In terms of his straightforward control over the mechanisms of policymaking, Benjamin Netanyahu has become an incredibly powerful prime minister. Yet in another, perhaps more important sense, Netanyahu’s growing influence reflects the very opposite of power. It is rooted in the shrunken horizons of Israeli politics, in the fact that political parties have lost the capacity to articulate and implement solutions to the nation’s most vexing problems. Netanyahu’s power is growing amid and because of the growing irrelevance of political power in the Israeli political imagination.
For most Israelis, the last 25 years of national politics have been a period of wild political experimentation on the issue that has defined the left-right divide: the Palestinians. From Yitzhak Shamir’s grudging acquiescence to American-led multilateral peace talks in Madrid to Yitzhak Rabin’s decision to retake the initiative, surprising the Americans with the Oslo process in 1992; from Netanyahu’s signing of the Wye agreement – the last agreement actually signed between an Israeli and Palestinian leader – to Ehud Barak’s lunge for a deal with the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000; and on to Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and Ehud Olmert’s 2006 campaign promise of a similar withdrawal from the West Bank, Israelis once elected such leaders in order to carry out these grand peacemaking experiments.
In 1992, 1999, and 2006, the explicit promise to separate Israel from the Palestinians won elections. Yet after the Second Intifada in 2000 and the Second Lebanon War in 2006, that was no longer true. Israelis lost faith not only in the Palestinian ability to reciprocate Israeli withdrawal with peace, but in the very leaders who urged them to make such gambles in the first place.
This is not an argument that Israelis’ skepticism is right, but only that for most Israelis, the experience of the failures of these promises, each time accompanied by waves of bloodshed, has come to define their political expectations. Israelis no longer believe there is a discernible way out of the current conflict, and are unwilling to elect anyone who doesn’t share their hard-earned distrust.
As they have shown for the last decade, polls this month revealed yet again this underlying Israeli ambiguity, with most Israelis favoring separation from the Palestinians, but saying they are convinced it cannot be implemented.
“There is broad agreement in the Jewish public (71 percent) that even the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement would not bring an end to Palestinian terror against Jews,” explains a report by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University summarizing the findings the December 2015 “peace index” poll.
The extent of this view is made clear by the finding that “The only party for which a majority of the voters think a peace agreement would bring an end to the terror is Meretz (81%).” Not coincidentally, Meretz is also the only Jewish-majority party in the Knesset that still openly advocates a near-term Israeli withdrawal.
Sound and fury
This reality underlies the curious state of Israel’s present-day political debates, where questions of “incitement” — who is inciting against whom, and which incitement is worse than the others — have almost completely replaced debates on substance.
Thus it was in mid-December that a dramatic Knesset showdown set lawmakers shouting, clapping and pounding their desks so loudly in the plenum that Speaker Yuli Edelstein had to call a recess and even turn off the podium microphone while opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog was speaking.
The debaters were none other than Herzog and Netanyahu, the nation’s top political leader and his chief political rival. The issue that set these titans of Israeli politics at each others’ rhetorical throats, however, was not a disagreement on policy, but a question of rhetoric: which one would condemn which incident of purported incitement against the other.
“You say that [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas doesn’t condemn incitement, but you don’t condemn the terrible and awful incitement against the president of the State of Israel,” Herzog charged from the podium to the prime minister sitting in the front row.
“From personal experience, leaders are criticized,” Netanyahu replied when he stepped up to the podium after Herzog. “I oppose all incitement and all violent discourse against the president or any other public official. At the same time, I will continue to fight for the right of everyone to express their opinion.”
Turning to Herzog, Netanyahu demanded “he get up and emphatically condemn the Breaking the Silence organization.”
Herzog replied: “In certain cases, Breaking the Silence crossed the line, but you must let people who fought on the front lines express themselves, in the right places.
“I am disgusted by these opinions, but I will fight to allow people to say them,” Herzog added for good measure.
Amid the jeering and shouting that ensued, it was hard to miss the fact that the prime minister and opposition leader were engaged in little more than rhetorical feints — each accusing the other side of failing to condemn “incitement” while noting they would not themselves engage in curtailing free speech.
This was not a substantive debate on the limits of free speech or the nature of incitement. It was short, loud, and shallow — and in that, it represented perfectly the current state of Israeli political discourse. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a Knesset debate between the two leaders that actually involved substantive policy disagreements.
Last week, Herzog gave voice to this lack of meaningful debate when he was asked in an interview for the left-leaning Yedioth Ahronoth daily newspaper about (what else?) incitement.
Was “your side” equally responsible for incitement, the interviewer asked.
Herzog’s response was telling. He began by denying that he had a side. “We each need to pick and choose our words,” he affirmed, then wondered: “What is my side? The left? I’m not a left-wing man, I’m a man of the center.”
When the head of the Labor party denies he is a man of the left, when the primary subject of political debate between the leader of the government and the leader of the opposition is the relative unpleasantness of the other’s rhetoric, it is fair to ask what it actually means to stand at the forefront of such shrunken politics.
