Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Simply Brilliant - The Political Maturity of Benjamin Netanyahu

When I played basketball in high school, my coach taught me how to do a "head fake", which was a slight move of the head, or even the eyes, to convince the opponent that one was going to move or pass the ball in a direction not ultimately taken to draw the opponent away from the ball. 

This evening, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister, is in the process of performing a head fake as good as any to be seen in the NBA or the NCAA. It is so good, in fact, that he is  actually moving in at least two directions at once, both towards goals he wants to achieve. 

In a dramatic and politically brilliant move, Netanyahu has co-opted Kadima's new head, former IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, and brought him into a unity government. Early elections planned for September have now been postponed until the term ends in October 2013, making this one of the most stable and long lasting governments in Israel's history. Predictably, the leader of Meretz, Zehava Gal On, is calling the move a "stinking maneuver" as if it is the obligation of a sitting PM to call early elections. 

Why this? Why now? Well, that is an interesting tale. It starts in January of 2011, when Defense Minister & former IDF Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, Einat Wilf, and three other Labour MKs left the party and continued in the Likud government as an independent faction. At the time, most observers saw this as an opportunistic move by Barak, who was threatened from within Labour and was set to lose his leadership. The real opportunist, though, was Netanyahu. With this move, bringing Barak and his faction even closer, the PM cemented his left flank, and kept Barak, who if not loved, is much respected as Defense Minister, in lockstep with his security policies. He also weakened Labour, which would then have to head into a leadership race with almost half its Knesset presence eliminated. 

A few months later,  former Shas leader Aryeh Deri announced in June 2011 that he would participate in the next election. The jockeying for position between him and current Shas head Eli Yishai has not stopped, and the result is a weakened Shas, potentially split in the next election. Both the national religious sector and the Ashkenazi haredi parties are facing their own crises of political and religious leadership. Their leverage, often touted as crucial, has all but disappeared.

Just a month ago, Kadima had its own leadership contest, and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was ousted from the leadership she had held for almost 3 years in favour of Mofaz. She has since left the political scene. 

If these machinations weren't Byzantine enough, Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman, who is no pushover himself, and an important member of Netanyahu's coalition, has begun to feel threatened by the popularity of political neophyte Yair Lapid, whose appeal to secular voters and insistence on drafting haredi yeshiva students has ballooned his stature. Lapid threatens to erode Leiberman's right wing but secular constituency. 

It is in the context of this unprecedented weakness among his political friends and foes alike that Prime Minister Netanyahu came back to the concept of a unity government - one he first suggested immediately after his election victory in 2009. The opportunity to maintain stability, exploit the weakness of his current and potential coalition partners, and serve out an entire four year term as Prime Minister has enormous appeal. Even though his current popularity all but guarantees an election win in September, the prospect of weaving an even stronger government prepared to make tough decisions was and is a goal that Netanyahu has sought from the outset. 

And here we get to the crux of the matter. Many observers rightly see this deal as an opportunity to finally bring in a replacement for the Tal Law that will bring the haredi population into military or national service. Never has broad public sentiment been so positive about this, across the spectrum from the political left,to the secular, the national religious, and even to some of the haredim themselves. The political price to pay for forcing the issue will be much less than if Netanyahu was still beholden to the haredi parties to support his government. Now they will likely find themselves in essentially powerless opposition, unless, like Shas has lately done, they begin to find ways to accommodate themselves and their constituencies to a new reality that demands their participation in national responsibilities. 

These considerations have been important parts of Netanyahu's agenda, but  paying close attention to his recent speeches - at the US Congress last May; at the UN in September 2011, at the  AIPAC conference in early March 2012, and most recently on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day in April 2012 - affords further insight. In these speeches his agenda couldn't be more clear. Netanyahu is utterly consumed with the threat of a nuclear Iran, and he has spent his entire term since his election in February 2009 preparing Israel, its friends in the US and indeed the entire world for the eventuality and necessity of military action to stop Iran from attaining the enrichment and technical capacity to build nuclear weapons. The recent public statements contradicting his views on Iran made by former Intelligence chiefs such as Meir Dagan and others concern him - and thus it is no surprise that he has brought another former IDF Chief of Staff, one born in Tehran, no less, into his cabinet, buttressing the credibility of his national security cabinet.

Creating a strong unity government also sends a clear message to the United States that Israel is politically unified in its awareness of the danger posed by Iran, as well as the hard choices that will have to be made within the next few months. The time horizon has been set - after the US Presidential elections in November, and before the Israeli elections the following October. If Israel is going to strike Iran, that is when Prime Minister Netanyahu has created the political and diplomatic window in which to operate.

Israel's military is prepared; its people, who are never happy to go to war, and who have no illusions about their neighborhood, are resolute; Israel has engendered the strictest international sanctions regime since the end of WW2; and its political landscape has been re-engineered to provide the most stable environment in decades. This is a demonstration of Prime Minister Netanyahu's political maturity. The table has now been set.

No comments: