Mar 2nd 2015

Netanyahu’s Legacy: a Fractured Israel and a Divided America

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

In a few days, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will mount the podium of the US Congress to speak before a joint session of the House and Senate. He will use the occasion to blast Iran and issue dire warnings about the current US-led negotiations designed to limit Iran's nuclear program.

Having successfully used his two previous appearances before Congress to announce his intent to scuttle the Oslo peace process (1996) and to sabotage President Obama's plan to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks (2011), Netanyahu apparently hopes to use this address to stiffen the resolve of those in Congress who are opposed to the current negotiations with Iran. The ever-cocky Prime Minister, no doubt, believes he will once again be successful.

That this speech occurs a scant two weeks before Israelis go to the polls is, for Netanyahu, the "icing on the cake" since it will display for voters back home his supreme mastery of America. It will also, he hopes, divert attention from his recent financial scandals and his failure to establish a secure peace or to provide for the well-being of his people. 

What the Prime Minister did not expect was the fire-storm his appearance would produce. Since he has repeatedly asserted that "I know America", he should have anticipated that his deliberate effort to embarrass the US President would not sit well with the White House or its allies. By having his Ambassador to Washington, a former Republican Party operative, conspire with the Speaker of the House to arrange this speech, the Israeli leader displayed remarkably short-sighted arrogance. But then, this is one of the draw-backs of cockiness.

Since the speech was announced, negative reaction has been growing. At first criticized as a "breach of protocol" and an "unseemly partisan move", the response has developed into an increasingly hostile war of words and action. The While House has charged that the Prime Minister's behavior is "destructive of the fabric of the [US-Israeli] relationship”. Secretary of State John Kerry chided Netanyahu's critique of the Iran negotiations as uninformed. And, as of Friday, 36 Members of Congress had announced their intention to boycott the speech. One Representative told me he expected the number of boycotters to grow in the coming days. 

Equally significant has been the reaction in Israel, where not only Netanyahu's opponents have accused him of the risky business of "playing politics inside American politics". A former head of Mossad charged that the speech was "pointless and counterproductive". And even Israel's President recently weighed-in criticizing the Netanyahu gambit.

There have been those who suggest that this is but "a tempest in a teapot" that will soon settle down once the Israeli elections are over. I think not.

Netanyahu may still be reelected, although polls are showing that he will have to scramble to cobble together the 60+ Knesset members he will need to form a government. Since the announcement of his speech to Congress, Netanyahu's slight lead over his "center-left" opponents in the Zionist Union has evaporated. The two parties now appear to be running dead even— with each garnering 23 or 24 seats in the next Knesset. Given the fragmentation of Israel's right wing parties, Netanyahu may be able to forge a coalition of 60+, but it will be a grouping of aggressive ego-driven hardliners who will only serve to exacerbate tensions with the US.

As of now, it appears that even if the Zionist Union edges out Netanyahu's party, they will have no chance of forming a cohesive coalition that will be able to effectively govern and advance peace. This is so for two reasons. For one, the left is too weak. While the positions of the Zionist Union are closely aligned to those espoused by Washington, it is unlikely that they will be able to find enough like-minded Knesset members to establish a ruling majority. Because they will need to include rightist groupings to reach the 60+ threshold, the government they form will be hamstrung from the beginning.

An additional issue is the fact that what will likely emerge as the third or fourth largest bloc in the Knesset is the Arab Union—a first ever grouping of smaller Arab parties.  Since they are expected to win between 12 to 15 seats in the next Knesset, it will be impossible for the "center-left" to amass 60+ seats without the agreement of the Arab bloc. However, it is unlikely that the Arab group will be included in any government formation. Thus, they will be reduced to the same "silent partner" status they had during Rabin’s tenure in the early 1990's. This will serve to create a dysfunctional situation in which the government can only be sustained by the acquiescence of the Arab bloc. But this will, in turn, inhibit such a government from taking any dramatic steps toward peace lest it be attacked by the right for acting without the support of the "Jewish majority". The result will be paralysis.

This will be Netanyahu's legacy: a deeply divided Israel which will have either a hardline government that will continue to take hostile steps provoking Palestinians and further frustrating peacemaking efforts or a weak and dysfunctional centrist government that will be incapable of acting decisively for peace.

A further impact of Netanyahu's behavior will be seen here in the US. Israelis console themselves that polls continue to show that a majority of Americans support their state. What they ignore are the follow up questions which show Americans increasingly frustrated by and deeply divided over Israeli policies. Majorities oppose settlements and oppose Israel actions that conflict with American policy. And when asked whether the US should side with Israel, the Palestinians, or "not take either side", two-thirds consistently choose the last option. More striking is the fact that 76% and 70% of Democrats and Independents, respectively, say "not take either side"—as do 75% of those under 50 years of age, 76% of non-whites, and 72% of women. Only Republicans believe that the US should take Israel's side—49% of whom feel this way, against 47% who say "not take either side".

It may very well be that when Netanyahu is finished his big Washington adventure, plenty of officials in Washington will insist that "the US-Israel bonds are unbreakable". And many in Congress will still jump, when asked, to do Israel's bidding. But that's not the whole story, since he will leave in his wake a fractured Israel and a deeply divided America. Such will be the master manipulator's legacy.       

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