Netanyahu stands unchallenged in Israel's political landscape
Netanyahu excelled at maintaining the status quo on the political and security fronts, but the domestic front represents his biggest failure.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement of early elections appears geared toward ensuring he remains in power. His rivals are weak and insignificant, and have not presented an alternative to his policies. When one listens to Shaul Mofaz, Tzipi Livni or Yair Lapid, Netanyahu stands out as an authoritative, experienced statesman with no viable replacement at this time.
In his televised speech on Tuesday, Netanyahu highlighted his achievements over the past four years: political stability, "strengthening security" and "strengthening the economy." Though he cited these accomplishments as reasons he should remain in office, his score card is rather more mixed than his speech would indicate.
Netanyahu excelled at maintaining the status quo on the political and security fronts; it is the domestic front that represents his biggest failure. Netanyahu has not presented a convincing vision for Israel's future, one that addresses the demographic changes sweeping over Israeli society as the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities continue to grow, and one that can encourage young, secular Israelis to remain in the country.
Netanyahu said, and rightly so, that the primary strategic challenge facing Israel is the tumultuous Arab Spring, which Netanyahu views as "a dangerous and difficult upheaval." The familiar neighborhood is coming apart: The Muslim Brotherhood has risen to power in Egypt, Assad's regime is fighting for its life, and Jordan's stability is in danger. The Sinai Peninsula, once a tourist haven, has become a menacing terrorist base.
Since the upheaval began in Tunisia and Egypt approximately two years ago, Netanyahu has displayed impressive restraint. He has avoided public clashes with Egypt's Mohammed Morsi despite their ideological differences, and he has steered clear of embroiling Israel in Syria's civil war. His response to the regional turmoil was to hunker down and keep still. Thanks to his caution, Netanyahu enjoys the quiet support of Western leaders even though they can't stand him or his policies.
On the Palestinian front, Netanyahu has managed to prevent, or at least delay, a third intifada, and succeeded in shrugging off U.S. President Barack Obama's pressure to halt settlement construction. Netanyahu's supposed support for a Palestinian state has not withstood the test of time, because of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' refusal to negotiate with him.
Obama has also given up, and it remains unclear whether he intends to risk another bid to promote the peace process if reelected. Netanyahu hopes his friend Mitt Romney will defeat Obama, and that his victory will free Israel from the empty rhetoric about ending the occupation.
Netanyahu has spoken a lot about the Iranian threat and the need to thwart it in order to prevent a "second Holocaust," and he has increased preparations for a preemptive war, but he has not achieved a thing. Iran continues to enrich uranium and the prime minister continues to issue warnings. On Monday, Netanyahu said that guaranteeing that Iran will not have an atomic bomb was at the top of his objectives, as it was before the last Israeli election. Voters are being asked to believe that this time, things will be different.
Netanyahu can hang the Iran failure on Obama, who opposes both U.S. and Israeli military action on Iran. But in the domestic arena, the responsibility belongs solely to the prime minister. Netanyahu opted to contend with national challenges by buying the quiet of the coalition, on issues including the demographic revolution of the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, as well as the diminishing morale of the secular middle class.
Instead of developing a new and inclusive national ethos that would strive to integrate minority groups into society and the economy, Netanyahu chose the easy solution: to hit the Arabs and ingratiate himself with the ultra-Orthodox. That's how Netanyahu achieved the political stability so coveted by his right-wing/Haredi coalition, but in so doing he intensified the existing problems and exacerbated domestic tensions.
The Arab minority and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority are gaining strength in terms of numbers, and do not accept the old national ideal of the melting pot, dating to the days of David Ben-Gurion. Netanyahu is not offering an alternative model. Meanwhile, the shrinking secular majority is raising questions about the future of the state and about the point of living here in the future, and Israel is suffering from negative migration. This was the background to the summer's social protests.
Netanyahu succeeded in removing the masses from the squares and boulevards, but he did not give them new hope or a solution to their plight. Fortunately for the prime minister, none of his potential rivals has a vision any more compelling or sweeping than his own. Under these conditions, Netanyahu sought early elections before matters got any worse, and before a heavyweight rival could find his or her way onto the political scene.