clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The real reason for Netanyahu’s showdown with Obama

Netanyahu Obama

When Secretary of State John Kerry described Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as “the most right-wing in Israeli history,” he wasn’t just taking a pot shot at a foreign leader the Obama administration has come to loathe.

The top US diplomat was instead making an accurate assessment of an important, and dangerous, shift in Israel’s domestic politics. With the country’s left wing hobbled by electoral losses and bitter infighting, Netanyahu believes his biggest political threat comes from the right, not the left. That’s leading him to adopt precisely the sorts of hawkish policies — like overseeing a massive increase in the population of Israel’s West Bank settlements — that prompted Kerry’s speech, and that have left Israel more isolated at the United Nations than ever before.

“Bibi is not concerned at all with anyone from the center left,” Gilead Sher, a former Israeli peace negotiator and chief of staff for Prime Minister Ehud Barak, tells me in an interview, using the prime minister’s nickname. “He’s concerned about far-right politicians inside and outside his own party that are totally against any division of the land or agreement with the Palestinians. Those are the only people that he thinks could push him out of office.”

The bitter 2016 election has understandably kept many Americans focused firmly on politics here at home. But Israel is one of America’s closest and most strategically important allies, and understanding why Netanyahu feels compelled to move continually more to the right is vital to understanding why even the election of the fervently pro-Israel Donald Trump may not be enough to keep the Jewish state from becoming further isolated on the world stage.

The dramatic change in Israel’s domestic politics has shaped Netanyahu’s handling of the moribund peace process with the Palestinians, the primary focus of Kerry’s blistering speech on Wednesday. Netanyahu has publicly committed himself to a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict. In practice, though, he has overseen a massive expansion of Israel’s web of West Bank settlements, which now house more than 500,000 Israelis and occupy so much territory that it would be almost impossible to cobble together a contiguous Palestinian state.

And that, to Netanyahu’s rivals on Israel’s right, is exactly the point. Naftali Bennett, the head of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, told reporters last month that “the era of a Palestinian state is over.” Bennett wants Israel to formally annex 60 percent of the West Bank, a move that would deal a final death blow to the prospect of an independent Palestine.

Put another way, Israel’s domestic politics are leading Netanyahu down a path certain to fuel efforts to punish his country both economically and in places like the International Criminal Court. Understanding why means understanding how different Israel’s political system is from America’s — and how completely its left wing has collapsed.

Israel’s right-wing parties dominate the elections

Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, uses a parliamentary system. That means prime ministers aren’t directly elected like the president is in the US. Instead, they can only take Israel’s top post if they assemble a coalition of at least 61 seats in Israel’s Knesset, or parliament. And that’s where Israel’s rightward drift is most apparent.

Heading into election night in 2015, Israeli pollsters thought Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog, the head of Israel’s center-left Zionist Union Party, would each win 27 seats in the country’s 120-seat parliament, theoretically giving each a chance to become prime minister.

The pollsters were wrong: Netanyahu’s Likud Party won 30 seats, while Herzog’s took just 24. In all, right-wing or right-leaning parties took 67 seats, while left-wing or left-leaning ones took just 53. The result made Netanyahu the first prime minister in Israeli history to win four terms in office. (Israel has no term limits; prime ministers serve for as long as they maintain 61-seat majorities.)

The election also continued the right wing’s historical political dominance. Sher notes that of the 17 Israeli governments in the past 39 years, just two were led by left-wing prime ministers: the 1992 government of Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a far-right ideologue, and the short-lived one led by Sher’s former boss, Ehud Barak, after he beat Netanyahu in 1999. Even the left-wing, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Shimon Peres, whose death this year prompted mourning from leaders around the globe, ran for prime minister five times but never won an election outright.

There’s a simple reason for that: The Israeli public has moved steadily to the right because of Palestinian terrorism and the widespread belief that Palestinian leaders aren’t truly committed to resolving the decades-long conflict.

A Pew Research poll of Israeli Jews and Arabs earlier this year found that just 8 percent of the respondents described themselves as members of the political left; fully 37 percent said they identified with the right wing. The same poll found that just 43 percent of Israeli Jews believe that “a way can be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully.” (Other polls have found that narrow majorities of Israelis still support a two-state solution, but by smaller and smaller margins.)

