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Contentions

Re: Bibi Can’t Help Being Bibi

Writing for Foreign Policy, Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations argues that Israel will not attack Iran. Cook, repeating a theme familiar to many writers, highlights “the importance that close relations with Washington has on the domestic political calculations of Israeli leaders.” In essence, what he says is that Israeli leaders cannot risk causing a rift with the U.S. because it would make Israeli voters uneasy and result in a change of government. Cook uses a well known example:

In June 1992, Israel’s voters booted Shamir from office in favor of Yitzhak Rabin, who enjoyed a sunny relationship with Bush until the U.S. president lost his own reelection bid. Shamir’s defeat at the polls was due to a combination of factors, including an Israeli economy that was struggling to absorb hundreds of thousands of Soviet immigrants, but the relationship with the United States loomed large during the campaign. Rabin’s platform, in part, accused Shamir and his Likud Party of wrecking U.S.-Israel relations. In the end, Israeli voters believed the country “was not being run right,” as some commentators argued that Likud had compromised Israel’s ability to defend itself because of the deterioration of relations with Washington.

While being careful not to portray Shamir’s defeat as the direct outcome of his battle with George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker, Cook might leave many readers with just such an impression. In fact, this argument was made not only about Shamir, but also about Netanyahu’s defeat in 1999 — interpreted as a result of rocky relations with the Clinton administration.I have made similar arguments myself, but the fact of the matter is that much more complex stories unfolded in both cases — stories from which one can draw contradicting conclusions. On the one hand, it is true that both prime ministers weren’t successful in maintaining good relations with American presidents. However, the falls of both Shamir and Netanyahu were not the direct result of their contentious dealings with the U.S. In fact, both prime ministers lost their jobs when they decided to abide by American demands.Shamir went to the Madrid conference and lost the right-wing parties of his coalition, as the official site of Israel’s Knesset describes it:

The Twelfth Knesset officiated for three years and eight months, during which two governments presided, both headed by Yitzhak Shamir. The first of which – the 23rd Government – was forced to resign after a defeat in a no-confidence motion over the negotiations with the Palestinians. The elections to the 13th Knesset were brought forward following the breakdown of the coalition in Shamir’s second government. Three right-wing parties — Tzomet, Tehiya and Moledet — resigned from the Government in protest over the Madrid Conference.

Netanyahu faced similar opposition within his own camp after going to the Wye Plantation summit and signing accords that were unacceptable to members of the Netanyahu coalition: “The normal term of the 14th Knesset should have expired in November 2000. However, the Knesset passed a law for its early dissolution on 4 January 1999, after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had difficulty getting the governing coalition members to support his Middle East peace policy, and the state budget for 1999.”It is worth remembering that both Shamir and Netanyahu were ousted by right-wing members of their coalitions. What this means for Netanyahu today — days before he is slated to speak in response to Barack Obama’s Cairo speech — is that keeping the members on the right of his camp happy is no less important (politically) than keeping the U.S. happy. As the right has proved twice in the past, it does not hesitate when it comes to abandoning what it considers a “disappointing” prime minister.



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