President Barack Obama’s speech
in Cairo is supposed to be no less than a terribly loud bell ringing through the corridors of Israel’s political establishment. For those who thus far did not understand – or did not wish to understand – the winds blowing from Washington, Obama left no room for doubt: The United States supports Israel, yet the era of trickery, promises, and the gradual annexation in Judea and Samaria is over. The time has come for action; the time has come for moving towards a resolution of the Palestinian problem. And in Obama’s view, there is only one solution: A Palestinian state.
Beyond its expected effect within the Muslim world, the Cairo speech is no less than an effort to outline a path for Israel’s political establishment; a clear signal where things are headed. Ever since Obama’s election, officials in Jerusalem have sought ways to explain, interpret, and circumvent what has been obvious for a while now. With arrogance and contempt, officials here attempted to downplay the tension vis-à-vis the Americans, blur the disagreements, and hide behind various “natural growth” arguments. Now, Obama has made it clear: Wasting time and continued settlement construction are out; negotiations on the establishment of a Palestinian state are in. This message will affect Israel’s public and political discourse in the near future.
For Netanyahu, this is a major junction that offers only two directions: A collision course with the world’s greatest power, which will lead to Israel’s isolation and ostracism in the international arena – or a dramatic policy shift e that will exact difficult political prices. In other words: The prime minister must decide whether he’s going with Likud’s more rightist members, or with Obama.
When these are the options, Netanyahu has reason for concern in political terms. Wherever he turns, he will be hurt: If he folds in the face of the American pressure and modifies the narrative that has been accompanying him since he took office, he will encounter domestic resistance and an “Intifada” on the part of the Right and the settlers. Yet if he insists on going along with the conservative line that characterizes him and his government, in the face of the American pressure, he will quickly lose the Israeli public’s support, and possibly also the support of the Labor party, which is committed to the two-state solution. In both cases, Bibi’s current coalition may be shaken up.
In 2003, a few months after winning the premiership by a large majority, Ariel Sharon started to collapse in the polls and in Israel’s public opinion. The Israeli public realized that Sharon simply had no plan for extracting Israel from the stagnation it faced: Terrorism continued, and many groups within Israel’s public arena started to rebel against the stagnation. Only after he presented the Gaza disengagement plan – which exaced an internal Likud price – Sharon’s status within public opinion started to improve, and the international pressure on Israel was lifted.
For the time being, Netanyahu has presented no plan, no target, and no objective on the diplomatic front. The question is whether he will have the courage to change course, in the face of the clear lines drawn by Obama. Haim Ramon said this week that the prime minister’s main problem is that he is torn between the likes of Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely and Obama. “He’s afraid of her just like he’s afraid of him. The problem is that he sees Hotovely all the time – so he’s more afraid of her.”
Barack Obama’s speech was meant to make it clear to Netanyahu who the master of the house is, and to remind Hotovely and her friends on the Right of their true status.
Should he choose to act in line with Obama’s spirit, Netanyahu may even lose Lieberman. Yet he has alternatives: Kadima is indeed in the opposition, yet a broad coalition of Likud, Kadima, and Labor is not unreasonable. Should Netanyahu decide to change his policy, he will find Tzipi Livni on his side; she made it clear several times that her refusal to join the government stemmed from Bibi’s decision to choose the Right, rather than the two-state formula. If this changes, she says, everything is wide open (including her demand for a premiership rotation.) Nobody has an interest in dragging the country into needless elections.
Yet despite all, Netanyahu may not need to rush into a political crisis and an imminent shakeup. During the presidential speech, a Bibi associate said there is no need to get overly keyed up by Obama’s words. Officials at the PM’s Office likened the speech to a “Hollywood show,” – that is, an impressive show lacking real significance. Perhaps they are right.
In addition to the demands made of Israel, Obama demanded that the Palestinians put an end to violence, lay down their arms, and recognize Israel. Given the Middle Eastern reality and past experience, we can guess that Hamas and Islamic Jihad will not be quick to act in line with Washington’s instructions. If there is something that may put a damper on Barack Hussein Obama’s impressive speech, it is the daily realities in the world’s most problematic neighborhood.