Caught between a right-wing base and a new peace initiative, Netanyahu ducks and weaves

In public, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes to project a calm confidence about his political future. “Likud is going to be in power for years to come,” he asserts roughly once a month at Knesset faction meetings or other forums.

But in private, Netanyahu seems less certain. Across a wide range of audiences, the message often seems to be that his government teeters on the cliff’s edge.

Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan, a Likud man, has been telling American officials that “if you press Netanyahu too much” on US President Donald Trump’s hoped-for peace initiative, “Netanyahu will fall.” That’s according to a Channel 2 report last week that fits with what sources close to both administrations say they have been hearing for some weeks now from the Israeli government.

On the face of it, this is probably incorrect. The idea that if Netanyahu entered a meaningful peace process he would lose the support of the far-right Jewish Home party assumes that Jewish Home has somewhere else to go. If Netanyahu falls, the alternative is not a further-right Jewish Home-led government, but one led by centrist Yesh Atid or center-left Labor. The last time this question was tested was in Netanyahu’s 2009-2013 government, when the Jewish Home happily inhabited the coalition alongside Labor, even during the unprecedented 2010 settlement freeze. In the end, it was Labor, not the far-right, that pulled out in 2011, and only because it was in the throes of an internal leadership battle.

While Likud tells the Americans that Netanyahu is vulnerable from the right, it simultaneously tells the right that the prime minister is vulnerable to American pressure. At a closed-door meeting with Likud lawmakers in the Knesset last week, Netanyahu reportedly said: “I want to tell you, we don’t have a blank check on the political level” from the Trump administration. “This president is determined to get a deal.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and US President Donald Trump speak at Ben Gurion International Airport prior to the latter's departure from Israel on May 23, 2017. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

He clarified: “We are a sovereign country, we can make a decision on many things and announce many things, but as far as the consent of the Americans goes, I would not go that far. It is true that there are warm relations and there is a lot of understanding for our basic positions, but it is not true that we have a blank check. That is far from the reality.”

The upshot was clear: Stop pressuring me to expand settlements or annex areas of the West Bank. The Americans won’t tolerate it.

This has been the most consistent and predictable element of Netanyahu’s diplomatic strategy over the years. When faced with pressure from either side, deflect it by blaming the other. It held Netanyahu in good stead throughout the Obama years. The famous quarrels between Netanyahu and Barack Obama over Iran or the Palestinians were authentic and substantive — but also, for Netanyahu, politically useful. He could explain to right-wingers that he could not move right-ward in his policy toward the Palestinians because of Obama’s pressure, and to Obama, that his coalition politics prevented him from acquiescing to Palestinian preconditions for peace talks.

Ironically, Trump’s election threatened to upend this double-deflection strategy. Within hours of last November’s election results, Jewish Home lawmakers announced they would call Netanyahu’s “bluff.”

“There are no more excuses,” Jewish Home leader Education Minister Naftali Bennett has said repeatedly, usually just before urging Netanyahu to publicly abandon the two-state solution, to annex the Ma’ale Adumim settlement east of Jerusalem, or the like.

It took Trump’s Israel advisers, chiefly envoys Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman, both longtime and rather doctrinaire critics of Obama’s Israel policy, some weeks to realize that a US administration that is too openly supportive of the Israeli right might actually destabilize the Israeli right. The Obama administration’s greatest mistake in this conflict was its accidental demolishing of the Palestinian capacity for negotiating by siding too much with the Palestinian Authority, thereby bringing unbearable pressure on PA leaders to stiffen their demands and hold off on talks while the Americans were doing the dirty work of making the Israelis more compliant. The Trump administration very nearly committed the same mistake in reverse, backing the Israeli right to the point where it could no longer convince its own base of the need for negotiations or compromise.

US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt meets Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on the sidelines of the Arab League Summit in Amman, March 28, 2017 (Wafa/Thair Ghnaim)

It is now the accepted wisdom in Knesset hallway chatter that Netanyahu’s staffers explained this danger to their counterparts in the Trump administration and averted this politically disastrous bear-hug — that is, that they asked for American pressure to be brought to bear on the Israeli government.

