Diagnosing Netanyahu’s political problem

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Tel Aviv University professor Anat Biletzki wrote in an oped on the New York Times website that, “The story of Israel is a sad story; and that story has now become sadly explicit.” Her remarks represent a pessimistic feeling among many on Israel’s left that is reiterated every few months with the same aching nonchalance. The headlines also beggar the same shrug of the shoulders “more of the same,” whether it is the Supreme Court ruling removing some Bedouin to make room for a new Jewish community, or another Gaza flotilla, another Nakba day that will likely be violent.

Life goes on.

Not everything is the same. The Ethiopian Jewish anti-racism protests that took place appeared unprecedented and momentous. But they will not have much of an impact. The same goes for the election of Ayman Odeh’s Joint List. It seemed like something unprecedented as well. Here was a youthful Arab politician from the secular left speaking about a joint struggle against racism with various minority groups. But the cordon sanitaire Israel’s Zionist left has erected around the Arab voters is so strict that there is no place for Odeh among the Zionist left. He can speak about being Israel’s Martin Luther King all he wants, but unfortunately no one on the left, and certainly not on the right, will listen. When he walked for Bedouin rights in March, some 140 kilometers, to the President’s residence, few noticed.

The problem in Israeli politics must be laid at the doorstep of the Prime Minister, who is now making up his fourth government. His first was in the 1990s. Then there was the 2009-2013 administration, where Netanyahu partnered with a broken up Labor party under Ehud Barak and then, at the last minute, in May of 2012, partnered with Shaul Mofaz of Kadima to form a unity government. Then in 2014 he brought Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennet into his government. And now he has formed the narrowest coalition possible, ditching Yisrael Beitnu, whose party he had run with in 2013 and which he had irretrievably weakened, and is working with the Orthodox parties which is last government eschewed.

Netanyahu is a master politician. Consummate comes to mind. But like other master politicians he suffers from limited vision and an inability to provide a long-term plan for Israel’s future. He is so busy grappling with political squabbles, thwarting or balancing his opponents and their lobbies, that he is unable to govern effectively. Given the chance to govern, he wastes his political capital.

It is a reminder of other brilliant political operators who were only partially effective when in charge. Lyndon Johnson as majority leader in the US Senate was considered a brilliant persuader. He belittled his own achievements on this end. It may be recalled now that the legacy of LBJ’s civil rights legislation was enormous. But as a President he was frustrated in his foreign policy goals, dragging the US into an ever-expanding war in Vietnam.

Netanyahu joins a whole list of successful politicians of Western democracies whose legacy was muddled by their long tenure in power and their lack of a major agenda. William Gladstone and William Pitt, the latter Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1783 to 1801 and again from 1804 to 1806 comes to mind; as does the Italian politicians Bettino Craxi and Giovanni Giolitti, or Germany’s Chanceller Prince Bernhard von Bulow.

These were men of the first caliber who were competent, even brilliant politicians, but whose legacy is unclear. They were great captains, steering the ship of state, but without charting a course far ahead. Israel’s latest coalition government is like that. Netanyahu has a pattern in his governments. He often finds himself saddled with those to the right and far right of him who are embarassments internationally. But to him they are useful. Avigdor Liberman, who was loathed by the US and EU, was seen as a budding politician whose party was rising in the polls until Netanyahu neutered it by gobbling it up and running with it. Liberman’s latest “revenge” by not joining the coalition is of such little import, precisely because his party was destroyed in the partnership (much like the Liberal Democrats in the UK).

Von Bulow, a good German politician

Von Bulow, a good German politician

Netanyahu did the same thing to Ehud Barak’s Labor, destroying it by bringing it into the coalition. Kadima also self-destructed. Lapid was harmed by being in the coalition last time. Bennet’s Bayit Yehudi also lost votes to Likud on the eve of election night, 2015. Ayelet Shaked will serve the role in this latest government that Liberman did before, a light that will draw the leftist critics, like moths to a lamp, so that they stay away from the Prime Minister’s Office. It is all well and good, but behind it is a lack of clear ideology. One coalition had the Orthodox parties, then another didn’t. In the last coalition agreements were made to draft the Haredim and reduce the size of government, all of those agreements are now null and void, as if the last two years had not happened at all.

Everything is political it seems. The two-state solution of the 2009 Bar-Ilan speech was tossed up in the air before the 2015 elections. It doesn’t matter anyway because peace negotiations were going no where and Netanyahu’s policy relating to the American peace plan is simply to outlast the US administration. Eight years, gone in a blink.

The narrow coalition will produce an unstable government and the Labor party will likely be brought into it in one form or another. That will harm the Labor party, neutering it of making an effective opposition, leaving Yair Lapid to lead a rump opposition of disparate elements that have nothing in common. That’s good for Netanyahu’s political game, but it isn’t good in the larger context.

Israel has actual existential issues that should be worked on. Israeli leaders should be seeing in Ayman Odeh a leader whose demands for his community are worth taking seriously. The army, racism, unemployment, education, the peace process, the Gaza siege, the regional dynamic of the Sunni states fighting Iran, there are a litany of issues that require transformative and visionary leadership. Were Netanyahu to wake from his political coma and provide that it would be interesting to see. The likelihood of that happening seems slim to none.

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