Aluf Benn / Netanyahu must remember U.S. is stronger than Israel
Rather than try to outsmart Obama, PM should secure understandings and cooperation with him.
Benjamin Netanyahu had a great deal of luck during the first 100 days of his second term as prime minister. His predecessors in the job, including Netanyahu himself during his first term, were forced to deal with terror attacks and border incidents that set the tone for the rest of their term. But this time, he has enjoyed quiet on the security front, thereby sparing him the need to cope with captivity and bereavement, or to make life-and-death decisions in real time.
A few reminders: Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, lost his entire world during his first 100 days, during which Gilad Shalit was kidnapped to Gaza, Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser were kidnapped to Lebanon and Israel embarked on the Second Lebanon War. Ariel Sharon had to deal with the suicide bombing at the Dolphinarium during his first 100 days. In 1996, just over 100 days after Netanyahu took office for the first time, the Western Wall tunnel clashes erupted, leaving 17 Israeli soldiers and dozens of Palestinians dead. In each of these incidents, the sitting premier paid a heavy political price for his decisions.
Thanks to the quiet in the territories and along the borders, Netanyahu has been able to devote himself to his principal goal: consolidating his political position. When asked before the election how he had changed since his first government collapsed, he replied: I learned to be a politician. I saw how Sharon and Olmert treated people - other politicians - and I internalized this. I understood that politics is a "people business" and I learned to listen during meetings.
Netanyahu can be satisfied with his accomplishments during his first 100 days. He moved himself from the right to the political center when he adopted the "two states for two peoples" idea in his speech at Bar-Ilan University and got it by his Likud party without any real opposition. His coalition is stable and his senior ministers are backing him up; there are few leaks against him. The opposition, headed by Tzipi Livni, has been neutralized, as Netanyahu has removed its reason to exist - its support for a Palestinian state.
But Netanyahu's new political situation was not achieved without a cost: It required him to blatantly and cynically abandon the ideology and ideas he promoted in the past, in both the diplomatic and economic spheres. The old Netanyahu opposed a Palestinian state with all his might and supported budget cuts and lower taxes. The new Netanyahu, like Sharon in his day, sees ideology as naive and adapts his policies to his short-term political goals. Therefore, he decided to support two states for two peoples and raise taxes.
In his previous term, Netanyahu fought constantly with his ministers and was toppled when he lost his coalition partners on the right. This time, he is doing everything possible to satisfy his strategic coalition partners, Labor and Shas, who ensured his rise to power after Olmert resigned by thwarting Livni's efforts to form a government. He has paid them whatever they want with regard to the budget, even agreeing to cancel the planned imposition of value-added tax on fruits and vegetables and absorb the ensuing criticism about his "100 days of flip-flopping."
Netanyahu's behavior has also claimed two victims: Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who is perceived as a laughable, dominated dishrag, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has lost his political power and whose diplomatic role has in effect been transferred to Defense Minister Ehud Barak and President Shimon Peres.
Netanyahu's goal in the next 100 days will be to bring either Kadima or some part of it into the coalition, as he needs shoring up on the left in advance of Washington's publication of its peace plan. Lieberman is now fighting to keep his seat so that Livni or Shaul Mofaz does not inherit it - at least until the attorney general decides whether to indict him.
Netanyahu's major stumble during his first 100 days was the crisis in relations with the United States. He is convinced that U.S. President Barack Obama was determined to pick a fight with him in order to appease the Arab world at Israel's expense. Yet it seems he has not done enough to fix the relationship, nor has he managed to leverage his agreement to a Palestinian state to secure better coordination with Obama and his administration. The administration's insistence on a settlement freeze put America on a collision course with Netanyahu, who is not willing to halt construction completely.
His new position on the political map has helped Netanyahu in his confrontation with the United States. He has drawn encouragement from a survey in The Jerusalem Post three weeks ago which found that only 6 percent of Israeli Jews believe the Obama administration is pro-Israel. Given this situation, Netanyahu has not paid a political and public price for his dispute with Obama; rather, he is seen as a patriot who is defending the state against hostile pressure.
Netanyahu has proved that, contrary to the accepted wisdom, a fight with America does not necessarily bring about an Israeli premier's political demise. Yet given the challenges he faces - an American peace plan that will call for Israel to leave the territories and perhaps a war with Iran - he would do better not to try to beat Obama, but to secure understandings and cooperation with him. In the end, Netanyahu also knows that America is stronger than Israel, and that luck will not always be on his side.