Thursday, August 20, 2009
Bibi the happy juggler
Aug 20th 2009 | JERUSALEM
From The Economist print edition
Binyamin Netanyahu soaks up the pressures from abroad and at home
IT HAS been a good summer for the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. Five months into his term, his centre-right coalition looks solid, and he himself exudes an air of confidence. But more anxious times lie ahead as the Obama administration prepares to publish its own plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. A first draft will be unveiled in September, according to Egyptian officials who travelled with President Hosni Mubarak to Washington this week. Mr Netanyahu’s team expect the moment of truth in October. They are not looking forward to it.
For now though, Mr Netanyahu’s optimism stems from the fact that he is getting the domestic politics right. None of his coalition partners is threatening to walk out on him, an unusual bonus in Israeli coalitions where the partners-cum-rivals are forever eyeing alternative alliances. The fractured arithmetic of the present Knesset has led the politicians to conclude that Mr Netanyahu is the only realistic option, other than elections which no one wants to trigger so early in the term.
Mr Netanyahu has reinforced this reality by ramming through the Knesset a law that would enable seven members of a large party to secede as a block, and to take their state financing with them. It just so happens that Mr Netanyahu believes that seven members of Tsipi Livni’s Kadima, the main opposition party, may secede and join his coalition. Mr Netanyahu brushes aside accusations of unfair play. He says Ms Livni would do the same to his Likud if their roles were reversed.
In terms of policy, Mr Netanyahu has managed to juggle pressures from America and political pressures at home into a convenient holding pattern. An early confrontation with President Barack Obama over settlements has softened over the summer into an ongoing negotiation with the president’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, over how long and how extensive an Israeli building freeze might be. Building, by private contractors, goes on meanwhile in many of the settlements. Yet Mr Netanyahu won praise from Mr Obama on August 18th for an unannounced suspension of government-sponsored building projects. This was “movement in the right direction,” the president said, as was Israel’s removal of some of the checkpoints that hamper free movement for Palestinians on the West Bank.
Mr Obama also pointed to “increased economic activity” on the West Bank and praised the efforts of the American-trained Palestinian security forces which, he said, had “inspired confidence not just among the Israeli people but among the Palestinian people.” A steep decline in terror attacks against Israelis has boosted Mr Netanyahu’s standing at home and contributed to a widespread feeling that the conflict with the Palestinians is being contained and the dispute with Washington successfully smoothed over.
However, an Obama peace plan could sharply disturb Mr Netanyahu’s mood of calm. Just how sharply was signalled this week by four of his more hawkish ministers who chose to tour several of the “illegal” settlement-outposts on the West Bank which the government has pledged to dismantle. These settlements were not illegal, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party declared. Moshe Ya’alon of the Likud, one of Mr Netanyahu’s two vice-prime ministers, said the government should seriously consider restoring the settlement of Homesh which Israel dismantled as part of Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank in 2005.
Mr Netanyahu’s office said nothing. Officials there would like the summer never to end.