The National – 22 October 2010
A new opinion poll reveals not only a further shift rightwards in popular Israeli attitudes but also hints at the reasons for Benjamin Netanyahu’s continuing inflexibility in peace talks with the Palestinians.
To Washington’s apparent exasperation, the Israeli prime minister has refused to concede even a short extension of the partial freeze on settlement building in the West Bank as an incentive to bring the Palestinian leadership back to the table.
The latest survey on Israelis’ views about democracy, published last weekend, may suggest why. It found that 37 per cent want to deny non-Jewish citizens voting rights, and 69 per cent support proposed legislation requiring a loyalty pledge from non-Jews to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state”.
Although 80 per cent of Israelis say they prefer democracy to fascism, 58 per cent nonetheless want free speech restricted when it threatens Israel’s non-security-related interests, and a similar number believe peaceful demonstrations should be banned during military operations.
A recent poll of young Israelis found even more hawkish opinions, with 56 per cent of 15- to 18-year-olds saying the country’s Palestinian citizens should be denied representation in the parliament.
The findings will come as no revelation to Mr Netanyahu, who heads the government precisely because of such political trends. But they should suggest to White House officials that cajoling Israel into negotiations with the Palestinians may be more futile than ever.
Washington seems to have been surprised that Mr Netanyahu, as well as being a very reluctant partner to the peace process, has refused even to feign co-operation, as he did during his previous premiership in the late 1990s. Then, under intense pressure from Bill Clinton, the then-US president, he signed both the Hebron and Wye Accords, which were intended to expand the areas of Palestinian control in the West Bank.
During his current tenure, however, especially since his much over-estimated speech last year at Bar Ilan University backing a demilitarised Palestinian state, Mr Netanyahu has embarrassed Barack Obama, the US president, more often then he has offered him assistance in his peace initiatives.
That is because Mr Netanyahu is far more concerned about his domestic political arena than the international one. He assesses his involvement in the peace process chiefly in terms of how it will impact on his credibility with the Israeli Jewish public.
The biggest threat to his position as leader of the Israeli right – and possibly his continuing grip on the premiership – is his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. The latter’s Yisrael Beiteinu party has made an electoral asset of open disdain for Palestinians, both those in the Palestinian territories and those living as citizens inside Israel’s recognised territory.
Nonetheless, the ideological affinities between the two men are strong. During the 1990s, Mr Netanyahu appointed Mr Lieberman first to the post of director-general of his Likud party and then put him in charge of his prime ministerial office.
Mr Lieberman broke away and set up his own more hardline party precisely in opposition to Mr Netanyahu’s lacklustre involvement in the peace process under Mr Clinton. While Mr Netanyahu partly hid his real views and engaged in diplomacy, Mr Lieberman’s popularity rose the more he flaunted his intransigence.
That lesson has not been lost on Mr Netanyahu. His decision to give the bullish Mr Lieberman the sensitive post of foreign minister – and become, in effect, the country’s top diplomat – has baffled observers. But most likely Mr Netanyahu believed the appointment would limit Mr Lieberman’s room to manoeuvre against him.
The role was supposed to neuter the foreign minister’s potential challenge by binding him to Mr Netanyahu’s policies, including in the peace process, and leave Mr Lieberman overpowered by the international diplomatic corps. Instead, he carried on waging his characteristically undiplomatic war of words against the Palestinians, alienating the international community and forcing Mr Netanyahu to sideline his troublesome minister.
Mr Lieberman, meanwhile, has revelled in his role as the government’s conscience on the right, proposing endless new laws to curtail the rights of the country’s Palestinian minority and constantly insinuating that Mr Netanyahu is leading the country astray in the peace process.
As a result, Mr Netanyahu has been forced into a domestic popularity contest at the cost of the country’s highly valued alliance with Washington.
The prime minister barely raised a murmur at his foreign minister’s insubordination at the UN and quickly conceded the loyalty oath for non-Jews that Mr Lieberman has always desired.
But he wants to be personally identified by the Israeli public with other land mines on the road to a peace agreeement. Mr Netanyahu and his government have announced a new round of settlement building in East Jerusalem; backed legislation making territorial withdrawals impossible without a popular referendum; and sought to impose a precondition that Palestinian negotiators forego the refugees’ right of return and recognise Israel as the state of the Jewish nation.
None of this will harm Mr Netanyahu’s public standing in Israel. The question is whether it is enough to hold Mr Lieberman at bay.