Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is approaching the point of irrelevance, from which his government will slide into the next elections without anything to show for the current term. His time in office has been marked by a major lost opportunity. The two primary goals that he set - halting the Iranian threat and reaching a settlement with the Palestinians - are evading him. His only accomplishment, dragging Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas into direct negotiations, broke apart on takeoff.
Netanyahu's government is dealing with nonsensical issues: the loyalty oath bill for new Arab citizens, and now for Jews, too, and the blame game with the Palestinians over who is responsible for the failure of the talks - whether it's because of the settlements or the Palestinian refusal to recognize a Jewish state.
Netanyahu rejected the proposal by U.S. President Barack Obama and Defense Minister Ehud Barak for an additional 60-day settlement construction freeze, explaining that he has to demonstrate "trustworthiness and steadfastness." As he sees it, if he stands up to the American president now, he will keep some wiggle room in reserve, in anticipation of the tough decisions ahead. But the same person who tries to be seen as tough when facing Obama, which is no great show of strength when the U.S. president has been weakened and is preparing for defeat in the November congressional elections, comes out looking like a dishrag when facing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Attempts to satisfy the foreign minister undermine Netanyahu's trustworthiness and steadfastness to the same extent as the continuation of the freeze, but with the opposite effect. It turns out the prime minister has nothing to say. He is simply being kicked around like a soccer ball between Obama and Lieberman, between Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, between Defense Minister Barak and Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog.
Netanyahu will survive the coming months. Lieberman is not quitting. Barak and the other Labor Party ministers are still hoping for a "genuine peace process," and will not vacate their posts until its collapse is imminent. Maybe in the spring. That would buy Netanyahu time, but what will he do during that time?
Israel's diplomacy has reached a turning point. Instead of dealing with the failed direct talks, from this point Israel will be orchestrating a diplomatic holding action against the Palestinian initiative to have the UN Security Council recognize Palestinian independence within the 1967 borders. Such a decision would deem Israel an invader and occupier, paving the way for measures against Israel. Obama could scuttle the process by casting an American veto. Would he do it? And at what price?
Barak is warning Netanyahu that Obama is determined to establish a Palestinian state, even if it requires political risks. The president doesn't have to come out publicly against Israel, but can simply stand on the sidelines when the Security Council recognizes Palestine. The international movement to boycott Israel will gain massive encouragement when Europe, China and India turn their backs on Israel and erode the last remnants of its legitimacy. Gradually the Israeli public will also feel the diplomatic and economic stranglehold.
It's not certain that this will happen. A U.S. Congress under Republican control would exert tremendous pressure on Obama to cast a U.S. veto at the United Nations. Of greater import, however, is that an international declaration that Israel is an occupier and trespasser could spark a new war here and the large amount of blood that would be shed would be on Obama's hands, if he were to allow such a resolution to pass. This could deter the president, but he will ask for a quid pro quo from Israel.
On the Iranian front, too, the situation is not rosy. The visit to Lebanon by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad handed Netanyahu propaganda points. But you don't defeat atomic bombs with propaganda. Israel has adopted a new definition for the point of no return. Instead of talking about an operational nuclear bomb or a "threshold nation" that accumulates enriched material and could quickly assemble a bomb, Israel is now warning of a situation in which Iran expands its nuclear infrastructure until its survivability is assured, foiling the possibility of a surgical strike on its installations. Anyone wishing to act against Iran will have to engage in all-out war aimed at toppling the Iranian regime. Israel does not have such capacity and time is running out.
On the face of it, it is not too late to attack Iran, but how will Netanyahu overcome Obama's opposition to an Israeli operation? Will congressional support suffice? The records from the Yom Kippur War reveal the depth of Israeli dependence on America, even regarding self-defense. Netanyahu could defy Obama only if the president is weakened and Israel feels that its back is up against a wall. That is not the situation in the meantime.
In his prior term as prime minister, Netanyahu wasted most of his time on delaying tactics, and by the time he signed the Wye Accords with the Palestinians, he was already too weak and fell from power. Now he is engaging in the same kind of conduct. His time is fleeting. Will he manage to make a decision and leave his personal stamp on Israeli history, or will he continue his evasive tactics and be remembered as a leader who missed his chance twice?
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