Analysis |

Wanted: A Prime Minister Who Can Clean Up Israel's Diplomatic Mess

Many of the issues Netanyahu should have been formulating strategies for in 2009 remain unresolved in 2015. A partial list.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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Election campaign ads line a street in Tel Aviv, March 8, 2014.
Election campaign ads line a street in Tel Aviv, March 8, 2014.Credit: GIl Cohen-Magen
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister for the second time at the beginning of April 2009. Despite 10 years of wandering in the political wilderness and on the opposition benches, he returned to the post with no strategy or plan for dealing with the serious diplomatic issues that were immediately laid on his desk.

Pesky Israeli journalists and curious foreign diplomats who wondered how Netanyahu planned to deal with such issues as the peace process, the situation in the Gaza Strip following Operation Cast Lead, relations with Syria or construction in the settlements received the same pat answer.

“We are starting a process of reevaluating our policy,” Netanyahu and his associates told all the questioners in April 2009. They promised that the process would end before Netanyahu’s trip to the United States and his first meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on May 18. The “policy reevaluation” resulted in a three-page document written by then-Netanyahu adviser Ron Dermer two days before Netanyahu went to America. It contained primarily public diplomacy messages about what Israel was not prepared to do.

Six years have passed, and Netanyahu still doesn’t seem to have a plan or a strategy. In most cases he seems to be reacting to events, and a policy – if there ever was one – is being fashioned on the run.

Over the past six years there have been numerous crises, wars, peace initiatives and even historic changes in the world in general, and in the Middle East in particular. Despite this, many of the issues Netanyahu should have been formulating strategies for in 2009 remain in place in 2015, with one big difference: They have become more difficult and complex to deal with. What follows is a partial list:

A crisis in relations with the United States

Netanyahu’s speech to Congress last week brought these six years’ increasingly tense relations between him and the White House to rock-bottom. It’s hard to exaggerate the loathing Obama and his senior officials feel for Netanyahu, or the damage that has been done to bilateral relations by this ongoing predicament. While the White House would never say so outright, it would be fair to assume that Obama and his associates would prefer to see Isaac Herzog as Israel’s next prime minister.

If Herzog forms the next government it will be relatively easy for him to shore up relations with the White House. If Netanyahu goes, the cloud looming over those ties will more or less dissipate. All Herzog will need to do is appoint a senior, experienced and professional person as ambassador to the United States and start to build an intimate and trusting relationship with Obama. His starting point would be far better than Netanyahu’s ever was.

Repairing ties with the White House will be more complicated if Netanyahu stays on. Senior U.S. administration officials see Netanyahu as part of the problem, not part of the solution, but they understand they will have to work with him if he’s reelected. But to even try to return to correct relations with Obama, Netanyahu will have to take some painful steps; first and foremost replacing Dermer as ambassador in Washington, where he is considered persona non grata. The next envoy will have to be a professional with no political affinities and with whom the administration will be prepared to work.

The Iranian nuclear agreement

Although the gaps between Iran and the P5+1 powers are still great, the two sides will do everything they can to reach an agreement by the deadline set for the end of June. The next Israeli prime minister will most likely take office in May, and will thus have only a few weeks to try to influence the impending deal. Most important will be to define what will be considered a violation of the agreement on Iran’s part, and what sanctions and responses will be called for in response to such violations. Either Netanyahu or Herzog will also have to come to understandings with the White House on what security and diplomatic guarantees America will provide Israel following the deal with Iran.

The worsening situation with the Palestinians

Relations with the U.S. are paradise compared to the deep crisis that developed between Israel and the Palestinians this past year. The list of ingredients in this volatile brew is long, and includes the breakdown of the peace talks, the unilateral steps being pursued by the Palestinian Authority in international forums, Israeli responses that are squeezing the Palestinian economy, the possible halting of security cooperation and more.

During this election campaign, both Netanyahu and Herzog have publicly expressed skepticism regarding the chances of achieving a breakthrough with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has backtracked on his support for a two-state solution as expressed in his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, arguing that the current reality makes the two-state formula irrelevant. Herzog said he would try to move the process forward and would even address the Palestinian parliament in Ramallah, but expressed doubt as to whether there is a serious Palestinian partner.

