Netanyahu - Guy Assayag
Netanyahu watching the flames from above the Carmel on Sunday. Photo by Guy Assayag
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's behavior this week exemplified the "paradox of the leader." Going to the scene, issuing orders on live TV and displaying control as events unfold will win you popularity. But if Netanyahu and his government had reinforced the Fire and Rescue Services in advance, and had there not been a major fire, there would have been no political gain. In the army, too, medals are awarded for bravery in battle, not for preventing wars.

Netanyahu chalked up a few victories this week. He was seen as the commander-in-chief who brought to Israel the planes that fought the blaze on Mount Carmel. He employed a combination of stubbornness and cunning against the U.S. administration's demand for a further construction freeze in the settlements, forcing U.S. President Barack Obama to back off. And he conducted advanced negotiations to end the crisis with Turkey.

The immediate results are clear: The coalition was spared a crisis over a construction freeze; and Shas, whose leader was scathed, as it were, in the fire, will now be clinging to its government seats. The Labor Party will latch on to the new peace plan, that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to present this evening, as an excuse to remain in the Netanyahu government.

The "hour of decision" has been postponed, and who can say when it will return? The prime minister proved to his voters on the right that he can "safeguard the Land of Israel" despite American pressure, enjoy mass popularity and avert a confrontation with Obama. The settlers can feel pleased. They believe the West Bank Jewish population is approaching a critical mass of hundreds of thousands, putting paid to any ideas of an Israeli withdrawal.

Judging from Netanyahu's behavior, he believes that currently there is no partner for peace and no target for war. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is refusing to talk to him and is promoting a diplomatic effort to bypass negotiations, involving international recognition of Palestine within the borders of the territory occupied by Israel in 1967. Netanyahu's response was to lift restrictions on the export of goods from Gaza, a move that strengthens "Hamastan." Abbas turned to Argentina for recognition, Netanyahu turned to Ismail Haniyeh.

Netanyahu has two wild cards, should pressure to make peace intensify: renewing the negotiations with Syria and a partial withdrawal from the West Bank. The defense establishment is recommending the Syrian track as a political tool against Iran. But Netanyahu has no reason to hurry. The U.S. administration has been weakened and there is no public pressure to advance the political process.

The Mount Carmel fire and the collapse of the firefighting services showed that the home front is not prepared for a war with Iran and Hezbollah, in which thousands of missiles would strike Israeli cities. In such a situation, Netanyahu would hesitate to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. The exposure of Israel's vulnerability entails risks: The enemy might be tempted to attack before the "Elad squadron" of firefighting planes enters service (and before next spring, at which time, according to the Air Force Journal, Israel will achieve initial operational capability to use the new bunker-buster bombs acquired by the F-15I squadrons ). In the coming months, Netanyahu will be torn between the assessment that Obama is too weak to thwart an Israeli attack, particularly after the WikiLeaks revelations, and the evaluation of the enormous risks entailed in an operation that could wreak destruction and devastation on Israel's civilian population.

All of this leaves Israel in a "no war no peace" situation, as in the days of Golda Meir. An economic boom in the shadow of a volcano. "You are always looking for big decisions," one of Netanyahu's advisers told me a year ago. "Why can't we get through this term with a little freeze, a little settlement activity, a few quarrels and a little reconciliation with Obama?" So far, Netanyahu has succeeded pretty well with that approach. The events of the past few days showed again that he's a lot better at responding to events that are forced on him than at demonstrating initiative.