Unlike the United States, where Barack Obama knows he is president until his term ends in three years, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government could be voted out of office at any time. The political vulnerability that exists in a parliamentary system — especially one involving multi-party coalition governments — explains part of the constant flip-flopping by Israel’s decision-makers over the past several weeks and months. Although it might explain it, it does not justify it.
Another critically important aspect of this process is political leadership: the strength and conviction to make the right decisions while standing up to critical voices from one’s opposition. For Netanyahu, ironically, there is very little genuine opposition from outside his own governing coalition. While the Labor alignment may have elected a new leader, Isaac Herzog, he hardly represents, at this time, a serious challenge to Netanyahu’s leadership. It is, rather, the more extreme voices within the prime minister’s own Likud faction and among his right-wing coalition partners that cause him to waffle.
A perfect example of politics driving policy decisions was the announcement by the housing ministry that it approved long-term plans to build 20,000 new apartments beyond the Green Line, which Netanyahu later disavowed. Both domestically and internationally, every time the issue of settlement expansion is broached, it creates a huge backlash. Whether you support the settlements or not, you can’t make policy by trial balloon, or allow an announcement in order to appease a specific coalition group or party faction. This is toying with a matter that could have very significant geopolitical implications.
The death of Nelson Mandela prompted Netanyahu to issue a statement praising the South African icon as “a moral leader of the first order.” The prime minister’s office even put out a statement that that he was “seriously considering going” to Cape Town for the funeral. As the date of the service approached, a government spokesperson announced that Netanyahu would not be flying to South Africa after all — citing Jerusalem’s need to conserve money. The lame excuse led many commentators to question Netanyahu’s motives in skipping an opportunity to stand side by side with other world leaders; the flip-flopping suggested a government deeply anxious about offending a faction, no matter how extreme.
Similarly, the Netanyahu government looked flat-footed in its handling of the question of Bedouin relocation. The plan to move approximately 40,000 Arab Bedouin citizens of Israel from their homes in the Negev into towns built for them incurred a storm of protest within Israel and other countries. The Likud members who initiated the idea said it would give the Bedouin the services and economic opportunities they currently lack. Opponents saw a land grab that would arbitrarily change the life of a group of people whose customs have suited them for centuries. While the government had an interest in relocating the Bedouin, it was done without proper negotiations and discussion. It exhibited political callousness and, when the plan was withdrawn in the face of opposition, a sense of a ship of state without a rudder. Once again, left-right political wrangling emerged as more important than serious human rights considerations.
These brief episodes and others suggest a government suffering from a serious case of over-politicization. Netanyahu and his political advisers recognize that there is virtually no real opposition to him at this time, yet he cannot refrain from making every decision a political balancing act.
In the meantime, Israel is heading into deeper geopolitical isolation. By putting politics ahead of leadership, Netanyahu is feeding into the hands of its opponents and undermining much of the good will Israel has developed over the years. Instead of using every opportunity — given his political strength — to solidify and improve Israel’s perceived position in the world as the country faces existential threats, Netanyahu is encouraging those forces in the world who challenge Israel’s very existence.