Most Israelis also reject the Obama administration’s belief that West Bank settlements are an obstacle to peace, the main theme of Kerry’s speech Wednesday. According to Pew, 42 percent of Israeli Jews say the settlements help Israel’s security, while just 30 percent say they harm it. (The remainder say they don’t make a substantive difference.)

Netanyahu has many faults, but he’s a canny politician who knows a political trend when he sees one. The Israeli public is moving ever more to the right. Netanyahu is moving right along with them.

To understand Netanyahu, look at who serves in his government

And that brings us back to the Israeli prime minister’s bitter fight with the Obama administration. As recently as November 2015, Netanyahu said he still wanted to see “two states for two peoples, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes a Jewish state.”

The problem is that Netanyahu’s own policies are making the creation of an independent Palestine more remote than ever before. Nearly 600,000 Jews live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, a figure that has grown by 100,000 just since Obama took office in 2009.

The vast bulk of the settlers live in a cluster of towns and cities just along Israel’s border with the West Bank and would almost certainly be annexed into Israel as part of any peace deal with the Palestinians. But a substantial and growing number live so deep in the West Bank that they break the territory into cantons separated by military checkpoints and roads set aside for the exclusive use of the Israelis.

For many of Netanyahu’s rabidly pro-settlement political rivals, the Israeli prime minister’s policies don’t go nearly far enough.

Take Bennett, the American-born politician pushing for Israel to formally annex 60 percent of the West Bank. During coalition negotiations with Netanyahu, Bennett was named education minister, while a telegenic female member of Bennett’s party, Ayelet Shaked, was named justice minister.

Like Bennett, Shaked opposes Palestinian statehood, but she’s also taking steps on the domestic front that are drawing international condemnation. The latest flashpoint is a proposed law requiring Israeli NGOs to publicly reveal how much of their overseas donations come from foreign governments or groups like the European Union. Critics see it as a thinly veiled way of trying to silence groups critical of Netanyahu and his government.

An even bigger controversy has erupted over a proposed bill that would retroactively legalize West Bank settlements built on land owned by Palestinians. The legislation is strongly supported by Bennett and hawkish members of Netanyahu’s own party. The Israeli prime minister opposes the legislation and has derided it as “childish and irresponsible,” but he hasn’t killed the bill because of fears about the political consequences of standing against Israel’s ascendant right wing.

Daniel Friedmann, a former Israeli justice minister, told the Washington Post that “Netanyahu really wanted to avoid this … [and] could stop it if he really wanted to, but he is not in an easy position, because he does not want the settlers to think that he is the one who threw it out.”

The debate in Israel has moved from how much of the West Bank to give up to how much of the West Bank to annex

In the meantime, pro-settlement politicians inside and outside of Netanyahu’s Likud Party are openly rejecting the idea of creating an independent Palestine and instead sparring solely over how much of the West Bank to annex.

Bennett wants 60 percent. Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, wants Israel to annex every one of its West Bank settlements. Netanyahu’s housing minister, Uri Ariel, wants to eventually take all of the West Bank itself. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, a rising star sometimes seen as a potential future prime minister, also wants to annex all of the West Bank.

That’s anathema to most of the international community, including the Obama administration, and to center-left Israelis like Sher, who led the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at Camp David in the 1990s. In the interview, Sher said Israel should prepare for a future peace deal, no matter how remote it seems, by laying the groundwork for withdrawing from the West Bank settlements that would eventually have to be evacuated to allow for the creation of a Palestinian state.

“We can’t have it all, and we shouldn’t have it all,” he says. “Zionism never aspired to govern another people for 50 years. Instead of fighting the world, we should pave the way for protecting the core values of the Jewish state.”

That may not happen anytime soon. Netanyahu’s rivals on the Israeli right are about to get a new and unexpected ally. David Friedman, Donald Trump’s pick to be the next US ambassador to Israel, has called the two-state solution “a suicide ‘peace’ with radical Islamists hell bent on Israel’s destruction” and said Israel should expand, not evacuate, its West Bank settlements.

If Friedman is confirmed, Netanyahu will find himself in the unusual position of being boxed in from the right by both his political rivals at home and a leading member of the incoming Trump administration. It’s a lonely place to be, but after years of tacitly encouraging the expansion of Israel’s West Bank settlements, it will be a prison largely of Netanyahu’s own making.

Watch: Israeli settlements, explained