There is a lot of buzz about this Peter Beinart piece on President Obama’s mismanaging his strategy toward the Israel and the peace process. Leaving aside the larger question about what it says about whether Obama is pro-Israel or not (and for the record, I firmly believe that he is, and I think it becomes clear when looking at the substance of his actions rather than his sometimes puzzling rhetoric) a couple of things jump out at me.
First, Obama and his team criminally misread the state of Israeli politics and public opinion. Beinart reports that the White House believed that no Israeli PM could afford to alienate any U.S. president and that American pressure on Obama would force Netanyahu to back down. Yet the administration did not take into account the high levels of unpopularity and mistrust Israelis felt toward Obama in 2009. The president’s popularity rating, which had been 31% in according to a Jerusalem Post poll in May 2009, plummeted to 6% following his public push for a settlement freeze, and his Cairo speech -with its emphasis on the Holocaust as the reason for Israel’s creation despite the decades of pre-WWII Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine – did himself no favors with the Israeli electorate. Furthermore, Israelis were then and still are baffled by Obama’s trips to Ankara, Cairo, and Jakarta without a stopover in Jerusalem. So while it is generally true that Israeli PMs have suffered politically following high profile disagreements with American presidents, the deep wariness Israelis had for Obama made this situation different. The complete misreading of the situation is all the more surprising considering that one would expect Rahm Emanuel to have had a good grasp of the state of Israeli politics.
Second, the theory that Netanyahu would fold like he had during the Clinton administration completely ignored the fact that Israel has a proportional representation voting system that requires building a coalition to control the Knesset, and that Bibi’s coalition this time is different from his last one. In the late 90s, the Netanyahu coalition consisted of Likud, a religious bloc of Shas, Mafdal, and UTJ, Third Way, and Yisrael BaAliyah. While Likud was obviously not a big advocate of the peace process, it was the entity that Bibi controlled and would have gone along with any decision he made. Certainly the later example of Ariel Sharon orchestrating the Gaza pullout and the formation of Kadima demonstrates the power of the PM to carry out initiatives that run contrary to his or her previous positions. Shas and UTJ have always been concerned first and foremost with securing subsidies for their ultra-Orthodox constituents, and have in the past been part of governments that were less extreme on settlements and conducted peace negotiations. While Mafdal during the last decade of its life was largely a settler party, it was not one when it was in the Netanyahu coalition between ’96 and ’99, and also would have acquiesced to a shift in policy. Third Way was a Labor breakaway, and Yisrael BaAliyah was Natan Sharansky’s party and existed to cater to the needs of Russian olim. The point here is that Bibi’s coalition during his first stint as PM was not dependent on settler support and continued settlement growth, and thus pressure from an American president on settlements and peace process issues was able to be effective.
Fast forward a decade to 2009, and the situation was completely flipped. In 2009, Likud came in second in Knesset elections, losing to Kadima by one seat, but Kadima was not able to form a coalition precisely because of its stance on settlements and the peace process. This meant that when Netanyahu and Likud got their chance to build a coalition to control the Knesset, they were overly dependent on hawkish and settler-dominated parties, and thus the coalition was Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu (led by Avigdor Lieberman, himself a settler), Shas (which has become far more hardline on settlements due to its member feeling alienated by pro-peace upper and middle class secular Ashkenazi Jews), and Labor, which served in the government so that Ehud Barak could be defense minister. For Obama’s pressure to work on Netanyahu in 2009, he would have had to reverse himself on the settlement issue, which would have fatally blown up his coalition. The only way he would have been able to stay in power would have been through an alliance with Kadima, but having won more seats than Likud did, Tzipi Livni would never have consented to joining a coalition in which she was not PM.
So while the Obama administration’s idea about Israeli PMs not being able to survive public conflicts with American presidents may be correct in theory, they neglected to think the entire strategy through and take into account the various ways in which the Israeli political climate in 2009 was going to present them with a number of insurmountable roadblocks.