Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has an uncanny talent for bending the public and media agendas to his changing political needs. The preparations for the attack on Iran that never happened underpinned his coalition with Ehud Barak. “Equal sharing of the burden” was the glue for his short-lived partnership with Yair Lapid. And after the 2015 election, Netanyahu turned to “replacing the elites,” together with Naftali Bennett, but their personal rivalry and competition for a similar voter pool have brought their alliance to the brink of dissolution.
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In the past week Netanyahu has assumed a new role, that of the peacemaker who seeks to establish a Palestinian state. In the two years that have elapsed since the breakdown of the negotiations led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Netanyahu entrenched himself in the deep right and removed the idea of partition from the agenda. But the moment he brought Avigdor Lieberman into the government as defense minister, the two found the divine light of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians and began preaching the two-state gospel from every possible pulpit.
The evidence for Netanyahu’s supposed “road to Damascus” moment is building up: Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who must justify his membership in the extreme-right coalition after the well-argued resignation from the cabinet and the Knesset of his party colleague Avi Gabbay, announced the opening of a “historic window of opportunity” for the peace process; Natan Eshel, a former aide to Netanyahu who is close to the prime minister’s family, wrote in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz on Friday that Netayahu chose to take a political risk in order to “advance the two-state idea” and brought Lieberman into the coalition as a right defender, to borrow from soccer terminology. Bennett, in contrast, is behaving like an opposition member within the government.
The talk of a potential political breakthrough is meant to pressure Zionist Union, or parts of it, to join up with Netanyahu. You don’t conduct a peace process from the opposition, pleads Kahlon; come and lead it from the inside, urges Eshel. But as usual with Netanyahu, it’s hard to detect any real substance behind the slogans. Netanyahu rejected from the outset the only concrete political process at the moment, the French peace initiative. And in contrast to his dovish declarations, accelerated measures to expand the settlements are underway. Netanyahu also continues to insist on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, offering nothing in return.
Under these circumstances, Zionist Union co-leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni should remain outside the government while promising Netanyahu to support movement toward a two-state solution from the opposition. Their joining the coalition would only bulwark Netanyahu’s rule and dismantle the opposition to right-wing control, even if Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi were to leave the coalition. Netanyahu must make a greater effort to persuade his listeners that his talk of a peace agreement is sincere, and is not simply another trick to shore up the coalition.