Once he wins the upcoming election [slated for Jan. 22] — and it will be an unprecedented sensation if it does not happen — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is bound to go through the same experience that right-wing governments in Israel are invariably subjected to — whether the narrow government of [former-late-Prime Minister] Yitzhak Shamir back in 1990 or the first Netanyahu government in 1996 — that of being trapped, caught between heavy international pressure from without and the rightist ideology of the partners to the government, from within. The good news is that often in the past, a Catch-22 situation like this was translated into unexpected progress in the political arena. It may yet happen in the case of the third Netanyahu government too, far-right as the government turns out to be.
The scenario of continued stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and possibly even escalation is always feasible. But let's imagine another scenario. Let’s assume that Benjamin Netanyahu forms a coalition that comprises in addition to his own party some right-wing parties like HaBayit HaYehudi, as well as one center party (Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid), and perhaps even Tzipi Livni’s Hatenua. As matters now stand, it seems to be the most likely government according to political observers. Back to our scenario: As soon as the new government is set up, it transpires that due to the huge deficits accumulated in recent years, the government has no choice but to slash its budget deeply. At the same time, the United States launches a new initiative for reviving the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians, as U.S. President Barack Obama seeks to lead the two sides to negotiations on a permanent arrangement. What would Netanyahu do in this situation?
If Netanyahu declines to cooperate, or even if he is just perceived as rejecting the American peace initiative, he risks not only seriously damaging his relations with Washington, which are anyway rather shaky; he is risking the survival of his own government. The center parties that are partners to the coalition may withdraw from the government — after all, their voters would not want to support a government that refuses to negotiate a peace agreement.
On the other hand, if he enters into peace negotiations, even if he goes carefully about it, the left and center parties are quite likely to provide him with a safety net in the Knesset [the Israeli parliament] and act to forestall his fall.
The rightist parties for their part have learned the lesson from the first Netanyahu government. Therefore, as long as no agreement has actually been signed, they are not going to withdraw from the government, ideology aside. It may be concluded then that the sensible and prudent thing for Netanyahu to do would be to try and make progress in any political process initiated by the United States. He may do it unwillingly, dragging his feet, but he must give it a try. Otherwise he risks his position at the helm.
And we have already been there. Israel had four prime ministers who were all loyal rightists. Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon (Ehud Olmert is excluded from the list, although he spent most of his political career in the Likud, as he was elected to the premiership on the Kadima ticket). Two of the four made bold territorial compromises. Menachem Begin, who was feared and perhaps even detested by the international community, returned the Sinai Peninsula to the last centimeter in his capacity as prime minister — in return for peace with Egypt. Unlike former Israeli premier Golda Meir and the Alignment (currently, Labor) leaders, who had turned down the late former President of Egypt Anwar Sadat's peace overtures prior to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Menachem Begin foresaw the future.
Ariel Sharon, another Israeli figure loathed by the international community, was the first Israeli prime minister to recognize the Palestinians’ right to self-determination in a sovereign state of their own (as he stated in his Latrun speech). He then went on to evacuate all the Israeli settlements and military forces from the Gaza Strip in the framework of the nationally traumatic disengagement plan enacted in August 2005.
Even Yitzhak Shamir, the most uncompromising among the four rightist prime ministers of Israel, ultimately made it to the Madrid conference of 1991, which paved the way to the Middle Eastern peace process in the 1990s.
As to Benjamin Netanyahu, in his first tenure in the Prime Minister’s Office he handed over Hebron to the Palestinian Authority [under the 1998 Wye River Memorandum brokered by Washington] and carried on the withdrawal process in the West Bank. In his second term in office as premier he publicly recognized ([in 2009] Bar-Ilan address) the principle of two states for two peoples and thus rendered the notion of a Palestinian state commonly acceptable — officially, at least.
A familiar insight frequently heard on the Israeli street is that the political right alone is capable of signing an agreement on territorial compromise, since there is no one on its right to oppose it and denounce it as a traitor. Ariel Sharon used this insight, still popular among Tel Aviv taxi drivers, as his election campaign slogan in 2001: "Only Sharon will bring ‘shalom’ [peace]." At the time, it seemed absurd. However, following the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the idea was taken more seriously and looked upon in a new light. By the way, as written on this site, the word “shalom” is blatantly missing in the current election campaign in Israel.
Anyway, the historical account presented above significantly differs from the current Israeli reality in a certain respect. In the past decade, a shift to the right has been discerned among Israeli voters, becoming all the more evident following the second intifada and the failure of the 2000 Camp David talks. Naturally, this trend eases the pressure exerted from within on right-wing prime ministers to make ideological concessions on behalf of pragmatic solutions. It also encourages and stimulates the hard-core advocates of the rightist ideology in their parties — those who are still dreaming of the Greater Land of Israel. Thus, what Yitzhak Shamir had to do in 1990 is not necessarily a must, say, for Benjamin Netanyahu in 2013. Yet, the political pressure from without is still there, unchanged.
Be that as it may, one thing is absolutely clear. Rightist governments, especially those perceived, both in the international arena and by the Israeli public, as ideology-driven hard-liners, are often required to demonstrate the opposite.
Benjamin Netanyahu is well aware that in case he forms a coalition with his natural far-right partners, which would assure him the majority in the Israeli parliament – at present totaling, according to the polls, 67 seats (out of 120 Knesset seats) — he may find himself in a far less convenient situation in the international arena.
Such a government would be seen [in the world] as an out-and-out peace rejectionist, while in the domestic arena, the radical rightist elements in the coalition parties would give him a hard time on any pragmatic issue raised for discussion. It is precisely such a government epitomizing the rightist ideology that Netanyahu is seeking to steer clear of. What Netanyahu really needs, and what he has always needed, is a political legitimacy certificate — a moderating element that would tone down differences of opinion and bridge the gap separating him from nearly half the Israeli public. (It is to that end that Netanyahu invited former Prime Minister Ehud Barak to join his present government.) And no less important, Netanyahu needs to have a party that the world would be willing to accept — an artificial sweetener of sorts to enable it swallow the bitter pill of a right-leaning Israeli government.
Netanyahu thus seems to be in a real spot. A right-wing government in Israel would not be good news for the peace process with the Palestinians and the Arab world. All the same, the last few decades show that it is not necessarily the end of the story either. Far from it.
Nadav Eyal is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He directs Chanel 10's foreign news desk and was formerly a political reporter and European correspondent for Maariv daily. Eyal was named one of the hundred most influential people in the media for 2011 by the Israeli business magazine Globes. He holds an LLB degree from the Law Faculty at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a master's degree in global politics from the London School of Economics.