Prime Minister Netanyahu's decision not to extend the moratorium on West Bank settlement has been met with disappointment on the western side of the Atlantic. The Obama Administration is "disappointed" and several American Jewish commentators have wondered as to whether Netanyahu seriously desires a comprehensive accord with the Palestinians, at least one that results in an independent Palestinian state.
Jeffrey Goldberg, of The Atlantic, offered this suggestion to Netanyahu: “Why not risk your governing coalition and impose a total freeze on settlement growth outside of the greater Jerusalem area? This way, you'll show the world, and the Palestinians -- who are governed, on the West Bank, at least, by a group of true moderates, who have done a great deal for your security over the past year -- that you are serious about grappling with the challenges before you. And you'll show President Obama that you mean it when you say that it is the Iranian nutters, and not the Palestinians, who pose an existential threat to Israel. Yes, risking your coalition means you would have to induce Tsipi Livni's opposition Kadima party into the government, but now seems as good a moment as any. At the very least, you'll gain a foreign minister who isn't an international embarrassment.”
Most prominent American Jewish commentators have not been as generous, instead seeing Netanyahu’s decision to preserve his right-wing governing coalition as proof positive that he never intended to sign a comprehensive agreement.
Peter Beinart, in the Daily Beast, reasoned that “a prime minister genuinely interested in a final status deal would have said good riddance, and brought in Livni’s Kadima instead, thus creating a government composed of people who actually support a Palestinian state. Netanyahu, however, has not done that, just as he refused to create a centrist government during his first stint as prime minister. The reason is that he likes governing alongside racist, pro-settler parties like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Ovadiah Yosef’s Shas. They give him political cover to do what he has wanted to do all along: Make a viable Palestinian state impossible.”
Two weeks ago, William Galston, writing in The New Republic, observed that “[t]he decision that the current coalition must be preserved at all costs would represent the clearest possible evidence that this round of negotiations isn’t serious.”
All this has led Matthew Yglesias over at ThinkProgress to demand that “[a]t some point don’t we need to give this game up?... [I]t’s actually not puzzling at all why Netanyahu doesn’t form a different coalition and agree to a settlement freeze—Netanyahu favors settlement building. This is the whole trajectory of his political career, from leading the charge against the Oslo Agreement to rump Likud in a rebellion against Ariel Sharon to forming a coalition with Avigdor Lieberman. The guy’s not a fool. He knows what he’s doing.
My reading of this is less clear. There are a range of possible intentions that Netanyahu may have. He may not want talks at all. He may want talks, but only so that he can manipulate the Palestinians into walking out, thus giving Israel the appearance of once again trying for peace, only to be turned down by the insatiable Palestinians. He may want the talks to succeed, but his definition of success for Israel is something no Palestinian can agree to. He may have a realistic grasp of what peace will take, and be wiling to do it, but also believe that for any substantive agreement to be accepted by the Israeli populace, it has to be negotiated by the Israeli right. All would explain his devotion to his coalition.
Or it could be that there is no grand strategy at work here. My thinking is that Netanyahu is taking orders from his primal political instincts. He wants to say in power. All politicians do; it is the sine qua non of politics.
The commentators above all want Netanyahu to bring down his coalition, kick out such embarrassments as Yisrael Beitenu, Shas and National Union, and create a new National Unity Government consisting of Likud, Labor and Kadima, a coalition of 68 MKs. But how would such a coalition function, and why would Netanyahu get to remain Prime Minister? In such a coalition, he would not be the leader of the largest party (that would be Tzipi Livni, of Kadima), nor of a party that’s representative of the coalition. The Likud party would be the outlier. Why would Ehud Barak and Livni want the most right-wing member of their coalition to be its leader? Livni and Barak had that option after the 2009 elections and Livni refused, largely because she felt Netanyahu was unwilling to make peace.
Perhaps Netanyahu believes that doing the “right thing” – blowing up the coalition – would result in his ouster from political power. Expecting a politician to do the right thing when faced with such consequences is an exercise in disappointment. Most politicians, I suspect, would rather opt to be a guaranteed James Buchanan then a 20% chance of being Abraham Lincoln.
Of course, it’s possible that a Netanyahu-led Kadima-Likud-Labor government could emerge. My understanding is that something similar happened in the Eleventh Knesset, when the Shimon Peres-led Alignment, consisting of 44 MKs, was unable to form a government with the smaller parties, and entered into a power-sharing agreement with Yitzchak Shamir’s Likud (41 MKs) that resulted in Shamir becoming Prime Minister for the last two years of the government.
But the present scenario seems different – in that Netanyahu would be asking the leader of the largest party to take the hit, and serve as a subordinate (at least, at first), and the first part is the important part.
It seems just as likely that such a coalition could never emerge, which would lead to elections. And, honestly, are two-staters really sure that the winners of that election would be them? It seems more likely that an even more right wing coalition would come to power, one to which even Netanyahu would be anathema. Then nobody gets what they want.
Still, I think it’s obvious, that at some point, if Netanyahu really plans to sign a comprehensive agreement that results in a massive pullout from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, he’s going to have to change the coalition. I think it’s clear to everyone that Netanyahu does not control Jewish Home or National Union – and those parties will never go in for an agreement. Opposing such an agreement is their raison d’etre. There would literally be no point to them, if Judea and Samaria ceased to exist. Although Shas can be bribed, I think it’s obvious that they’ve taken a right-ward progression over the last decade, and would be vehemently opposed to ceding any of East Jerusalem. Clearly, this government cannot sign an agreement.
My assumption is that Netanyahu will try and get an agreement, which will rupture his coalition, at which point he will invite Kadima to join the government, if only to help ratify the damn thing without an election or a referendum, which seems likely to be unacceptable to the electorate at large. Yeah, I’m not optimistic.