On Tuesday Israeli PM Mr. Netanyahu fired two ministers who openly disagreed with him on the Israeli statehood bill. This caused a government break-up, to be followed by early general election in March.
The break-up in its turn, caused a split in Israel. According to the recent Panels Research poll taken for The Jerusalem Post and Ma’ariv Sof Hashavua, 60% of Israelis want Netanyahu to lose.
Israel’s US allies appeared to be split, too. According to Debka file, “Netanyahu government’s breakup is seen as golden opportunity to finally get rid of Binyamin Netanyahu and bring Israel back to negotiations with the Palestinians with the Obama administration finally chalking up a success”.
The US Congress sent a different signal passing the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act 2014, that reflects "the sense of Congress that Israel is a major strategic partner of the United States," and declares Washington's "unwavering support" for Israel as a Jewish state. Yet, the bill still needs to be signed by President Obama.
Is this step going to help Mr. Netanyahu? Is it making a difference?
Says Professor Eyal Zisser, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University:
We have to admit that it is not that they are not important, but they are more of a symbolic nature. And it has to do, I believe, with the American politics. We know nowadays that there is, maybe, tension, maybe, animosity, maybe, competition between the US Congress led by the Republicans and the White House, President Obama sitting there. And Israel turned to be part of the debate. Obama, mainly because of his relations with Netanyahu, is not very enthusiastic about Israel and the Republicans want to put pressure on him on this issue.
So, it is part of the American politics to promote the relations with Israel and to show how committed a given senator or a congressman is to Israel. Of course, there is a basic alliance and good relations, and friendship between Israel and the US, but when you come to the question – why now? why this specific law? – mainly it has to do, I believe, with the American politics.
Is it going to help Mr. Netanyahu?
Eyal Zisser: The issue here is that, first of all, Netanyahu has many problems with the White House, because he became too much involved in the American politics and he is seen as the supporter of the Republican Party, which of course puts him in a delicate position vis-à-vis the White House. To this we need to add the fact that the elections in Israel are approaching. And any Israeli knows that it is important, it is vital for Israel to maintain good relations with the US.
So, if Netanyahu will be seen by the Israeli voters as somebody who is damaging the strategic relations between the US and Israel, it wouldn’t help him in the election day. That’s why it can help, but not really I think, because it is of a symbolic nature. So, it is not going to influence. In Israel nobody paid too much attention, because it has not got any practical meaning for the time being.
You know that the relations between Israel and the US, regardless of the personal problems between Netanyahu and Obama, are excellent, especially on the professional level – between the experts, between the agencies. And the US’s support for the last, let’s say, fifty years is quite stable – something like between $2-3 billion a year. So, it is not really a game changer, not really something that is going to change the picture dramatically. It is a positive message from the Senate, from the Congress, and still, we know that in the US, with all the respect to the Congress, still the White House has more importance.
Alon Ben-Meir, one of the leading US Middle East experts, titled his weekly column “How Netanyahu Committed Political Suicide.
Says Dr. Alon Ben-Meir, professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU:
Let me begin by saying that Netanyahu has been and continues to be a very reserved ideologue who has had a very narrow view of what Israel is all about. And all his life he has been focused on the Jewishness of the state – the need to maintain the Jewish identity of the state. And he has done many different things to ensure that, including, for example, maintaining the occupation, expanding the settlement and even denying the equal rights to the Israeli Arabs. Many of these activities have been all geared towards maintaining the identity of the state.
The bill that he wanted to introduce really doesn’t change much, because Israel is a Jewish state. It was created as the Jewish state in the partition plan in 1947. All of its symbols, its anthem – it is all Jewish and it still has the Jewish majority. So, the bill could not really have any dramatic change on the nature of the Jewishness of the state. But what it would have done, however, was to make it almost official or acceptable to discriminate the Jews living in Israel versus the non-Jews who live there as the citizens of Israel. This would have been the first implication.
The second implication is that by demanding, for example, Abbas and others to recognize Israel as the Jewish state he is also trying to enshrine that Israel, regardless of its demographic composition, remains a Jewish state. And so, the implications of the bill are negative in every way. And that is the reason why two of his major coalition partners – the Hatnuah led by Tzipi Livni and the Yesh Atid led by Lapid – in principle rejected what he’s been trying to achieve. And this is really what in fact precipitated the collapse of his Government.
But mind you, I don’t want to make this answer too long, but what it is needed to be added is that he is a very skilled politician. He’s been feeling the policy of the public. The collapse of the Government is not as sudden or surprising at all. I thought the Government should have collapsed a year ago, or even more than that. I was wondering why it lasted even two years, because the composition of the coalition – the five main parties – simply do not see eye to eye.
So, they are pretty much settled on the lowest denominator when it comes to the significant issues, like the occupation, like the settlement, like security and all of these matters that concern Israel’s future as the state. Hence there was no progress not on the political front, not on the Palestinian peace process, not even on the economic development and the other social fronts as well.
So, he precipitated the collapse of the Government, because he is also seeing that the public is moving somewhat to the right and he wants to capitalize on it, and then form a Government that will go along with him in every which way. And he will reintroduce this bill, and he hopes to pass it.
