Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is often accused of achieving nothing since taking office beyond his own political survival. Yet when faced with a major crisis, navigating it is itself a major accomplishment. Netanyahu has indeed faced such a crisis: a hostile American administration that has made no secret of its intention to put “daylight” between Israel and its principal ally. But by combining calibrated concessions with well-chosen battles, Netanyahu has successfully mobilized Israeli public opinion and used it to force Washington to accommodate Israeli concerns.
Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University last June exemplifies his technique. After the Obama administration publicly questioned his support for a two-state solution, Netanyahu, through this speech, successfully recast the dispute. The argument, he suggested, is not over whether there should be two states, but over what these states should look like. He listed four requirements: Palestinians must “recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people,” the Palestinian state must be demilitarized, Israel needs “defensible borders” and Jerusalem must remain Israel’s undivided capital.
A poll taken the next day found that 71% of Israelis agreed — a stunning level of consensus in Israel’s fractured society. Thus Israelis, who would never have countenanced a fight with Washington over whether there should be two states, were now prepared to back him in this battle.
When Washington demanded a total settlement freeze, Netanyahu again found the sweet spot. He recognized that Israelis would not support defying Washington over construction in isolated settlements slated for evacuation under any agreement. But they are tired of unreciprocated concessions, and see no reason to freeze areas Israel plans to keep under any agreement.
So Netanyahu proclaimed a freeze for 10 months only, with any extension conditioned on reciprocal Palestinian gestures. He exempted Jerusalem — a decision whose necessity Israelis fully understood following Obama’s condemnation, days earlier, of construction in the “settlement” of Gilo, as if this huge Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem, which will certainly remain Israeli under any agreement, were indistinguishable from an isolated West Bank outpost. But the freeze included the major settlement blocs, where most Israelis would have supported continued construction. Thus Israelis saw it as a generous concession, and would back Netanyahu if it proved insufficient for either Ramallah or Washington.
Even the recent spat over East Jerusalem demonstrated Netanyahu’s crisis management skills. Though most Israelis initially blamed him for letting new construction be announced during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit, they fundamentally support building in their own capital and considered Washington’s reaction over-the-top. Hence, a recent Yediot Aharonot poll found, the percentage of Israelis blaming America for the crisis exceeded the percentage blaming Israel. In Washington, members of Congress from both parties also accused the administration of overreacting.
Tellingly, Netanyahu moved to resolve the crisis only after this shift in public opinion enabled him to do so without compromising on the key issue, construction in Jerusalem, and by offering relatively minor concessions — like releasing Fatah prisoners, which Haaretz reported weeks ago that he planned to do once talks resumed anyway.
Indeed, Netanyahu’s success in mobilizing the Israeli public has repeatedly forced Washington to retreat on vital issues. For instance, Washington ultimately accepted that construction in Jerusalem won’t be frozen and pressured the Palestinians to resume negotiations anyway.
Similarly, candidate Obama was cool to Israel retaining any of the West Bank, even for security reasons, telling The Jerusalem Post that Israel must “consider whether getting that buffer is worth the antagonism of the other party.” But the Obama administration eventually acknowledged, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, that Israel needs “borders that reflect subsequent developments [i.e., major settlements] and meet Israeli security requirements.”
And while Palestinian negotiators claim the administration initially promised that Ehud Olmert’s proposals would be the starting point for peace talks, this was ultimately omitted from the negotiating parameters. Washington evidently realized that most Israelis viewed their former premier’s offer as excessive and backed Netanyahu’s refusal to accept it as a given.
Because America is Israel’s main ally, ensuring that it takes Israel’s concerns into account is critical. To have achieved this with an administration fundamentally hostile to these concerns is thus no mean accomplishment.
Evelyn Gordon is a contributing editor to the journal Azure: Ideas for the Jewish Nation and a contributor to Commentary magazine’s Contentions blog.