Jeffrey Goldberg is a well-respected and reliable American journalist, known for his good connections in both the White House and the corridors of power in Jerusalem. He wrote just few days ago that behind closed doors President Obama and his team strongly criticize PM Netanyahu for his policy about announcing the construction of new settlements ahead of the Israeli elections on 22 January. The criticism goes deeper, according to Goldberg, charging that Netanyahu does not serve Israel's real foreign policy needs, and leads the country towards a diplomatic isolation.
Goldberg's report struck a strong chord in the otherwise boring campaign, which, by all polls, will end up with Netanyahu staying on. This is the first time that foreign policy shows up on the front page of the campaign, and three questions arise with it. One is whether it is a "little" reminder from President Obama to Netanyahu that foreign interference in elections is a double-edged sword, a mini-retaliation for Netanyahu's alleged interference in support of Mitt Romney. This blog dealt with Netanyahu's ill-advised statements and moves prior to November 6, 2012, and expressed the sense that bad blood was added to what already existed between the two leaders, so the Goldberg story may be a tit-for-tat punch aimed at Netanyahu, reflecting an effort on behalf of the president to indicate to the Israeli electorate that there are differences between the two allies. A reminder that can carry weight, due to the centrality of the American-Israeli relationships in Israeli politics, clearly with the hope that these differences will become part of the discussion ahead of the elections.
A subtle intervention, but not one which is unprecedented on behalf of American presidents. Bill Clinton did much more to help Shimon Peres against Netanyahu in 1996 and failed. So, the second and more important question is, whether this late-in-the-game message from the U.S., can and will have any influence in determining the results on January 22nd. I, for one, doubt it; and while 2-3 seats can and may change hands, the results continue to be a foregone conclusion, and Netanyahu will be the next PM. So, we are left with the third, most important question, and this is what is Netanyahu going to do after the election, and how are his actions going to affect American-Israeli relationships, and Israel's overall international standing?
There is, at least, one somewhat unnoticed indication as to where Netanyahu is heading. Less than a week to the elections and the ruling Likud Party did not publish its platform to the Israeli electorate, and this is bizarre even by the standards of Israel's wild politics. There is a reason to that state of affairs. PM Netanyahu does not want to refer to the two-state solution for the conflict with the Palestinians, despite the fact that two years ago, the PM himself pledged in a much publicized speech at the most right-wing university in Israel, Bar-Ilan university, to support the two-state solution and make it his policy priority.
In this campaign, Netanyahu's Likud is under pressure from the religious right, led by Naftali Bennett, the foster child of the current campaign; and the PM, wishing to prevent the erosion in support from the right, simply ignores the two-state solution as if the issue disappeared in the thin air. Some of his surrogates argue that political platforms published prior to elections are just words, Kalam Fadi as the Arabic-turned part of colloquial Hebrew says. But if this is the case, what about dramatic policy speeches in a right-wing university? Do not they also fall into this category? And with it the simple question as to what can be believed to be the official policy of the Netanyahu government?
Beyond this, there is the question of the next coalition, which, according to senior Likud sources, will inevitably include Bennett and his supporters. If I have to bet as to who will blink first when the time comes, and the new government will publish its political program, either Bennett or Netanyahu, I will go for the latter, rather than the former...
Netanyahu may not believe any more in the two-state solution, and he is perfectly entitled to do so, but the Israeli public is also entitled to know it, and preferably prior to the elections, so that they can make their learned decision as to whom to vote on the basis of political realities, rather than empty slogans.
And last, but not least, Israel's friends in the international community, first and foremost President Obama, need to know what Netanyahu has in mind. It seems very likely that Jeffrey Goldberg's report was their way of conveying this message to the PM, even more than to the Israeli electorate at large, as they may very well have resigned to the fact that Netanyahu is the Israeli leader they will have to deal with in the second term. As American policy, as well as that of the European Union, continues to be based on the two-state solution, Netanyahu will have to confront this issue head on, and very early in his second term.