Will It Matter?

Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu talks to reporters at the Likud headquarters in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2009. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)
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I’ve been reading through your responses to my earlier post on the Netanyahu/Boehner Pact and the speech imbroglio. The question many of you are asking is, Will it matter? Will it have an effect? The simple answer is, I don’t know. Unfortunately, that’s the complicated answer too: I don’t know. With anything to do with Israeli politics in the last quarter century, an important first rule of thumb is: do not underestimate Benjamin Netanyahu. The man is a scoundrel and deeply damaging to Israel’s future. But as I noted earlier, he is a master of manipulating the pliable and broken parliamentary dynamics of the Israeli state and he repeatedly made himself as necessary and he is disliked. It is amazing how many things the guy has come back from.

I’ve heard two arguments about how this may all work to his favor. One is that to the extent he keeps the election focused on security he wins. Second is that his supporters love to see him standing up to foreign leaders on Israel’s behalf. Both are true in general and the first is critical to understanding the dynamics of this election. And he’s doing a fairly good job of it – there’s even a lot of chatter about whether this strike in Syria was timed to heat things up in the lead up to the election. The second is true in general. But the President of the United States is not just any foreign leader. Israelis know this. There are some on the nutball Israeli right who genuinely think the Israel-US alliance is holding Israel back and Israel needs to find a new big ally. (The hothouse fantasy life of the hard right variant of Zionism makes all things possible.) But they’re a minority. And much more importantly, these are not people who are remotely in play electorally.

What I do feel confident in saying is that the speech imbroglio very much plays into the narrative about Netanyahu’s leadership that almost all his opponents (and also erstwhile allies) in this election are trying to sell to the Israeli public. One element of that narrative is that Netanyahu is damaging the country through the endless series of (largely successful) gambits he’s used to hold on to power. Second and more elemental is this: the premise of Netanyahu’s 2nd and 3rd governments is that the status quo can be maintained indefinitely. A) The Americans can be held in check with their endless Peace Process demands. B) “Quiet” can be maintained to the North and the South with small wars every few years. C) The Europeans can complain and threaten about the former and the latter but that’s because of double standards and anti-Semitism, which is all the more reason to keep pressing ahead with more of A and B.

Can this go on forever?

Well, until quite recently, Israel had domestic quiet, as compared to the horrific violence of the Second Intifada. But the argument of leaders as varied as Lieberman, Oren, Herzog, and Livni in this election is that this is all an illusion – that the stalemate with the Palestinians and Israel’s ever-increasing diplomatic isolation are not annoyances to be managed in the interests of security but rather grave, even existential dangers in themselves.

Now, this is not remotely to say that suddenly everyone has decided that the land should be divvied up along the 1967 borders. Far from it. Indeed, it’s been a central element of Israeli politics for more than two decades that most realize the occupation cannot go on forever while lacking the will, imagination or willingness to accept the costs of ending it. But that central critique has been sounded by party leaders of various political stripes.

So will any of this have any effect on the outcome of the election? I don’t know. There are certainly more grounded issues Israelis will vote on. But that basic critique of Netanyahu’s stewardship of the country is basic to what the election is all about. And if it is going to get traction, this blow up is good grist to make the argument.

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