the standard bearer of the Israeli left, has five seats. Subtracting the religious parties, which are ideologically flexible, the election only looks close—fifty-four seats to fifty-three seats—when you include the Joint List’s thirteen mandates in the center-left’s tally. The reality remains that because Israeli politics demand “Zionist coalitions”—meaning those made up of exclusively Jewish parties—the groups representing the Arab sector do not count.

Netanyahu: King of Israel

As the election results came in last week, I tweeted, “Netanyahu is the most successful Israeli politician since David Ben Gurion.” Some Tweeps thought it was an unfair comparison to Ben-Gurion, the founding father of the State of Israel. I did not say they were successful in the same ways, however. Israel has serious domestic problems, especially a huge gap between the wealthy and poor and a very high cost of living, but even accounting for these issues it is hard not to conclude that Netanyahu’s track record is objectively impressive (meaning I do not agree with his views, but I am willing to admit he has proven to be effective): Since 1996 he has won four elections, closed off the possibility of dividing Jerusalem, and expanded the city. Netanyahu has also played a central role in making a Palestinian state impossible. All the while he was undermining a two-state solution, Netanyahu has kept American largesse coming and improved Israel’s position in the Middle East, where it enjoys strong security relations with Egypt and Jordan and finds itself aligned with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on most regional issues.

Israel is isolated at the United Nations and university campuses to which a lot of Israelis would say, “Big deal.” And even though the Obama administration threatens to reevaluate the way it handles Israel in the UN Security Council, Netanyahu can count on Israel’s many friends in Congress, especially the Republican Party for which Israel has become a central issue, to do what they can to minimize the damage. For a right-of-center Israeli, that is a pretty darn good record.

In the run up to the election, when faulty polls showed Likud trailing the Zionist Union, a variety of observers began speculating what the Israeli prime minister might do after politics.It now seems likely that when the Israeli prime minister calls the next American president after he or she has won the November 2016 elections, it will be Benjamin Netanyahu who will express the warm wishes and congratulations on behalf of the Israeli people. He is, as his supporters proclaim, the King of Israel.

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Elections and Voting