Mr. Netanyahu is also being criticized for moving too far to the right.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir: Yes, the two are not contradictory. There is this turn, based on the polls taken recently, that the public is moving more to the right. But there is also a significant portion of the Israeli society who criticizes the Government for moving much more to the right from the center. So, this is actually happening. Now, that does not necessarily mean that in three months down the line the same composition, political climate will remain.
The Israelis are also thinking in terms of what has happened in the last six years under the Netanyahu’s leadership. The peace process did not progress a single iota and, in fact, it’s been reversed in so many different ways. Israel is isolated today more than ever before by the international community. Israel is becoming a garrison state. So, many Israelis are looking also at the overall picture of where Netanyahu brought Israel in the last six years, and many-many of them are unhappy.
But the problem in Israel is that the political system is extremely dysfunctional. And this is why he is able to capitalize on the dysfunctionality of the political system. Let me just explain that in a word or two. The Likud party has only 18 out of 120 parliamentarians in the Israeli Parliament. Just 18! Lapid has even one more, it has 19, which is a more centrist party. So, you might ask – how is it possible for Netanyahu to form a Government?
But this is where he comes. Even before he dismissed the two ministers and dissolved the Parliament, he already began negotiating with the two religious parties and others to prepare for forming a new Government even before the elections, three and a half months before the elections. Politically it is very savvy, he knows how to maneuver. And unfortunately, the other thing is that there is no rising visionary, courageous leader that can act as a challenger.
And that is really the plague of Israel and the reason why Israel has made little progress, if any, on a number of fronts. And that is, in my view, extremely dangerous for Israel itself.
So, what do we need to expect? Like you are saying, the peace process with the Palestinians is stalled; the country is becoming a garrison state. What then?
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir: As a matter of fact, in my weekly article (yesterday I wrote one for the Daily Breast) and what I'm basically saying and I'm pleading to the Israelis, although that doesn’t not necessarily going to make a difference, but I'm pleading that the time has come for all these parties – central and central- left – to get together as a single political body, the leaders of these parties to leave their egos aside and try to think in terms of what is best for the state of Israel and for its future – the future wellbeing, the future security. That’s what they are going to have to think about.
If they manage to get together and if they manage to establish a solid political agenda that makes peace with the Palestinians central to this new political party, if they will pursue that vigorously and bring about an end to the occupation, I think there is a majority of the Israelis who want to see an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but they don’t see a single leader who is going to bring them to that destination. And that is what is necessary to be done.
It is possible, but then, again, it is going to require the leaders of various political parties, as I said, to put their egos aside, their personal ambitions aside, because, you know, Israel is made out of 7 million prime ministers – everybody in Israel would like to be a prime minister. And that is really the plague, and I should even call it the tragedy of the Israeli situation today. Again, they have to get together in order to present a serious challenge to Netanyahu. And if they do so, I think there is a good chance. It is probably a long shot, as far as I can see it today, but it is a good chance though.
Mr. Abbas now trying to pursue his own agenda unilaterally, does it influence the situation in Israel?
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir: There is no doubt. The Israelis are maybe dismissing some of what is going on in Europe. I mean the recognition of the Palestinians by Sweden, the vote in the French Parliament, the vote in the British Parliament to recognize the Palestinian state. This is going to get more and more momentum throughout the European community which is the greatest trading partner with Israel. They started to talk also about the sanctions.
So, to be true about the matter – Netanyahu has left Abbas no other choice. So, Abbas has no alternative but to turn to the international community and seek for their political support. He went to the Security Council and he knows that the US may still veto such a resolution to recognize the Palestinian state. So, he is going to the international community state by state. Europe is the key. If you have ten or fifteen European countries recognizing the Palestinian state, Israel is going to be in a major-major bind. And that is going to have serious repercussions on the Israeli public.
However, the public may want to dismiss that, they cannot escape the fact that the world stands against them. Interestingly, yesterday I had a program in NYU called the Global Leaders’ Conversation with me. And I had the Israeli Ambassador as my guest. And I posed this very question. I said – tell me one country which is friendly to Israel that does not support the Palestinian cause, or that does not want to end the occupation. Mention one! He did not have an answer. Not even the US goes along with Israel in connection to the settlement and the continuation of the occupation.
So, that’s why when I say Israel is isolated, it is a fact of life and sooner or later this is going to surface in the Israeli mind. And I'm hoping that the election day comes and they will realize that if there is no drastic change, Israel’s standing in the international community will further deteriorate and we will be gradually subjected to the significant sanctions, even by its closest friends.
I want to add one thing. Israel probably has one of the greatest potentials in just about every field, when you look at Israel today: in terms of technology, agronomy, in medicine, you name it. Israel is at the forefront compared to any nation. And all that potential, which is huge by any standard, could be so much more utilized if Israel has been able to forge peace with the Palestinians, and subsequently with the rest of the Arab world.
That is where Israel should be heading, this is where Israel should be and this is how Israel can survive, because the human resources there are of much magnitude but they are being really wasted and only limited pretty much to Israel itself. I think this is mostly amendable. The Israelis and their leadership are not seeing that and are squandering a historic opportunity to put Israel on the forefront and become a significant contributor to the international community.