Three years ago, most observers of the Middle East were sure about one thing: the newly elected coalition government in Israel being put together by Benjamin Netanyahu couldn’t last. In particular, the Obama administration, which was only a month old itself, was hopeful Netanyahu would quickly flop and be replaced by the more pliant Tzipi Livni, the leader of the Kadima Party. Thirty-six months later, as the Israeli prime minister prepares to journey to Washington for another crucial summit with President Obama, there is no talk about the post-Netanyahu era. Though the Jewish state remains beset with a host of problems, both foreign and domestic, the volatility that has plagued the country’s political system for decades is largely absent these days.
His is actually the first Israeli cabinet to last this long in 20 years. Given that a breakup in his coalition is unlikely, it is almost a certainty that it will serve out its full four-year-term, which will be the first time that has happened since Menachem Begin was prime minister more than 30 years ago. And with polls projecting that Netanyahu and the Likud will easily win the next election when it occurs sometime in 2013, it is clear what we are seeing in Israel is a new era of political stability. While this is a remarkable personal achievement for Netanyahu, its impact goes deeper than that. When Netanyahu arrives in Washington next month, President Obama will know he is dealing with a leader who is secure in power and has the backing of his nation.
There are a number of reasons for Netanyahu’s success, but the most important of them is that experience helps. Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 was undermined by an arrogant refusal to listen to his cabinet colleagues and a reckless disregard for the impact of his statements on both his party and his nation’s sole ally, the United States. At that time, Netanyahu was wrongly blamed for derailing the peace process even though he repeatedly made concessions for the sake of peace while also getting the Palestinian Authority to crack down on terror. But his successes were overshadowed by his surly personality, and by the time he faced the electorate again, he had few friends left.
This time around, Netanyahu has been wiser, avoiding needless quarrels and maneuvering carefully in order to keep a diverse coalition moving in the right direction. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu Party could have dismantled the government several times, but Netanyahu smartly kept him inside the tent rather than out of it. Though Lieberman has continually talked about breaking up the coalition, he now finds himself stuck in it because a new election would diminish rather than strengthen his forces.
He has also been fortunate with his foes. Livni has been a hopeless opposition leader. Having refused Netanyahu’s offer of a coalition and a high cabinet post because she thought she would soon replace him, she now finds her party supplanted in the eyes of the public as the main alternative to the Likud by a resurgent Labor.
Even more important, Netanyahu has benefited from being the bête noire of President Obama. In the past, Israeli prime ministers always feared the enmity of American presidents, because to jeopardize the alliance was considered the political kiss of death in the Jewish state. But Obama is the least popular American president in history. Every attack launched on Netanyahu only strengthened his hold on power. By standing up to Obama on the future of Jerusalem and the 1967 lines, Netanyahu gained support rather than losing it as the president expected.
Though Obama has made no secret of his dislike for Netanyahu, the president must now acknowledge that Netanyahu is likely to remain as prime minister for the foreseeable future. Obama must also come to grips with the fact that his plans to revive the peace process has failed, and that Netanyahu’s evaluation of the Palestinians’ unwillingness to negotiate was far closer to the mark than his own opposition. Netanyahu’s political strength also makes it harder for Obama to try to muscle the Israeli on the issue of stopping Iran from going nuclear.
Three years after he plotted to dump Netanyahu, the president is also hoping Netanyahu will do nothing to complicate his own chances of re-election. As he attempts to walk back his quarrels with Jerusalem as part of his Jewish charm offensive, Obama must pay court to Netanyahu. The irony of this turnabout can’t be lost on the Israeli or his antagonist in the White House.