With public opinion essentially unified in its frustration and distrust, politicians no longer believe they can afford to criticize Netanyahu’s carefully constructed “wait-for-them-to-change” policy toward the Palestinians. His most effective opponents are not the heads of opposition parties, but the former heads of security agencies, who criticize him publicly and stridently. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan was one of the prime minister’s most prominent critics on Iran, just as former Shin Bet chiefs Yuval Diskin and Yaakov Peri have been among his most influential and substantive critics on the Palestinian stalemate. All were consulted on the recent appointment of the new Mossad Chief, Yossi Cohen.
Netanyahu’s electoral victories are not as mysterious as they are portrayed by some of his opponents or overseas observers. As best as can be discerned from polling data, he wins elections not because he is personally loved by most Israelis. Rather, he is trusted on the issue Israelis most want to go away: the Palestinians.
For the past seven years, Netanyahu’s political campaigns have usually shied away from explicitly right-wing rhetoric on issues such as settlements or judicial reform, focusing instead on a single recurring theme: his promise to be “responsible,” by which he means, immune to the cajoling and pressure from abroad that urge him to attempt new diplomatic experiments with the Palestinians.
In this, Netanyahu plays consciously on the simple fact, demonstrated consistently in polling, that Israelis no longer trust the judgment of their leaders. It was Israel’s most celebrated military chiefs, after all, from Rabin to Barak to Sharon, who led the country into the peace processes and subsequent bloody terror waves of recent years.
Netanyahu is no general, and in his campaign messaging, at least, neither an ideologue nor a bearer of promises. He is, rather, a skeptic. Let the Palestinians change, he argues; let them stop seeking Israel’s destruction, and it won’t matter if the prime minister is Netanyahu or Herzog. Peace will come. Until then, he vows, he won’t gamble as his predecessors did.
It is this message, not Netanyahu’s persona or the posturing populism of some of his more strident Likud backbenchers, that has carried elections so consistently in recent years. And it is that consistent success at the ballot box that allows Netanyahu to grow his control over the agencies of government.
And so Netanyahu is not lying, as so many believe, when he promises support for Palestinian statehood in English while vowing in Hebrew that it won’t happen “on my watch,” if ever. The two statements, taken together, reflect precisely the views and expectations of his voters, their yearning for separation alongside their conviction that withdrawal can only worsen the bloodshed. They reflect, too, the deepest wellspring of his political support: his sidestepping of ideology in favor of an implicit promise to Israelis that he will never ask them to trust once more in Arab intentions.
This duality of Netanyahu’s consolidation of power amid the hollowing out of the Israeli political discourse has profound implications for policy.
“[Barack] Obama has long understood Netanyahu to be the indispensable man of Middle East peacemaking,” wrote journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in his interviews with the American president in The Atlantic magazine. “Obama believes that, alone among Israeli leaders, Netanyahu possesses the credibility to deliver as much as 70 percent of the Israeli public to a difficult compromise with the Palestinians.”
As Obama himself said in a 2014 with Goldberg: “For Bibi to seize the moment in a way that perhaps only he can, precisely because of the political tradition that he comes out of and the credibility he has with the right inside of Israel, for him to seize this moment is perhaps the greatest gift he could give to future generations of Israelis.”
This theme, that Netanyahu is failing to deliver peace, assumes that Netanyahu can deliver peace, an assumption that may be a fundamental misreading of the roots of his power. (It is also, of course, based on assumptions about the Palestinian side’s capabilities, but these are not our subject here.)
As countless polls and Netanyahu’s own campaign rhetoric suggest, he does not, in fact, have much room to maneuver on negotiations or territorial withdrawal. Netanyahu is the chief political beneficiary of a broad and deep skepticism among most Israelis — but he is not actually the instigator of it.
If Netanyahu were to announce his acceptance of a West Bank withdrawal tomorrow, it is entirely possible — polls imply it may be all but certain — that his coalition would unravel and the Knesset collapse into new elections. Israelis might then be expected to put in office the next-most convincingly “responsible” candidate who rejects the formula of “risks” for peace in the face of what so many Israelis continue to view as an irreparably dysfunctional and violent Palestinian politics.
For many who wish to influence Israeli policy, the towering figure of Netanyahu serves as a distraction from these deeper political realities. It is a majority of Israelis, not Netanyahu, who must be convinced that a safe withdrawal is possible. It is Israelis, not Netanyahu, who elect Netanyahu to hold the line against any further diplomatic experiments.
And therein lies the paradox of the Netanyahu era: a period of American-style executive consolidation taking place even as — indeed, because — the Israeli political system no longer believes it is adequate to the most significant challenges that face the nation, and can no longer really imagine solutions to the defining questions of Israeli public life.
Haviv Rettig Gur is a senior analyst specializing in politics at the The Times of Israel. A version of this article appeared in The Times of Israel. Reprinted with permission.