Netanyahu’s Election Flip-Flop: Is He Sounding a Warning on Iran?

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Emil Salman / Xinhua Press / Corbis

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on May 7, 2012

So entrenched is the dominance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israeli politics that he can afford to use the parliamentary process for political theater — that’s the lesson of Israel’s on-again, off-again election. On Sunday, Netanyahu called a surprise poll for Sept. 4. But just as quickly, Netanyahu on Monday night canceled the election after a “dramatic” late-night meeting with Shaul Mofaz, leader of the opposition party Kadima. Instead of going to the electorate, the two sides agreed to form a unity government for the remainder of Netanyahu’s term, which ends in October 2013. The drama appears entirely staged: Kadima seems to be something of a spent force in Israeli politics, having recently ousted its leader, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and having no clear platform. Polls showed it was likely to lose two-thirds of its current bloc of seats in the Knesset. In other words, it represented no significant challenge to Netanyahu. But if the Prime Minister was looking to create the impression that Israel is shaping up to attack Iran, then creating a unity government, as Israel has often done in times of a national security crisis, might underscore his message.

Netanyahu was favored to win the Sept. 4 election — so much so that many pundits had sought geopolitical rather than domestic explanations for his decision, seeing it as an attempt to preempt any pressure on Israel from a potential second-term U.S. President Barack Obama, or even to consolidate his home front ahead of a fateful decision to bomb Iran. Of course, Mofaz, a former chief of staff of the Israeli military, has lately publicly challenged Netanyahu’s rhetoric on Iran, warning that an early attack on its nuclear facilities would be “disastrous.” His presence could therefore also strengthen the voices in Israel’s Cabinet urging restraint on Iran. And the presence in his coalition of Kadima, which remains the largest party in the Knesset, strengthens Netanyahu’s hand against smaller factions like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, to keep them from being able to impose their own agendas.

(MORE: Netanyahu Calls for Elections, but Will It Change How Israel Is Governed?)

Whatever Netanyahu’s reasoning, his political tease is a reminder of his freedom of maneuver, given his dominance of the Israeli political spectrum. Polls taken over the past week showed that Netanyahu would likely cement his political control in any new election and entrench the hawkish political stability that has taken root in Israel over the past decade. Securing re-election would make Netanyahu only the second Israeli Prime Minister in two decades to win successive elections. (The first was Ariel Sharon.) Moreover, his key challengers, who lag far behind in the polls, were not planning to campaign on Iran and the Palestinians — the two questions on which Netanyahu has clashed with the Obama Administration. Israeli politicians once risked being voted out of office (as Yitzhak Shamir was in 1992, and like Netanyahu in 1999) if they were perceived to have jeopardized Israel’s relationship with the White House. Netanyahu in his second term of office has shifted the paradigm. “Bibi Netanyahu is willing and able to play politics in Obama’s backyard, talking directly to the American political class in a way that has pressured the Administration to change its posture,” says Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator now with the New America Foundation in Washington. “Obama, despite being the leader of Israel’s most important and cherished ally, is in no position to do the same by appealing over Netanyahu’s head to the Israeli public. That’s a reflection of how things have changed in Israel, and also in Washington.”

Back in 1999, the Clinton Administration left little doubt of its preference to see Israelis vote for a leader more amenable than Netanyahu was to completing the Oslo peace process. The Likud leader had run for office on the basis of his fierce opposition to the land-for-peace idea. Netanyahu allies complained, after his defeat by then Labor Party leader (and current Defense Minister) Ehud Barak, that the Clinton Administration had actively intervened to help unseat the incumbent by cold-shouldering the Prime Minister and because of the involvement of key Clinton strategists such as James Carville, Bob Shrum and Stanley Greenberg in Barak’s campaign and the fact that key Clinton donors had backed the Labor leader. Clinton partisans countered that the strategists and donors had gotten involved in their personal and business capacities, reflecting the increasing Americanization of Israeli politics. (There were Republican strategists working for Netanyahu in the same campaign.)

(MORE: Why Israeli Challenges to Netanyahu on Iran May Help Obama’s Nuclear Diplomacy)

If anything, the connections between Israeli and U.S. domestic politics have only deepened, most recently exemplified by the role of key Netanyahu backer and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson in funding the super PAC backing the presidential bid of Newt Gingrich. Still, the Obama Administration today knows better than to expect, much less to actively seek, a sea change in Israeli politics. Unlike Bill Clinton, Barack Obama is not widely loved by the Israeli public. And the fact that Netanyahu faces no serious challengers for the job of Prime Minister affirms the fact that he personifies the new consensus.

Netanyahu appears to have repudiated the maxim that clashing with the President of the United States is a fatal error for an Israeli leader. On the contrary, he has repeatedly taken on the Obama Administration, using his public messaging on issues such as the peace process and Iran to rally opposition on Capitol Hill, and among pro-Israel voters and donors, to successfully walk back the Administration on its peace demands. The differences between Netanyahu and Obama were plain to see from the moment both took office: Obama hoped to crack the whip on the long-stalled peace process with the Palestinians and demanded that the Israelis demonstrate good faith by halting all settlement construction in occupied territories; Netanyahu pushed back on that issue, rallying bipartisan support in Washington against Obama’s call for peace talks based on the 1967 borders and eventually forcing Obama to concede defeat and park the peace process in a fuzzy limbo.

(PHOTOS: Inside West Bank Settlements)

Netanyahu, in fact, had insisted from the get-go that Iran, rather than the Palestinians, should be the priority issue in the U.S.-Israel conversation, and he created pressure for Western escalation of sanctions through his constant threat to launch unilateral military action. His repeated use of Holocaust imagery in framing the Iran issue has the effect, intended or otherwise, of painting Obama as a feckless prevaricator in the face of an apocalyptic threat. But his rhetorical excesses may also signal that he’s simply keeping up the heat on Western powers; Israel doesn’t typically go through years of saber rattling before launching military action.

Given their obvious differences and tense encounters, it doesn’t require a clairvoyant to deduce that Netanyahu and Obama would each prefer to see the other fired by his electorate, but both have likely resigned themselves to the limits of their ability to affect that outcome. At the same time, prospects for concluding a peace process that has always depended on the willingness of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to voluntarily accept an international consensus on the terms of a two-state solution look more remote today than at any point in the past two decades. And just as the end of the Oslo era will, in the months and years, change the rules of the Palestinian political game, so too can it be expected to profoundly change the rules of Israeli politics.

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