What Will Bibi Do?

Editorial

Published March 24, 2010, issue of April 02, 2010.

After a rough, unsettling few weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly has some decisions to make.

His well-honed ability to rally the troops at an AIPAC conference and shmooze lawmakers on Capitol Hill, all while holding his fractious coalition together back home were once again displayed with fine effect during his visit to Washington. Netanyahu is no novice at this. He is smooth, shrewd, a political survivor.

But to what end?

Israel’s relationship with the United States— its best friend — is fraying because of mistakes the Israeli government itself made. Did the Obama administration react too harshly to the ill-timed announcement of further Jewish housing growth in East Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit? A case could be made for that, though we believe the anger was justified.

But at a time when Israel is increasingly isolated diplomatically, when its Foreign Minister is an embarrassment and the right hand of its sprawling government doesn’t seem to know what the far right hand is doing, Netanyahu ought to stay away from doing anything foolish or arrogant that would make his allies squirm. Otherwise, he compounds Israel’s loneliness and turns attention away from Palestinian failures.

The world will often pick on Israel given the chance. Smart leadership tries not to give it the chance.

Really smart leadership sets an audacious goal and achieves it. From this vantage point, it’s hard to know what Netanyahu’s goals are, except to stay in power. His conditional support for a Palestinian state voiced last June in the famous Bar-Ilan speech now seems to grow more tepid and distant by the day. His repeated, defiant statements on Jerusalem only make his position going into eventual negotiations seem more and more inflexible, even if the claims play to a certain crowd in Israel and America.

For the last year, Netanyahu has skillfully avoided dealing with the Obama administration’s on-again, off-again criticism, helped by a White House that sometimes seemed directionless when it came to the Middle East. Recent published reports even went so far as to assert that Netanyahu’s government saw Obama as a weak leader and one-term president who could be pushed back or distracted until a successor appeared.

The passage of health care reform has changed that equation, strengthening Obama domestically and quelling concerns in some quarters abroad that he was not a strong enough leader to get things done. He may not be so easy to push around anymore.

Yet another reason for Netanyahu to decide what he really wants to accomplish.



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