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Bibi’s Empire

Shmuel’s post about Netanyahu has it almost right. It is true that in the past, Likud-led governments were willing to risk their own coalitions in order to reach agreements or take other actions that could be perceived as “veering left” — the most notable example being Ariel Sharon’s decision to pull out of Gaza, in defiance not only of his coalition partners but of his own party, and arguably even of the very mandate on which he was elected. And it is true that in all these cases, relations with the U.S. were part of the calculus. But there is something missing in the analysis, which might put the present government in a different situation altogether.

The biggest question that faces any Israeli leader when risking his governing coalition is not how the Americans will like his actions. And it is certainly (alas) not whether they are right or wrong. The biggest question is how the actions will be perceived by the broader electorate — or put another way, whether his party will do better in the next elections if he is perceived as sticking to his right-wing “principles” or alternatively making “bold moves” for peace. Bringing early elections is often seen as a way to take the initiative and try to increase power, not necessarily as a failure or loss of control.

For more than a decade, and really since 1977, the Israeli electorate was deeply divided between “right” and “left” camps. For most of that time, the Likud was seen as the most dovish, or mainstream, party of the right-wing camp. As such, there was frequently a major incentive to appeal to the centrist voters who might be impressed with Likud’s pragmatism and reasonableness compared to the ideologues on the further Right. There was also an incentive to appeal to the left-dominated media, which would continue to portray the leader as a legitimate national figure.

Something shifted with the last election, however. Although we still hear talk of left and right, these terms have become far less meaningful than at any point in the last generation. Ehud Barak has no problem sitting in Bibi’s government, alongside Avigdor Lieberman and the folks on the far-Right. Tzipi Livni, now outflanked on the Left by Barak’s Labor party, is having tremendous difficulty distinguishing herself from the government on either ideological or policy lines. And the entire election ran on a theme not of peace vs. land, but of who will best protect Israelis against violence and international pressure. Indeed, according to a report in today’s Jerusalem Post, on the contentious issue of “natural growth” of settlements, Livni might face a massive mutiny within her own party if she tries to endorse the American position. “The denial of natural growth is not legitimate, not moral, and is anti-Jewish,” said the influential Kadima MK Otniel Schneller, himself a resident of the settlement of Maaleh Michmas. “Nobody can tell my daughters not to have children just because they happen to live in settlements.” And according to IDF radio yesterday (Hebrew link), lifelong dove President Shimon Peres seemed to endorse Netanyahu’s stance against the Americans, saying that the settlements issue “requires serious negotiation, but should not be allowed to dominate the peace process.”

Does this mean that the Obama administration cannot have an impact? Of course it can: by ratcheting up the pressure, a greater number of Israelis will be displeased, and that can affect how they vote next time around. But will they blame Bibi — or Obama? Will American pressure mean that Netanyahu will try to placate disgruntled Israelis on the Left — or that, to the contrary, more Israelis will reflexively turn to a leader perceived as pushing back against the bully? That depends mostly on internal Israeli factors, including whether Bibi can continue to render Livni irrelevant through his partnership with Ehud Barak. So long as that alliance holds, there is no viable alternative to Netanyahu in Israel. And too much American pressure is likely to backfire.



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