The Struggle for Netanyahu’s Soul

By Andrew Wilson

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been struggling. He is torn between his propensity toward unilateralism and the need for wider international engagement to deal with his country’s immediate national security needs. While he understands the value of a multilateral approach to dealing with Iran, that same international community pushing him towards multilateralism wants him to engage in serious negotiations with the Palestinians. He also cannot feel assured that a like-minded Republican presidential candidate will succeed in replacing President Obama, who is a multilateralist to the core. If circumstances propel him along the road of joint cooperation, one casualty may be the right-wing settler movement, which has long relied on his support. 

Netanyahu is generally a master at governing amidst Israel’s fractious coalition politics, particularly because he has a loyal base of right-wing cabinet ministers who can count on him to have their backs. Consider that embarrassing incident in March 2010, when United States Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Israel to lay the groundwork to resume negotiations with the Palestinians, and Israel simultaneously announced the construction of 1,600 new housing units in the settlements. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it an “insult.” Netanyahu was forced to apologize. Yet the construction was not cancelled and has since gone forward.

That settlement construction had been approved by the Interior Ministry, which was controlled by the Shas Party. Avidly pro-settlement, its leader Ovadia Yosef called the Palestinians “evil, bitter enemies of Israel.” Yet even though Shas had caused him public embarrassment, Netanyahu did not waver in backing their plans to expand settlements. As a confident unilateralist, he was not worried about the Americans. He rightly figured that they would stay in his corner regardless.

However last week we saw something quite unexpected: Netanyahu actually backed down over settlements. In the context of the low-level talks with the Palestinians in Amman and the international pressure to make those talks succeed, he broke with his settler constituency and backtracked on a list that would have provided housing grants for 70 settlements, many of them deep in the West Bank. 

On January 26—the date originally set by the Quartet of the U.S., the EU, Russia and the UN for both sides to submit their proposals on borders and security—the Israeli envoy to the Amman talks, Yitzhak Molcho, gave an oral presentation on the general principles of borders and security. Palestinian officials reportedly interpreted the presentation as defining a border along the current separation barrier, which Israel has erected to fence off the West Bank—a fence that sometimes follows the Green Line but also weaves and loops deep into the West Bank to incorporate major settlements within Israel. Their interpretation may be generous, however, as Israeli officials indicated that in Molcho’s presentation, the Jordan Valley, which is not a fenced-off area, would also remain within Israel. 

Then, on January 29, Netanyahu’s office announced the list of communities eligible for housing and development grants to individuals of up to $20,000 (75,000 NIS) for financing home construction. The list included 70 settlements; among them were 57 settlements east of the separation barrier that the Palestinians had been led to believe were to be Israel’s presentation of a border. This was also in contradiction to promises Israel made to the United States, in which they said that they would refrain from providing economic incentives for Israelis to move into West Bank settlements. 

Four days later, on February 2, Israel backtracked and took the 70 settlements off the list. The announcement coincided with the visit of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Ban spoke of his hope that “Israel will be forthcoming with its own concrete proposals on territory and security, as called for by the Quartet, in order to reach agreement on all final status issues before the end of this year.”

In backtracking, Netanyahu was willing to distance himself from the politically powerful Yesha Council that promotes settlements throughout the West Bank. In response, its chairman, Danny Dayan, complained in a letter, “It’s a grave decision blatantly discriminating against the West Bank settlements in comparison to the rest of the country.” Yet Dayan has nowhere else to go. Politically, Netanyahu still holds all the cards, and he does have room to get serious about negotiating with the Palestinians, which he claims he is, regardless of what the Yesha Council thinks. If they were to desert his coalition, Netanyahu would still have his Likud base from which he could build a new coalition with centrist and even left-of-center parties that would encourage his new-found willingness to engage with the Quartet.

Dayan and Ban represent the two opposing sides in the struggle for Netanyahu’s soul. Dayan would have him reaffirm his traditional Zionist leanings towards unilateralism and reliance on military strength to cow the Palestinians into submission. But if he listens to Ban and makes good on his word to have serious negotiations with the Palestinians, he would be embracing an internationalist approach that he has never felt comfortable with in the first place. Nevertheless, the strategic situation in 2012 may be requiring him to change.

One reason for the difference is Iran. Netanyahu knows that Israel may soon have to launch military strikes against Iran’s nuclear program. He has to be weighing the costs and benefits of going it alone versus building a multilateral coalition.

There is the real risk that Iran could retaliate after its major nuclear facilities were struck, and unilateral action would make Israel the prime target of an Iranian counter-strike. However, if a multilateral coalition were formed that included the United States, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, the risk to Israel would be reduced. A wounded Iran with limited capabilities might be more likely to strike at closer targets, such as the Strait of Hormuz, U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf, or the Saudi oil fields. Hence, it is not surprising that Netanyahu and his envoys have been meeting with European and American officials to develop and coordinate support for a strike against Iran.

While it may be too much to hope that Netanyahu will experience a conversion to multilateralism, he could learn from President Obama’s foreign policy successes, which were achieved through a multilateral approach. After all, the American president whose unilateralism most resembled Netanyahu’s was George W. Bush, whose spotty record on foreign policy (especially his costly and inconclusive war in Iraq) he would not wish to emulate. Obama has done far better than his predecessor by listening to the views of other nations, defining shared goals, and then building multilateral actions to attain them—as demonstrated in his handling of Libya. If an attempted military solution to the Iranian problem were to turn into a quagmire like Iraq, Israel would not like to be sitting in it alone. 

Even as Netanyahu works to develop a multilateral approach on Iran, Israel’s partners in Europe, the U.S. and the Arab world should not give him a free pass on the Palestinian problem. The international community understands the importance of finalizing an agreement for a two-state solution. They should, and I believe they will, continue to press Netanyahu to work with the Quartet’s timetable. They should also continue to demonstrate that, in pressing for a peace agreement, they are acting as friends of Israel.

In the struggle for Netanyahu’s soul, let’s hope he chooses multilateralism over unilateralism. Israel’s immediate security in the face of the Iranian threat will best be served by a multilateral approach. And Israel’s long-term security will best be served by ending the international irritant of the West Bank occupation through negotiations mediated by the Quartet, which can provide the support, persuasion and incentives to get it done. 



 Andrew Wilson is co-author of the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine (, an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, access, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.

(Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)


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