How Bibi Outfoxed Kerry. Again.

Jonathan Tobin

Commentary Magazine

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 Netanyahuís arms.

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 like Jerusalem.

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 liking.

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.