Netanyahu Runs as Israel's Strong Man

Reelection Rests on Simple Message to Electorate

Strong Man: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is campaigning hard on a simple message of strength.
Strong Man: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is campaigning hard on a simple message of strength.

By Reuters

Published January 14, 2013.
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A rapid rise in the world of politics saw him became Israel’s youngest prime minister in 1996. But his government survived barely three years, buffeted by crises and squabbles.

He returned to the top a decade later as a less brash leader, who was nimbler at coalition politics, enabling him to secure rare stability and win cover billing in Time magazine as “The King of Israel”.

But the calm of his coalition over the past four years has not been matched by tranquillity within his inner circle, which centres around the so-called Aquarium - a sealed-off cluster of offices where the toughest decisions of state are made.

“Bibi demands loyalty, but I don’t think that his behaviour makes you feel necessarily loyal. He is very, very suspicious, even towards his closest guys,” says a former official, who quit his post during the last term and declined to be named.

After taking office in 2009, Netanyahu made a major speech, declaring that he was ready to accept a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state, ending years of opposition to such a move at a personal and party level.

Netanyahu’s commitment to this pledge is widely questioned.

At a meeting in 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked the Israeli leader to “show me some leg” and explain what concessions he was willing to make to the Palestinians, according to someone present at the meeting.

Netanyahu shooed everyone from the room and talked alone with Clinton, afraid his comments would otherwise leak.

But he never showed his leg to the wider world and the Palestinian issue was swiftly shunted down the global agenda after direct peace talks broke down in late 2010 over continued Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

To the exasperation of his Western allies, Netanyahu has pursued the settlement drive, announcing in December alone plans for more than 10,000 homes on land seized by Israel in the 1967 war - a move that jeopardises the so-called two-state solution of an independent Palestine sitting alongside the Jewish state.

One of his most vocal critics, Gideon Levy, a prominent left-wing journalist, accuses Netanyahu of deliberately playing up the Iranian threat to divert attention from the Palestinians.

“Spreading fear. That is his big capacity. To spread fear,” said Levy, who regularly rails against Netanyahu in Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper.

“I think he deeply, deeply does not believe in peace with the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular. He just wants to get the Palestinian issue off the table.”

Without significant pressure from Washington, it will remain off the table for the foreseeable future, with Netanyahu’s own party drifting ever further rightwards.

“BACKBONE FOR RENT”

According to Israeli calculations, Iran may be only a couple of months away from crossing a “clear red line” for uranium enrichment that Netanyahu spelled out at the United Nations in September.

For all Netanyahu’s dire warnings, a poll this month by the Times of Israel showed just 12 percent of Israelis saw Iran as the top priority facing the next government, compared with 16 percent who named deteriorating relations with the Palestinians and 43 percent who pointed to economic problems.

“Despite their hostility and differences, the Iranian and Israeli governments have one thing in common, they both try to portray outside threats as the most urgent issue, but their citizens disagree,” says Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East analyst at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv.

“It’s time for both countries to listen to their public.”

That is unlikely to happen if Netanyahu wins next week.

Members of his inner circle say his legacy depends almost entirely on whether he prevents Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Even his political opponents credit him with putting the issue on the top of the global agenda, helping to convince Western nations to impose increasingly tough sanctions on Iran.

But many pour cold water on the idea that he is ready to unleash a hazardous, long-range war to try to halt Iran.

For all his tough talk, Netanyahu has only launched one, brief, military confrontation in more than seven years in office - a conflict against Hamas militants in Gaza last November that ended after eight days without the threatened land offensive.

Reflecting the view of his critics, who wanted the army to be sent in, Israeli daily Maariv printed a cartoon of Netanyahu carrying an object under his arm marked “backbone for rent”.

But some influential figures in the security establishment are starting to believe that Netanyahu might be ready to strike at the Islamic Republic for history, despite the risks.

In 2011 a senior Israeli strategist, screwing up his fingers to show two tiny holes, said dismissively of Netanyahu: “The man has balls the size of raisins.”

A year on, the same official has changed his tune.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “He is really serious about Iran.”


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