Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a dominating political figure in the United States this year, seemingly invincible as he hurled thunderbolts at President Obama and other adversaries. But here in Israel, not so much.
After winning a narrow election victory in March, Netanyahu formed a fragile government late Wednesday with a bare one-vote margin in parliament. Israeli analysts, left and right, are questioning whether the government can last long. Netanyahu said Thursday that he had been leaving the foreign-minister position vacant for Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, in hopes of broadening his base, but Herzog rejected the offer.
“Bibi has no agenda, other than challenging President Obama on Iran,” argues Aluf Benn, editor of the liberal newspaper Haaretz, using the prime minister’s nickname. One sign of Netanyahu’s problems was the last-minute defection by his previous foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.
Netanyahu has been such a strong voice in the United States that it’s easy to overlook his political problems back home. But these difficulties were highlighted by a range of analysts during a conference here this week organized by the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and Harvard University’s Belfer Center, where I’m a fellow.
Israeli analysts note that Netanyahu’s congressional speech blasting the Iran deal, which was so prominent and polarizing in the United States, didn’t matter much in the Israeli election. He benefited from a late surge among conservative voters who were scared by his election-day warning of a massive Arab turnout. But these gains seem to have come partly at the expense of other conservative parties.
Yehuda Ben-Meir, a conservative former politician, argued in an analysis published by the INSS that Netanyahu’s core bloc of right-wing and religious parties has actually been shrinking, falling from 65 parliament seats in 2009 to 61 in 2013 and 57 this year.
Benn contends that the real winners in March were two minority groups that stand outside the Zionist mainstream, the ultra-Orthodox and the Israeli Arabs. He worries because these groups don’t generally support the Israeli military.
To bolster his frail government, Netanyahu tried to woo his chief rival, Herzog, into a broad “national unity government.” The two are said to have discussed such a pact over the past few weeks, but Netanyahu wasn’t willing to offer concessions on the Palestinian issue that Herzog wanted. Netanyahu instead opted to lean further right by allying with Naftali Bennett’s party, which adamantly opposes a Palestinian state. That chilled this week’s negotiations with Herzog, but the idea of a broad coalition may return.
The U.S.-Israeli relationship is likely to be rocky for the remainder of Obama’s presidency, assuming that Netanyahu continues his drive to scuttle the Iran agreement. This tension contrasts sharply with the U.S.-Arab fence-mending that is expected to take place next week at Camp David when Obama discusses with Gulf leaders a common strategy to curb Iranian meddling. It’s a peculiar reversal of roles, in which the Gulf Arabs (who also criticize the Iran nuclear deal) are becoming the responsible and conciliatory opposition, while Netanyahu, who leads a country that is traditionally the United States’ closest Mideast ally, remains at loggerheads with Obama.
Many Israeli analysts worry that the friction with Obama is eroding bipartisan support in the United States for Israel. But it’s not a zero-sum game: An obvious potential beneficiary is the Republican Party. With Netanyahu’s help, the Republicans may be attempting a realignment that seeks to convince pro-Israel voters that their natural home is the GOP, rather than a Democratic Party that keeps pressuring Israel for concessions. The GOP pulled off a similar realignment a generation ago in persuading white Southerners to abandon the Democrats.
A sign that conservative Americans and Israelis are seeking such a realignment would be pledges by GOP presidential candidates to work with Netanyahu to overturn the Iran deal. Obama, too, could drive a political wedge if he pushes for a new U.N. Security Council resolution that codifies the “parameters” of the peace deal that Secretary of State John F. Kerry tried unsuccessfully to negotiate last year.
Netanyahu’s camp hopes for a new opening with Gulf Arab states that share mistrust of Iran. A top Israeli official argues that the Jewish state is the only reliable partner for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries in a region dominated by Iran-backed Shiite radicals, a Turkish-led Muslim Brotherhood bloc, and jihadists of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
An Israeli-Arab alliance against Iran is intriguing. But like much else about Netanyahu’s fledgling government, it’s more an aspiration than a practical agenda. Netanyahu, so potent in the United States, has a shaky base at home.