It isn’t all political maneuvering, of course. Some of the pressure Netanyahu is referring to is real. Trump really does seem to want a peace deal he can chalk up to his struggling presidency. And while Netanyahu is not likely to fall from power just for negotiating with the Palestinians, there is a point in the negotiations where Jewish Home will stop caring about its coalition position and start to worry about alienating its voter base and surrendering its fundamental ideological commitments. Netanyahu can negotiate, but it’s unlikely his government will be able to actually cede territory in the West Bank without — at the very least — a dramatic shakeup to his coalition.

In the end, these considerations are not what keeps the prime minister up at night. Only Palestinian concessions on issues like refugees or the Jordan Valley could push him into having to choose between his coalition and politically destabilizing compromises, and these are unlikely to come in the foreseeable future. For now, the important thing from his perspective is that the comforting pressure from the Americans has been restored.

There’s just one problem. In recent weeks, it has become clear that neither Netanyahu nor his rightist flank seem to be playing along. The pressure on Netanyahu from the right continues unabated — and Netanyahu’s rhetoric continues to lurch rightward in ways that break the double-deflection mold.

On June 3, Yossi Dagan, the same mayor who helped Netanyahu play the deflection game with the Trump administration only the week before, published an unusual Facebook post.

“The prime minister,” he announced, “is trying to institute a [building] freeze [in the West Bank] voluntarily.”

Construction workers work on clearing land for new caravans in the Jewish settlement of Ofra, in the West Bank, on January 29, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

He explained: “[On Friday,] we again learned that the prime minister has decided to reject most of the building requests” in the settlements. “After eight years of the Obama freeze, a right-wing prime minister once again freezes the settlement of Judea and Samaria…. After eight years, today there are no more excuses. If the building freeze is approved, and if even now [i.e., during the Trump administration] construction in Judea and Samaria is frozen once again, then the Likud, as the leader of the national camp, and I write this with great sadness, must consider running a different candidate for prime minister, one who will be committed in deed, not just in word, to the ideology of the national camp in Israel.”

And it’s not just Dagan. The backers of the ideological settlement movement are planning a major public campaign against Netanyahu’s purported “freeze,” a campaign sufficiently worrying to the Prime Minister’s Office that Netanyahu released his own statement on the night of June 3.

“It’s strange that after Prime Minister Netanyahu approved only in the last few months the advance of some 5,500 housing units for construction in Judea and Samaria, in addition to the establishment of a new settlement for the residents of Amona — something that hasn’t been done in decades — he is accused of a ‘freeze,’” the statement reads.

“No one safeguards the settlements more than Prime Minister Netanyahu,” it announces, and demands to know: “How many times can we return to the folly of the right undermining a right-wing government?”

Why are the rightists unconvinced, and why is Netanyahu so worried?

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon attends the weekly cabinet meeting on July 31, 2016. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)

The answer, ironically, boils down to Kulanu, or rather everything the Kulanu party’s centrism represents in the current state of Israeli politics.

Netanyahu’s more or less dependable coalition of Likud, Jewish Home, Shas, Yisrael Beytenu and United Torah Judaism make up just 56 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, five short of a majority.

When the results of the last election were announced in March 2015, Kulanu chief Moshe Kahlon took a long time before he agreed to back Netanyahu for premier, first talking to Zionist Union and at one point calling on Netanyahu to form a national unity government with the center-left.

In the end, Kahlon was forced to side with Netanyahu because of Likud’s significant six-seat lead over Zionist Union (the parties won 30 and 24 seats respectively).

