Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under siege. Beset by pressure groups, powerful allies and bloody-minded political partners, his government could be on the verge of collapse and any hope for advances in the peace process with the Palestinians might not be realized for a year or more.
Earlier this week, Mr. Netanyahu had what Canadians might call a “Joe Clark moment.” Just as the one-time Canadian prime minister walked into Parliament one day in December 1979 oblivious to the fact that he didn’t have the votes to pass his first budget, so too Mr. Netanyahu met with his cabinet on Monday and found he didn’t have the support of the majority of ministers to approve recommendations of an economic commission the Israeli leader had vowed would be endorsed.
Though Mr. Netanyahu temporarily withdrew his request for a vote on the Trajtenberg commission, his failure after a nine-hour meeting in which he tried to persuade even some of his own party’s ministers to vote with him, was, by all accounts, a humiliating experience. And it’s not over yet.
On Sunday, at the next scheduled cabinet meeting, Mr. Netanyahu will try again to win approval for recommendations that call for reordering economic and social priorities, to appease the many Israelis who complain they cannot afford a decent life in Israel.
The showdown with his discordant coalition team and the widespread public protests that led to Mr. Netanyahu creating the commission are just the tip of the political iceberg the Prime Minister hopes to avoid. As well:
– Israel’s resident doctors resigned en masse this week in an effort to get a pay raise;
– Right-wing factions demanded Palestinians be punished and that Israel annex West Bank settlement blocks;
– The United States is pressing Israel to halt settlement construction;
– Germany attacked Mr. Netanyahu for construction in suburban Jerusalem settlements.
While aides to Mr. Netanyahu say there is “nothing new” in the Israeli Prime Minister facing such pressures, they acknowledge that the scale of today’s pressures is out of the ordinary.
And Mr. Netanyahu is especially vulnerable to such stress. Political columnist Nahum Barnea describes the Prime Minister as “a surfer,” who rides the waves wherever they may go, rather than a swimmer who goes where he wants to go.
“He seems afraid to make the wrong move,” said a long-time friend of Mr. Netanyahu, “for fear of losing support.”
The fear may stem from Mr. Netanyahu’s first time as prime minister (1996-99). In those years he was opposed by the left for not being forthcoming in negotiations with the Palestinians, and he lost the support of the right for having any dealings at all with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The loss of the right was his political undoing.
Those years also revealed another fear – that of failure in the eyes of his father, Benzion Netanyahu, a historian and disciple of Zeev Jabotinsky, a radical Zionist.
Someone who was present at the time recalls a 1998 event when the prime minister returned from a tough round of negotiations with the Palestinians at Wye River, Md. As he walked up to his father, the senior Mr. Netanyahu told his son he didn’t deserve to be prime minister after the concessions he had just made.
The Prime Minister’s father, now 100, still is alive and, observers say, just as sharp-tongued as ever.
He’s not the only one worried about his son compromising on the occupied territories. Thousands of West Bank settlers have been signing up as members of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, hoping to influence the makeup of the party’s next electoral list and maybe even its leadership.
Given a chance to govern longer, his aides say, the Prime Minister is “really very keen to have negotiations” with the Palestinians. One adviser describes willingness on Mr. Netanyahu’s part to be “creative” in resolving some of the toughest issues.
“Only two issues are untouchable,” the adviser said: “recognition that Israel is the Jewish state, and security.”
Everything else (the status of Jerusalem, the return of refugees) is negotiable.
Wouldn’t the right-wing factions pull down the government if it entered negotiations?
“I think they’ll only pull out once we have a draft agreement,” he said. “And that’s when we go to the people – either in a referendum [to approve the agreement]or in new elections.”
Some who know Mr. Netanyahu well think he won’t wait that long before ending the current government.
One close associate believes an election may come as early as next spring, “which is why he can’t agree to another settlement freeze” (as demanded by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas). “He’d lose support on the right,” the associate said. “Everything he’s doing right now is in anticipation of an early election.”
Political columnist Ben Caspit suggests another scenario: Mr. Netanyahu calls on Tzipi Livni, leader of Kadima, the largest party in the Knesset, to join him in a national emergency government that will negotiate with the Palestinians.
There was a time when that was a possibility, said the Netanyahu adviser, but Ms. Livni has lost popular support to the Labour Party’s new leader, Shelly Yachimovich.
That may be, but Ms. Livni’s party still has 28 Knesset seats and, with Ms. Yachinovich’s challenge from the left, Ms. Livni might just be more inclined to work with Mr. Netanyahu than she has been in the past.
This Sunday’s cabinet meeting may reveal a lot.
Said one aide: If Mr. Netanyahu fails to get majority support for the Trajtenberg commission, “it will be the beginning of the end.”