Netanyahu, Sworn In as Prime Minister, Faces Balancing Act

News Analysis

By Uriel Heilman (JTA)

Published March 31, 2009.
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The warnings from Israeli pundits and foreign observers alike came almost as soon as Israeli President Shimon Peres picked Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu to form the next Israeli next government.

The message was clear: Don’t forsake the pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace and risk isolating Israel on the world stage.

So when Netanyahu addressed the Knesset at his swearing-in ceremony Tuesday, observers were listening closely for signs of where the new prime minister intends to lead his country.

“Israel always, and today more than ever, strives to reach full peace with the entire Arab and Muslim world,” Netanyahu said. “We do not want to rule the Palestinians.”

At the same time, however, Netanyahu carefully avoided any endorsement of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The challenges facing Netanyahu’s new government are clear, if formidable: Steward Israel through a crippling global economic crisis; prevent Iran from going nuclear; contain threats to Israel from Hamas along its southern border and from Hezbollah along its northern border.

But as with his statements over the past few months, Netanyahu’s careful articulations in his inaugural address left uncertain where he stands on the most contentious issue in Israel, and between Israel and governments overseas: the pursuit of a two-state peace deal with the Palestinians.

Even Talmudic scrutiny cannot fully elucidate Netanyahu’s ambiguity on this point.

“Under the permanent-status agreement, the Palestinians will have all the authority necessary to rule themselves,” Netanyahu said, at once suggesting that he will pursue Israel-Palestinian peace but indicating through omission that statehood for Palestinians might not be the end result.

A later line – “I say to the Palestinian leadership that if you really want peace, we can achieve peace” – both gives the impression that Netanyahu is willing to make peace, but also leaves the door open for the prime minister to sidestep final-status negotiations if he deems the Palestinian leadership not ready for peace.

Ron Dermer, a senior adviser to Netanyahu who told JTA he will be the new government’s director of communications and policy planning, said Netanyahu’s position vis-a-vis the Palestinians is not so different from that of Israel’s allies.

“The Palestinians should have all the powers necessary for self governance, but not the handful of powers that could endanger Israel’s security,” Dermer said – such as an army, airspace rights, heavy weaponry or treaties with states like Iran. Whether or not such an entity is called a state is an issue of terminology, not ideology, he said.

Now that he has taken office, Netanyahu may not be able to keep up his balancing act – offering nuggets to placate critics on the left and right – for long. But doing so may be crucial to keeping his coalition intact.

Even before the February election, Netanyahu made clear he wanted as broad a coalition as possible if he won. But his refusal to support a two-state solution or agree to a power-sharing deal with Kadima’s Tzipi Livni cost him the support of Israel’s largest political party in coalition negotiations.

For a while it appeared that Netanyahu’s only allies were on the right – enough to form a government and become prime minister, but not enough to keep him safe from a no-confidence vote if he were interested in substantive progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. And a narrow, right-wing coalition certainly would not have won Israel much favor overseas.

But when Netanyahu succeeded last week in bringing the center-left Labor Party into his camp and promised to be a “partner for peace,” his government became more palatable to left-wingers in Israel and to allies abroad. Others, however, blasted Labor for providing what they described as a fig leaf for a right-wing Netanyahu agenda.

Netanyahu has yet to publicly endorse a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict – putting him somewhere to the right of both Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush. The new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, wants to redraw Israel’s borders to exclude Israeli-Arab population centers and require loyalty oaths to the Jewish state in a bid to limit the voting power of Israeli Arabs. And the Orthodox Shas party, which holds 11 seats in the coalition, has promised to withdraw from any government that includes Jerusalem in negotiations with the Palestinians.

At the same time, both Lieberman and Shas have voiced support for land-for-peace swaps with the Palestinians.

In Europe, leaders say there is no room for ambiguity on the issue of a Palestinian state.

“Let me say very clearly that the way the European Union will relate with a government that is not committed to the two-state solution will be very, very different,” EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana warned in mid-March.

Given Netanyahu’s history and the composition of his government, the onus is on the new prime minister to demonstrate to skeptics abroad that his new government – comprised of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor, Shas and the religious Zionist Jewish Home party – will not shift course away from the pro-negotiation policies of Israel’s last government or adopt positions that will alienate Israel’s allies in Washington and Europe.

“On substance, there is not a big gap between Netanyahu’s position and the international community’s position – certainly not those that are friends of Israel,” Dermer insists.

When it comes to President Obama, veteran Israeli political commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, there are two questions: “Whether Obama will be able to subject his agenda to Israel’s, and whether Netanyahu will be willing to accommodate the American president on a series of issues, topped by the negotiations on the establishment of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu will be able to draw out the negotiations; it is uncertain whether he will be able to fool his rightist partners.

“It is not exactly the government that the voters of Kadima, Likud, Labor or Shas dreamed of, but it is a legitimate government,” Barnea wrote. “It must be given a chance.”

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