How Bibi Outfoxed Kerry. Again.
May 19, 2016
They never learn, do they? Though
it almost never works, American leaders have been trying to intervene in Israeli
politics for decades. Presidents and secretaries of state always think that if
they put the right amount of pressure on Jerusalem or push various politicians
to do what they want, somehow it will result in an Israeli government that will
be more willing to do the bidding of the White House and the State Department. According
to Haaretz, that was the behind-the-scenes story of the coalition
negotiations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Zionist Union leader
Isaac Herzog during the last week. The goal was to transform Israelís
government from a narrow right-wing coalition into a centrist unity government
with Herzog as foreign minister. Reportedly, the impetus for the talks was an
effort by Secretary of State John Kerry, diplomatic Quartet representative Tony
Blair, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to push Herzog into
But, like so many other ham-handed
U.S.-led attempts to game Israelís democratic system, it didnít merely fail.
It actually led to an even worse outcome from the point of view of State
Department peace processors. Rather than a unity government with a pliable
foreign minister, Netanyahu used Herzog for leverage in talks with another
party. The result was that Herzog was humiliated. Instead of a narrow right-wing
government with only a one-vote edge in the Knesset, Netanyahu was able to lure
Avigdor Lieberman and his right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party into the coalition.
That gave him a more stable seven-vote majority while also getting rid of a
defense minister who was proving to be a problem.
That was game, set, and match for
Netanyahu and another hard lesson for the arrogant Kerry and his boss Obama, who
should have learned in the last seven-plus years that the prime minister is
always able to run rings around them when it comes to this sort of thing.
There are a number of layers to
this folly that need to be unpacked.
The first is the illusion that
anyone in the State Department, even with the assistance of the former British
prime minister and the Egyptian leader, has a clue as to how Israeli politics
works. President Obamaís first months in office were spent with his foreign
policy team trying to undo the results of the February 2009 Israeli election
that brought Netanyahu back to power. At that time, the goal was to somehow get
Tzipi Livni to topple the prime minister, but she never had a chance. And the
more they tried, the firmer Netanyahuís grip on power became. The pattern
repeated itself in subsequent years as Obama picked pointless fights with the
Israeli over settlements, the 1967 lines and Jerusalem. Each spat was an attempt
to weaken Netanyahu, but it always backfired as the prime minister gained
domestic popularity by standing up to Washington especially on consensus issues
After so many failures, any fool
could have come to the conclusion that the harder the U.S. tries to openly
muscle or outmaneuver Netanyahu, the stronger he gets. But Kerry is not just any
fool; heís a uniquely clueless diplomat with little understanding of the ins
and outs of Israeli coalition politics and no interest in learning from his
mistakes. As Haaretz reports, they understood that the passage of a two-year
budget plan meant there was little chance of toppling Netanyahu by normal
parliamentary means until 2019. So they sought to push forward Herzog with a
plan to supposedly tempt the prime minister with the prospect of a broad
coalition with an unchallengeable majority. Their leverage was the idea that
Kerry would hold off on the release of a Quartet report that sharply criticized
Israel about settlements.
But neither Kerry nor the equally
clueless Blair understood that Netanyahu was playing three-dimensional chess
while they were attempting to win at checkers. Instead of establishing an
Israeli government with a weak link determined to gain their favor at the
foreign ministry, Netanyahu used their maneuver to create one more to his
Itís possible that Netanyahu
seriously considered adding Herzog to his Cabinet which leads to the second
lesson that Obama, Kerry, and Blair havenít learned: the political balance of
power in Israel has already shifted to the point where no one, not even Herzog
was likely to do what they wanted. Though Herzog talked a lot about wanting to
restart the peace process, as
I noted yesterday, the reason why Netanyahu was ready to work with him was
because they agreed that a two-state solution was impossible for the foreseeable
circumstances. Indeed, outside of the far left and the readers of Haaretz, there
is a broad Israeli political consensus that realizes there is no Palestinian
partner for peace. Even if Herzog had become foreign minister it wouldnít have
created the opening that Kerry wanted because everyone in Israel (though no one
in the Obama administration) knows that the goal of the Palestinian Authority is
to avoid being pushed into talks where they would be forced to either accept a
peace they donít want or to say no to yet another Israeli offer of statehood.
Herzog says the talks with
Netanyahu failed because the prime minister wouldnít put into writing an
agreement about freezing settlements. Likud sources say it was because their
side knew that Herzog didnít have the full support of his Knesset faction for
the move. Both assertions are probably true. But the bottom line is that
Netanyahu may have always had the Lieberman option in his back pocket.
Netanyahu had other priorities,
namely dumping a defense minister in Moshe Yaalon who recently seemed to align
himself with talkative generals who have been making speeches that seemed to
question the prime ministerís control of the government and his policies.
Thatís why, as
another Haaretz report noted, he preferred a deal with Lieberman, a man he
regards as a personal enemy, to one with the more likable Herzog. Though the two
despise each other, unleashing the tough-minded Lieberman on the Defense
Ministry will put an end to generals playing politics while also strengthening
the coalition. But neither Kerry nor Blair nor the in-over-his-head Herzog saw
that coming or that their gambit would actually backfire on them.
This will mean Israel will be the
subject of more international criticism via a French-led peace conference, the
Quartetís report about settlements and the possibility that Obama will use his
final months in office to betray the Jewish state at the United Nations if the
Palestinians try again to get a statehood resolution passed. But Netanyahu
isnít too impressed. The Israeli consensus on peace remains solid, and he now
has a more stable government with which to stand up to Western pressure for the
next two or three years. Herzog, the most likely alternative to him as prime
minister, has just been demolished along with his partyís reputation and
prospects as a result of the failed coalition negotiations. And he knows that
the Palestinians will always refuse to make peace no matter how much the U.S.
tilts the diplomatic playing field in their direction.
The lesson here is one that both
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and whoever it is that winds up as the next
secretary of state should take to heart. No matter how much Americans may think
they can push the Jewish state around or use their out-sized influence to
intervene in Israeli politics, their ability to do so is illusory. Whether they
like Netanyahu or not, no U.S. official is going to be able to outfox him on his
home turf. Trying to do so is a foolís errand as Kerry has proved time and
again. His successor should wise up and avoid making the same mistake.