In a Knesset where explicitly right-wing parties make up about one-third of seats (Likud, Jewish Home and Yisrael Beytenu have 43 seats between them) and the left, about one-quarter (Zionist Union and Meretz have 29), and where the 13-seat ultra-Orthodox contingent of Shas and United Torah Judaism may favor the right, but will happily sit in any coalition that will have them — it is the center, in the 21 seats of Kulanu and Yesh Atid, that carries the day.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, February 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

To ensure their support, Netanyahu understands, he must have a larger showing than any opposing party on the left or center — not a larger “camp,” but his own faction must be large enough to make it untenable for Kulanu to turn elsewhere. And that means Likud must win more votes at any cost, and from any party.

Likud’s internal politics make it very difficult for Netanyahu to look for more voters to his left. It is far easier politically to try to poach them from the right — chiefly from Jewish Home.

And so each time the coalition seems slightly tense, each time the right criticizes Netanyahu for insufficient settlement construction, each time he tries to explain that Trump is just as limiting as Obama, and is met by disbelief on the right, Netanyahu’s response is calibrated to Jewish Home voters; he must become, in Likud’s florid rhetoric, the greatest of all defenders of the settlements.

The irony here is typical of Israel’s bewilderingly tangled politics: the growing power of the center forces Netanyahu to expand his own faction at the right’s expense, by swerving right-ward.

Polling in recent months seems to validate Netanyahu’s strategy. A great many voters appear to be wavering between Likud and Jewish Home.

In each poll taken in recent weeks, Likud’s swings from a low of 22 seats to a high of 30 are almost exactly offset by Jewish Home’s numbers. A Channel 10 poll on March 17 showed Likud at 26 and Jewish Home at 13 — for a total of 39 seats. A Channel 2 poll two months later, on May 26, showed Likud at 30, but with Jewish Home dropping to nine, for the same overall total.

Similarly, Netanyahu has good reason to fear coming in second place in the next election. Likud led Yesh Atid by just one seat in the March poll (26 to 25), then by a much more comfortable eight seats in the May version (30 to 22). But an April 4 poll by Channel 10 found Yesh Atid leading by two seats (29 to 27).

Taken as a whole, and with the significant caveat that polls consistently find over 30% of the electorate undecided, Netanyahu remains the favorite in any upcoming election, but not a shoe-in. His major challenger may be to his left — centrist Yair Lapid — but his most urgent political vulnerability lies to his right, in the capacity of the far-right to siphon votes away, shrink the Likud party and drive centrists like Kulanu into the arms of a less comfortable, but not far-fetched coalition anchored on the center and left.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid leads a party faction meeting at the Knesset on December 26, 2016. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As always, Netanyahu’s best defense may be his opponents’ bumbling offense. Left-wing and centrist politicians often speak of Netanyahu as besotted with the far-right and endangering Israel by his tolerance of ideological extremism. Netanyahu, whose actual policy prescriptions differ only marginally from those of either Zionist Union or Yesh Atid, must surely be grateful for this helping hand by his opponents, who seem committed to validating his right-wing credentials, even as the far-right finds good reason to doubt them.

It is possible — nothing in politics is certain — that a wiser strategy for Yesh Atid or Labor might be to portray Netanyahu as a centrist, to mock him with his long history of dovish actions and sarcastically invite him to join the centrist political lists. Any political career that has spanned as many decades as Netanyahu’s offers plentiful grist for that mill: Netanyahu was the prime minister who withdrew the IDF from Hebron in 1997 and signed the last agreement actually reached between Israel and the Palestinians, the Wye River Memorandum of 1998. He implemented an unprecedented American-ordered settlement freeze in 2010 and openly negotiated the handover of most of the West Bank to the Palestinians in 2014.

There is a strategic overlap here between settlement advocates like Dagan and Netanyahu’s critics from the left: both have an interest in depicting him as farther left than his base. Thus far, Netanyahu has played a shrewder game, keeping his own rightist base in check, while avoiding destabilizing commitments to either the Americans or the settlers. Those who wish to dislodge him from his high perch must first disrupt his fundamental strategy of deflection. There is no sign at the moment that anyone on the center or left really grasps the many layers and threads that keep Netanyahu afloat, and so, despite the prime minister’s own anxieties, there is no sign that his premiership is in any imminent danger.


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