Commentary Magazine


Netanyahu’s Uncomfortable Fig Leaf

Israel’s far-left Meretz Party doesn’t often offer much in the way of insight about either the Middle East peace process or the country’s government, but today one of the group’s leaders, MK Nitzan Horowitz spoke at least a partial truth when he referred to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni as nothing more than a “fig leaf” for Prime Minister Netanyahu. In an interview with the Times of Israel’s David Horovitz, the head of what is left of the once dominant “peace camp” decried Livni’s continued presence in the Cabinet. Horowitz’s evaluation of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as a man of peace and willingness to place a good deal of the blame for the collapse of the peace process on Netanyahu is divorced from the facts and explains why his party and its allies retain only a small sliver of support from the Israeli public. But his comments were generally on target with respect to the anomalous position of Livni inside the government of the man who has been her nemesis.

An earlier Times of Israel report documented the blowback inside the country’s government about Livni’s decision to meet with Abbas in London last week even though Netanyahu had suspended negotiations with the PA after its alliance with Hamas. Reportedly, Netanyahu was livid at her insubordination and wanted to fire her. But after calming down, the prime minister realized that if he made Livni and her small parliamentary faction walk the plank, she would generate a coalition crisis that would leave him with only a small majority in the Knesset. That would put him at the mercy of his right-wing partner/antagonist Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home Party, who used Livni’s excursion to both call for her resignation and to posture at the prime minister’s expense to the voters.

In the end, Livni accomplished nothing with her mission to Abbas. He is no more willing to budge an inch toward peace now than he was throughout the long months of negotiations during which his representatives stonewalled the eager Livni, who headed Israel’s delegation. But the dustup involving the prime minister and the woman who has always thought that she, and not Netanyahu, should be leading the country is interesting because it illustrates just how wrongheaded the critics who bash Israel’s government as inflexibly right-wing really are.

Americans who buy into the mainstream media’s reflexive dismissal of Netanyahu as “hard-line” (a word that many readers may think is his first name) and intransigent need to understand that the term tells us nothing about his policies. He began his current term in office in 2013, by offering Livni a major Cabinet post (the Justice Ministry) and the portfolio for peace talks with the Palestinians. Doing so was more or less the equivalent of President Obama choosing Mitt Romney to be secretary of state. Such alliances are, of course, less unusual in parliamentary systems, and especially so in Israel where no party has ever won an absolute majority in the Knesset. But it should be understood that Livni campaigned in the last election as a critic of Netanyahu’s peace policies and was then given an opportunity to prove him wrong by being handed the chance to strike a deal with Abbas. While the failure of the initiative championed by Secretary of State John Kerry is rightly considered to be his fiasco, the unwillingness of the Palestinians to come even close to satisfying Livni—the one Israeli that the Obama administration thought was most likely to make peace—tells us everything we need to know about the Palestinians’ responsibility for the collapse of the talks.

Rather than being the beard for Netanyahu whose purpose it is to fool the world into thinking that Israel wanted peace as Meretz and other leftists think, Livni’s presence at the table with the Palestinians is actually the proof that if Abbas wanted peace and an independent state, he could have it.  Livni doesn’t have Netanyahu’s confidence but he did let her conduct the negotiations without too much interference. If he was concerned that she would give away too much to the Palestinians or the American team led by Martin Indyk that is intractably hostile to the Israeli government, he had nothing to worry about. The Palestinians never gave her chance.

Some may think she is serving as a fig leaf for Netanyahu, but if they thought more seriously about her role in the peace process over the past year they would realize that her presence in the government did nothing to ease criticism from Washington or from the usual suspects who like to bash the Jewish state. Instead, she proved her theories and those of other Netanyahu critics wrong by trying and failing to get the Palestinians to take yes for an answer. If she stays in the government, and given her history of rank opportunism and love of office, there’s no reason to think she won’t, it will be to continue to serve as a warning to Netanyahu’s detractors that their accusations of Israeli intransigence are without a factual basis. That isn’t a particularly comfortable role for her or Netanyahu. But it does illustrate how foolish those who still laud Abbas as a man of peace really are.

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