One year into his second opportunity to lead Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s performance is looking increasingly problematic.
Israel’s international isolation is growing by the day. Washington’s frustrations are overflowing into blunt criticism. Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan University speech of last June, which seemed at the time like a promising attempt to rally the Israeli public behind consensus diplomacy for a two-state solution, now sounds increasingly like double-talk. The Iranian threat has not been mitigated, and American generals are beginning to link their losses in Afghanistan to stalled Middle East peace efforts. The Israeli public is, according to the latest polls, beginning to take its distance from Netanyahu.
Granted, the picture is not uniformly grim: Netanyahu deserves high marks for his skilful stewardship of the economy in troubled times. He has also accepted an unprecedented (but very selective) settlement freeze and ventured gingerly into the (for him) uncharted territory of accommodation with the Palestinians. Militarily, there has been relative calm on all fronts: the West Bank and Gaza, Lebanon and Syria.
But ultimately he will not be able to pursue a peace process or maintain good relations with the international community while simultaneously holding together his current hawkish governing coalition.
Netanyahu and his coalition partners seem to believe that they can reject any negotiating concessions whatsoever regarding Jerusalem and proceed apace with construction of Jewish housing in East Jerusalem — while simultaneously negotiating with the Palestinians and maintaining close ties with the Obama administration. As we saw in recent weeks, it doesn’t work. At the same time, Netanyahu is, at everyone’s risk, consistently ignoring his security establishment’s entreaties to resume talks with Syria.
That Netanyahu’s first real clash with the Obama administration only came after nearly a year in office can be attributed to several factors: On the one hand, Netanyahu knows the American political scene and how to manipulate it. On the other, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is ignorant of how Washington works, and is constrained by his own impossible ideological demands and tied down by his own extremists. Meanwhile, President Obama seemingly made every possible mistake and wasted his first year in office with his blanket insistence on a settlement freeze.
Three aspects of Netanyahu’s first-year performance should be of particular concern to supporters of a democratic and Jewish Israel.
First, the international campaign to delegitimize Israel has taken off. Netanyahu’s government has responded with an asinine public diplomacy, or hasbara , campaign under the assumption that telling the world Israel is a high-tech superpower while ignoring the occupation will solve everything.
Second, on Netanyahu’s watch — and with his apparent approval — the Israeli right has launched a vicious, McCarthy-like attack on Israeli human rights groups, whose revelations tend to embarrass Israel. True, not all human rights investigations are fair and balanced — the Goldstone Report is a case in point — but blaming the messenger is not the way to address the problem.
Third, the prime minister insists on incorporating 250,000 unwilling Palestinian Jerusalemites within the final boundaries of Israel’s capital. This clashes not only with Netanyahu’s stated commitment to achieving a negotiated peace agreement but also with his own correct insistence that Israel must remain a Jewish state.
Back in February, at the annual Herzliya Conference, Netanyahu gave an unusual speech. Breaking with tradition, he didn’t discuss issues of war and peace. Rather, he lectured on the need to better educate Israel’s youth about their country, its values and its history. He followed up with a program to restore over 150 historic sites of Zionist and Jewish significance.
This is a commendable idea. But one has to wonder whether Netanyahu’s patriotism is simply the last refuge of a leader who, having hopelessly embroiled himself in destructive contradictions, has nowhere else to go.
Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He co-edits the bitterlemons family of Internet publications.