Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu won an impressive electoral victory in Israel on March 17. He did it by making two last-minute public statements. One was that there would be no Palestinian state while he is President. He thus formally reneged on his commitment to a two-state outcome to the negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestine Authority. The second statement was to “alert” voters to a significant Arab turnout in the elections. This of course was pure demagoguery, but it worked.
He has not only remained the most successful Israeli politician in the last few decades. But he did it all by careful calculation. The story started several weeks ago when Israeli polls showed a significant rise in the prospective vote for the so-called Zionist Union, led by the leader of Israel’s center-left Labor Party, Isaac Herzog. This group carefully avoided saying much about the Palestinians except that they would renew negotiations. Rather, they built their campaign on purely internal economic issues, promising more welfare state benefits.
First, Netanyahu responded to (possibly instigated) an invitation from U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner to address a Joint Session of Congress. This was a largely unprecedented intrusion of a foreign head of state in U.S. policy-making. President Obama was very upset and refused to meet Netanyahu during his brief visit to the United States.
Netanyahu spoke to an enthusiastic audience of Republicans along with a partial boycott of attendance by Democrats. The object for Netanyahu was to mobilize Jewish Israelis not to vote for other rightwing candidates in the first round of voting but to cast a “useful vote” for Netanyahu. In this he succeeded remarkably strongly.
In the process of course he deeply antagonized Obama, who said the United States would now have to re-evaluate its relations with Israel. Netanyahu then back-tracked slightly on his statement about further negotiations with the Palestinians, and apologized for his fear-mongering about Arab turnout for the elections. Obama was not appeased, saying the he took Netanyahu at his word about a two-state outcome.
So, what, everyone is asking, will happen now? Just before the elections, a group of distinguished Israeli security figures issued a statement, saying in effect that Netanyahu’s approach was alienating the United States and that this was desperately bad for Israel’s future as a Jewish state. Were they right? The answer is yes and no.
Let’s start with the basic dilemma of the majority of Jewish Israelis. They want neither a two-state nor a one-state outcome. They know that a two-state solution requires a major retreat on post-1973 Jewish settlements as well as a possibility for at least some Palestinians to return from exile. They find this unacceptable. And, given the demographic evolution, they fear that a two-state solution is simply a one-state solution that is delayed. As for the one-state solution, it means renouncing the basic Zionist idea of a Jewish state.
Faced with this dilemma, they like Netanyahu’s strategy: delay, delay, delay! And, if anyone tries to force the pace, be ready to fight militarily against whatever opponent poses itself as an immediate threat.
There is however one basic difficulty with this strategy: It is straining the world’s patience, and most critically the patience of those who have been more or less faithful supporters of the Israeli government’s positions – the major European states, the Palestinian Authority, so-called moderate Arab opinion, and yes, even the United States.
There has been a worldwide transformation of the perception of Israel as a “victim” to that of Israel as a “persecutor.” This is a nightmare for the Zionist cause in Israel. It can only get worse for Israel. There may even come a point, perhaps still a few years from now, that the United States will no longer be willing to veto resolutions in the U.N. Security Council that are critical of Israel.
Two things can happen then. The world can see a dramatic reconsideration of received verities on all sides, as seemed to have happened in South Africa. This reversal permitted a major political change combined with very little economic change. It however involved no bloodshed. Or, alternatively, this won’t happen. And there will be a major war, in which the Jewish Israelis will use all their military strength to defeat anything resembling another intifada.
The message from Netanyahu is clear. He prefers the major war, and so do the voters who elected him.