Netanyahu, Leadership, and the Peace Process
After issues in a conflict are explored and analyzed, and after positions are established and defended, a leader needs to step forward and initiate new directions. The matter of leadership is sometimes underappreciated with respect to its role in solving difficult political conflicts. Conflicts require bold leaders who are able to set new directions and initiate solutions before his or her constituency is even sufficiently supportive. Benjamin Netanyahu has been a staunch conservative all of his life but even he has now admitted the possibility of a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is his chance to be a peacemaker; it might be his last chance to truly establish a positive lasting legacy that will accompany him into the future. But it is also possible that violence will soon break out in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza and derail any chance Netanyahu now has to be a peacemaker.
The formation of a unity government that includes Kadima was a brilliant move on Netanyahu’s part that makes it more possible for Netanyahu to pass legislation and, perhaps even more importantly, not be so dependent on the right wing parties. Netanyahu now controls enough seats in the Knesset to pass legislation and control an agenda. But this new coalition will require leadership. If the formation of a unity government merely allows Netanyahu to pass internal legislation and increases his control over his own party and the government then there will be little reason to believe in significant change with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Also, some have suggested that a unity government is designed to increase the justification for an attack on Iran. Perhaps, but Israel is increasingly unconvinced that a preemptive attack on Iran is worthwhile or justifiable. We will see.
There is plenty of apathy and denial in the current peace talk environment. Many Europeans simply do not want to invest politically in the peace process, and many Israelis are “fed up.” Having just returned from 2 1/2 months in Israel, I can attest to the fact that Israelis are increasingly detached from the conflict as a result of many years of false starts, rejections, painful discussions, and the general lack of trust that characterizes the relationship between the two sides.
If Netanyahu simply wants to continue settling in the West Bank on the belief that the Palestinians will one day give up then his leadership legacy is in trouble. But if he uses a unity government as an opportunity to speak with a broader voice and represent a greater variety of people then his leadership will be a lifeline to Abbas and the Palestinians. But as of now, Netanyahu is doing little more than speaking to people without engaging in substantive deliberations or clear movement toward a final status.
The importance of the coming elections in the United States also cannot be underestimated. Israelis have a strong and intimate relationship with United States and they expect their leaders to maintain that relationship. There is one analysis floating around from 1999 when Netanyahu lost to Ehud Barak that a significant number of people voted against him because of his poor relationship with Clinton, mainly because Clinton accused him of another failure of leadership when he undermined the peace process. Given that the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu is even worse – because of Netanyahu’s condescending treatment of Obama – and not very easily fixable, Netanyahu feels it is necessary to broaden his base of support with a unity government.
It is probably true that the reasons for forming a unity government were more oriented toward internal politics than the peace process. Nevertheless, the unity government should have important diplomatic consequences if the leadership decides so. But Netanyahu must signal his interest – he must express his leadership. Otherwise it is pointless to talk about the peace process as long as Netanyahu is Prime Minister.
Finally, it’s important to note that Mofaz the leader of Kadima who joined Netanyahu’s government is associated with a hopeful interim peace plan that a number of people consider viable. This creates a Palestinian state with temporary borders (on the basis of the 2002 roadmap to which both Israelis and Palestinians agreed) and the possibility for a final status agreement. The formation of a unity government was smart on Netanyahu’s part, but if he wants to be really smart he will use the unity government to facilitate the peace process. That’s leadership.