You may love or hate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but there is no arguing with his success. Since he returned to power, Israel has enjoyed security calm, economic growth and political stability of a sort not seen for the last generation.
The people prefer Netanyahu's diplomatic standstill and security restraint to the policy of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, which combined diplomatic daring with military adventurism. Israelis are in love with the status quo and do not want to be disturbed by peace initiatives or wars. Netanyahu's passivity suits them just fine.
In foreign policy, Netanyahu has proven to be a successful diplomat who knows how to leverage crises and turn them into opportunities. He took advantage of U.S. President Barack Obama's political difficulties to end the freeze on settlement construction and fend off an American peace initiative. His assessment that he would be able to pressure the president with the help of Congress and the American Jewish community proved right. Obama is fighting to be reelected to a second term, and is thus scattering declarations of love for Israel even though he cannot stand Netanyahu and his policies.
When Turkey confronted Israel over the flotilla crisis, Netanyahu was quick to form a strategic alliance with Greece. When relations between Ankara and Damascus became rocky and Greece found itself on the verge of financial collapse, Netanyahu moved closer to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan again.
He used the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas to shake off international pressure for concessions to the Palestinians, thereby preserving his freedom of action. Now, he is fighting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' initiative to gain UN recognition for a Palestinian state. The General Assembly session in September is still far off, but Abbas is showing signs of weakness, and his determination to follow through with his plan appears to be faltering.
The revolutions in the Arab world only bolstered Israel's strategic position. The United States and its European partners have lost their allies in the region. The Arab regimes are falling apart or fighting for survival, and Israel has been left as the sole island of stability and unreserved support for the West.
Iran is continuing its nuclear program, but it is torn by domestic infighting and finding it hard to preserve the power of its Syrian client, Bashar Assad. There is no real pressure on Netanyahu to rush into a preemptive strike on Iran, but there is also no one to stop him if he decides to send the air force to Natanz, Bushehr and Qom.
Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that Netanyahu looks satisfied with himself and is ignoring the warnings of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and President Shimon Peres, his erstwhile enthusiastic supporters, who are now predicting a "diplomatic tsunami" and "a crash into the wall." Instead of listening to them, he is celebrating his "victory over Obama" with his friends on the extreme right and even extracting praise from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
The problem is that Netanyahu's positions are diverging from those of his coalition, which is veering madly right. His declarations in favor of a Palestinian state are not acceptable to his partners, who are calling for Israel to annex the West Bank. His statement at this week's cabinet meeting, as reported by Barak Ravid in Haaretz yesterday, about his wish to separate from the Palestinians and to preserve a solid Jewish majority within Israel's future borders are closer to Olmert's positions than to those of ministers Uzi Landau or Limor Livnat, who argued with him about the "demographic threat."
If Netanyahu believes in dividing the land, as he has asserted to Congress, the Knesset and the cabinet, he must change his political partners. There is no other way of realizing his vision, which enjoys the support of a majority of the people. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni must be brought into the Foreign Ministry instead of Lieberman so that negotiations with the Palestinians can resume, and so that the world will believe Israel is serious, and not simply making up excuses to continue the occupation and expand the settlements.
There is no greater threat to good statesmanship than being drunk with success. This is what brought down some of history's greatest leaders, and it is what now threatens Netanyahu.
If he continues his dance with Lieberman and the settler rabbis, he will push the Palestinians into a third intifada and cause the grave prognostications of the defense minister and the president to come true. In order to prove Barak and Peres wrong, Netanyahu must set up a different coalition.
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