After the latest Israel-Hamas skirmish in late-November, I argued Benjamin Netanyahu was the wrong man to lead Israel going forward. Netanyahu wasn't solely to blame for the latest round of fighting, which killed 130 Palestinian civilians and saw Palestinian rockets land alarmingly close to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem -- as long as Hamas leads the Palestinians, Israel will be forced into this sort of offence-as-defence action from time to time.
But there's no doubt the Israeli Prime Minister's apparent eagerness for a fight was a contributing factor, and, moreover, that he is unwilling to make the hard sacrifice necessary for peace. Namely, accepting a Palestinian state on Israeli land traded for peace. A Peace Now study issued this week reporting settlements have expanded at a record rate under Netanyahu's leadership and the prime minister's approval last month of new settlement construction in the particularly contentious "E1" area of the West Bank drove home that point once again.
Alas, the majority of Israelis don't agree that Netanyahu's time has passed. As the country prepares to go to the polls Tuesday, Netanyahu's Likkud party and its coalition partner, the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which is even more right-wing and led by Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned in December as Israel's foreign minister amid an indictment on fraud and breach of trust charges, appears destined to form the next government. Re-elected to another term, it is likely Netanyahu will continue to lead in the same belligerent way he has led until now.
U.S. President Barack Obama spoke out earlier this week against Netanyahu -- according to Jeffrey Golderg, writing for Bloomberg, in response to the Israeli prime minister's settlement-expansion plan Obama "told several people that this sort of behavior on Netanyahu's part is what he has come to expect, and he suggested that he (Obama) has become inured to what he sees as self-defeating policies of his Israeli counterpart."
Further, "in the weeks after the UN vote (on granting non-member observer status to the Palestinians, in which the U.S. voted against the Palestinians), Obama said privately and repeatedly, "Israel doesn't know what its own best interests are." The president's use of the term "self-defeating" is particularly revealing in that it echoes former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban's famous quip about the Palestinians -- that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
In essence, what Obama is saying is Netanyahu's brand of leadership is evening the political playing field in the Arab-Israel conflict. If the U.S. and the rest of the West lose faith in Israel's political leaders, they cannot support Israel -- certainly not to the extent the Jewish state has enjoyed over the last few decades. Harsh words, indeed, from Israel's best friend.
Which raises the question: What the hell is Netanyahu thinking?
To begin with, I think he believes the Middle East is so topsy-turvy right now -- much more so than usual -- that no one has the energy to stop him, whatever he does. There are too many other, bigger problems to worry about: the Syrian civil war rages on and will likely require Western intervention before all is said and done; Egypt is still trying to figure out its identity post-Mubarak, and its new leaders, Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, are sending mixed messages about how they intend to deal with the West; a new al-Qaida-infused conflict in Mali (plus a confrontation in Algeria) has Europe occupied; and the Palestinians are still led by a) Hamas and b) a spineless Palestinian Authority that Hamas could replace fairly easily if and when it wants to. On top of that, the Americans are counting the seconds till they can escape Afghanistan. An expansionist Israel ranks far down the list of real and potential problems in the Middle East.
On top of that, Netanyahu has been emboldened by the unmitigated success of the Iron Dome system, which knocked Hamas rockets out of the sky with great success just a few months ago and has, by many accounts, only gotten better since (the system even improved markedly within that one-week Hamas barrage). The security fence in the West Bank has effectively ended the efficacy of Palestinian and Islamist suicide bombers -- there's another one on the Lebanese border and Israel this month announced plans to build yet another fence along the Syrian border. If Hamas and Hezbollah can't send militants into Israel to blow themselves up, and if their rockets aren't doing damage, what does Israel have to fear?
That leaves but one worry for Netanyahu: Iran, which will go nuclear soon unless its centrifuges are destroyed (sanctions aren't going to stop the Ayatollahs and the insane Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). I don't subscribe to the theory that the November Gaza campaign was meant to be a warning, or warm-up, for Iran -- localized fighting with inferiorly armed, poorly trained militants does not prepare one to do battle with an A bomb-wielding enemy.
If Israel and Iran are to go to war the stake will be much higher, and there will be immediate global implications -- and that's what Netanyahu is counting on: The Americans, Europe and the UN are going to be forced to help, or at the very least not discourage, Israel -- because a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel, but it is also a top-rung problem for the rest of the West. For all their disagreements, Obama will stand squarely behind Netanyahu when it comes to Iran.
So, yes -- it does appear Netanyahu has his bases covered: strong support from Israeli voters, a robust defence against Palestinian and other Muslim terrorists and international backing to take on Iran if/when the time comes. But what he lacks is the vision to see a Middle East that's different from what it is today, and the determination to put an end to the wars, fear and hatred. Peace will come eventually -- or at least we must hold onto the hope it will come -0 and when it does Netanyahu will be remembered as one among many Middle East leaders who could not summon the courage to do what was right -0 for his people and for all the Middle East.
Surely even bellicose Bibi doesn't relish that legacy.