The main differences between Netanyahu and Herzog on the Palestinian issue are therefore more of style than of substance, but what is significant is that they are perceived differently by the Palestinians themselves. While Netanyahu, for reasons of political survival, denies and waffles on his positions on the Palestinian issue, Herzog seems prepared to stand behind his statements. Both the Palestinians and the international community therefore view Herzog, at least at this stage, as more trustworthy.

Whoever is elected prime minister will need to first halt the deterioration in the relations with the Palestinians and stabilize the ties with them. They will have to formulate a strategy that will prevent additional diplomatic confrontations with the Palestinians in the United Nations, stop the PA’s economic collapse, and prevent a third intifada.

As for the peace talks, it’s hard to see the point of another round of negotiations so long as neither side has made strategic decisions to adjust their positions and try to resolve the core issues.

The U.S., EU and the Arab world understand this. That’s why so many international players are pushing for a presentation of an updated vision for resolving the conflict or for passing a resolution on the issue in the UN Security Council that would obligate both Israel and the Palestinians to make the tough decisions before restarting negotiations. It would behoove both Herzog and Netanyahu to begin thinking now about what vital Israeli interests must be preserved in such an international decision. Whichever of them is elected will have to immediately launch a diplomatic battle aimed at persuading the United States and other powers to take Israel’s positions into account.

Settlement construction

No issue has caused more confrontations between Israel and its allies than this one. Given the real threat of international sanctions, the next government, whatever its composition, will have almost no wiggle room on this issue, and the more right-wing the government, the less maneuverability it will have.

Most party chairmen who will be part of the next Knesset understand this, even if they object to it or refuse to acknowledge it publicly. Even Netanyahu, who talked mightily about his contribution to the settlement enterprise during the campaign, quietly froze construction plans in the settlements and East Jerusalem for many months. Bennett and Housing Minister Uri Ariel may have protested publicly, but in closed forums acknowledged the constraints.

Five parties have publicly expressed support for a freeze, either total or selective, on building in settlements and East Jerusalem. The Joint List and Meretz support a total freeze. The Zionist Union led by Herzog and Tzipi Livni, Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid, and Kulanu, led by Moshe Kahlon, support a partial freeze, primarily of settlements beyond the separation barrier or outside the large settlement blocs.

It seems, then, that for the next government, a freeze in settlement construction will not be a matter of if, but of how much and for how long.

Preventing another Gaza war

Half a year after Operation Protective Edge, the reality in Gaza hasn’t changed at all. While there’s no cross-border violence at the moment, the Strip remains a powder keg. The slow pace of rebuilding, the humanitarian and economic crisis in the Strip, the tightening of the Egyptian siege on Hamas and the failure of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation process all make both sides e another round of fighting is only a matter of time.

One of the main missions of the next prime minister will be to prevent the next war in Gaza and bring about a long-term change in the reality in the South. Netanyahu doesn’t really have a plan for achieving this. He decided to end Operation Protective Edge by restoring the status quo that prevailed before the escalation last summer, and hoped that the massive destruction the Israel Defense Forces had left behind would create enough of a deterrent to assure a lengthy period of quiet.

During the election campaign, the heads of the Zionist Union attacked Netanyahu for the war’s diplomatic and security costs to Israel, but they also proposed an alternate course of action. Herzog, in his address to the Munich Security Conference in early February, said if elected, he, together with Israel’s allies in the region and elsewhere, would advance a process of demilitarizing the Gaza Strip in exchange for its rehabilitation. He said he would try to get the UN Security Council to pass a binding resolution to this effect, “to bring years quiet to the Gaza border.”

There are many other matters on the agenda aside from those surveyed here: Advancing a regional initiative with Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf States that might lead to a breakthrough in Israel’s relations with the Arab world, based on the mutual interests regarding Iran and the battle against the Islamic State; improving Israel’s status in Europe; preventing the imposition of any more European sanctions on Israel and repairing relations with Germany, France and Britain; and formulating a strategy for bridging gaps with American Jewry, which is mostly liberal and democratic, given disputes on issues such as the occupation or the lack of religious pluralism in Israel.

Whether Herzog scores a political upset next week or Netanyahu survives to govern another day, there won’t be any time for either to engage in foot-dragging or exercises in “reevaluating policy.” Whoever wins will have to hit the ground running and make a lot of decisions on a lot of issues – and fast.

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