When the security cabinet decided to ease the civilian blockade on the Gaza Strip this week, the process followed the precise modus operandi Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken with regard to leading Israel's foreign and defense policy this term. Each such incident has had four stages: crisis, pressure, cave-in and agreement.
In the first stage, Israel gets entangled in an international crisis over use of force that some consider excessive, or due to new construction in the settlements or in East Jerusalem. "The world" demands that Israel be punished and Netanyahu begs the U.S. administration to rescue him. In the second stage, U.S. President Barack Obama takes advantage of the opportunity, and demands that Netanyahu make concessions to the Palestinians and rein in the settlements in exchange for American help. In the third, and critical, stage, Netanyahu caves in after putting up symbolic resistance to Obama's demands or buying a little time.
The result is always the same and apparently unavoidable: Netanyahu changes his policy in a way that goes against the ideology he was raised on at home and his right-wing coalition platform. The premier listens to his father, Benzion, to his wife, Sara, to his colleagues in Likud and to his "natural partners" from Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas. He undoubtedly agrees with them in his heart, but understands intellectually that Israel is totally dependent on U.S. support.
Then comes the fourth and most surprising stage: The prime minister's zigzag makes no waves, not even a ripple, in the coalition. No one attacks Netanyahu on the morning radio talk shows. Benny Begin, Moshe Ya'alon, Eli Yishai and Avigdor Lieberman, who certainly oppose the government's frequent policy shifts, cling to their seats in the ministerial septet. Netanyahu treats them with respect, convenes them for worthless discussions that go on for hours and in the end gets what he wants: Everyone is committed to a decision that Obama dictated.
This scenario has occured four times already. It started with Netanyahu's speech at Bar-Ilan University, where he accepted the concept of a Palestinian state - which he had preached against throughout his entire diplomatic and political career. It continued with the 10-month settlement construction freeze, which is in total opposition to what the political right in Israel represents. The next step - in the wake of the "Biden crisis" - was to limit construction for Jews and to refrain from demolishing Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, even if this was not officially declared. Finally, this week, we got the easing of the Gaza blockade, which until now had been presented to the public as an essential defense against Hamas and a crucial instrument for bringing back abducted soldier Gilad Shalit.
Unlike the previous events, the easing of the blockade was accompanied by a small shift in the plot: Netanyahu claims that three months after he formed his government, he actually proposed a loosening of the civilian blockade and that this was in fact done in bits and pieces, until the flotilla affair forced Israel to open the transit points to all civilian goods. At this point, the premier's listeners are meant to fill in the gaps and guess who the bad guys are: in this case, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his aides, who prevented the blockade from being eased earlier and then entangled Israel in a diplomatic mess with the Turkish flotilla debacle, in which lives were lost.
From the moment the naval commandos rappelled into the club-and-knife ambush on the deck of the Mavi Marmara, it was clear the military blunder would undermine the political and personal alliance between Netanyahu and Barak, which until then looked rock-solid. Netanyahu is blaming Barak for what happened and the latter responds by demanding that Israel put forward a political initiative and that Netanyahu bring Kadima into the government, while threatening that Labor will not remain indefinitely in such a paralyzed, rejectionist coalition. This is meant to frighten Netanyahu, who is afraid of being locked into an extreme-right coalition and becoming totally dependent on the caprices of his foreign minister, Lieberman. Netanyahu knows his "natural partner" wants to be his heir and make Yisrael Beiteinu the leader of the right wing on the ruins of Likud.
In the first round of the political battle, the prime minister came out swinging. Addressing the Knesset on Wednesday, he rejected the calls for an political initiative. That sort of process, he explained, would not help Israel in the face of the delegitimization attempt being waged by "radical Islam and the radical left," in an effort to eliminate "Jewish sovereignty within any borders" while calling on Jews to go back to Poland and Morocco. And how does Netanyahu intend to fight the international campaign to dismantle Israel? He has two solutions: first, to recognize the seriousness of the problem, and then to unify against it.
In his speech, Netanyahu denounced Israeli left-wingers who support an anti-Israeli boycott. "It's a national scandal," he declared, calling for the condemnation of "the radical core among us." In so doing, he also offered state patronage to the campaign being led by the right-wing Im Tirtzu organization against the left's influence in the universities and against the funding sources for Israeli human rights groups. That's classic Netanyahu: Back in his first term as prime minister, he was decrying the left's power over the academic discourse. At the time, this was taken to be political persecution of "the elites."
Now, Netanyahu is presenting his struggle against the left as an essential vehicle in the fight to save Israel from the so-called delegitimization threat. The political message to Barak is also transparent: Anyone who abandons the coalition at this difficult hour, when internal unity is called for, is indirectly abetting those seeking to liquidate Zionism.
Netanyahu is right in believing that the international community will reject any political initiative by his current government, just as the Bar-Ilan speech and the settlement construction freeze were disdainfully ignored.
Furthermore, the premier is presenting the partnership with Barak as a "unity government," but that message is not being accepted abroad. According to European diplomats, only if Netanyahu brings Tzipi Livni into the government and accepts the Olmert government's peace proposals will they believe he is truly serious. But Netanyahu has not reached that point and neither has Livni.
But Netanyahu's conduct in the flotilla and blockade episode, as in earlier crises, suggest he will have trouble rejecting an American policy initiative, if and when one is put forward. He will protest, but if Obama holds firm, the premier will once again cave in and the coalition will fall into line behind him. This will particularly be the case if Israel needs a U.S. life preserver in a confrontation with Iran and its supporters, as happened after the Yom Kippur War, the first Gulf War and the second intifada - events that derailed Israel's self-confidence and led to territorial withdrawals. Netanyahu is a hero against the left-wing scarecrow in Israeli academe. In the face of Obama his roar turns into a whimper. He makes speeches about our historical rights and then does what the Americans dictate.
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