Netanyahu Is Letting Domestic Politics Guide His Policy on Palestinians

With elections possibly in the offing, Netanyahu is looking toward the only power base he has: the right. From his point of view, it is too late to switch teams.

A moment before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lands in the midst of a chilly diplomatic situation whose outcome cannot be predicted, he organized a show of support for himself at the Knesset. Ministers, lawmakers and mayors sang his praises. They highlighted the achievements of his government and their satisfaction that it was Netanyahu who was charged with standing in the breach in these difficult times. They encouraged him to stay strong in safeguarding Israel's rights.

Netanyahu stressed, as did those who spoke after him, the animosity he would face at the United Nations.

Benjamin Netanyahu - Emil Salman - 16092011
Emil Salman

In Netanyahu's remarks during the toast, some of those present at the event seemed to have difficulty identifying signs of an imminent diplomatic breakthrough. The prime minister spoke mainly about how cautious Israel must be, and Netanyahu is no doubt the right man for the job: He has been in office for 30 months and has never been anything other than cautious, even during relatively tranquil periods.

What he sees as daring maneuvers - the (tardy ) recognition of a Palestinian state, and his decision to freeze construction in West Bank settlements for 10 months - the world saw as the bare minimum. Now he will have to deal with the sorry outcome in the only way he can, one that he knows very well: a magnificent speech - once again, a "speech of his lifetime," which obviously will bolster his standing in opinion polls at home.

To a great extent, it is politics dictating the diplomatic agenda: U.S. President Barack Obama is at the threshold of an election year, and his situation is not the best. He is surrounded by problems. Another empty attempt to jump-start negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians that blows up in his face and plays into the hands of his Republican adversaries is the last thing he needs.

Obama is poised to enter an election year with the impact of the Jewish vote and financial support just what Netanyahu needs. It is not for no reason that, ever since entering office in April 2009, Netanyahu has said to his people: "We have to hold on until Obama heads into an election year."

Netanyahu is not ignoring domestic politics. Ostensibly, his situation is stable, but the sense among many in the coalition is that the winter session of the Knesset, which opens at the end of October, could be what decides when the next election campaign begins. The bad omens are there, mainly from the direction of Yisrael Beiteinu under the leadership of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

With elections possibly in the offing, Netanyahu is looking toward the only power base he has: the right. From his point of view, it is too late to switch teams. If he makes an imprudent move or if he even blinks, he may find himself abandoned by the right and accused by the left of missing the boat. He will be bereft of voters.

Everyone knows the rules of this game, and that includes opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni, who called Netanyahu last night to tell him his trip was "critical to Israel's future," and that Kadima would support any move to start talks with the Palestinians. Livni quickly reported to the press about her remarks to Netanyahu before he took off for New York. In so doing, she laid the groundwork for her expected attack on him if he comes back from the United States without starting talks. She will be able to say something along the lines of: "I told him Kadima would support him, but once again that's not what he wanted." Livni also has her power base to keep in mind.