Netanyahu: The Right Leader for the Right Time

A Netanyahu-Barak government: Now that sends a message to the world, and to Washington above all. It says: Don't imagine you can push Israel into dangerous concessions by driving a wedge between Israel's right and left.

During Benjamin Netanyahu's first prime ministership, from 1996 to 1998, the Clinton administration treated Netanyahu as an irritating and temporary obstacle to its peacemaking plans. He was to be bullied as long as he held office--and pushed aside for a more amenable replacement as soon as possible.

The Clinton administration got its wish. Netanyahu was replaced by Ehud Barak, who showed himself to be the most ambitious peacemaker in Israel's history. Barak offered up the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, even an acknowledgement of a Palestinian "right of return."

For a brief, dizzy moment, it seemed the deal would happen: the Palestinians would get their state, Arafat his tomb in Jerusalem, Bill Clinton his Nobel Peace Prize and Israel…well, it was never certain what Israel would get. Peace? No, not very likely. But maybe a respite before the next round of demands.

Of course, it all went wrong. Arafat declined to sign, the Palestinians launched a second intifada, Israel invaded the West Bank, the separation fence was erected, Gaza was evacuated then invaded again, and here we all are. A small cottage industry has emerged in the West to argue that the Palestinians did not really walk away in 2000. Or that if they did walk away, they were entitled to walk away. Or even if they were not entitled, they should nonetheless get yet another chance.

Some people will believe this. Some people will believe anything. But comparatively few people in Israel believe it. As Israelis of almost all ideological points of view agree, the most arresting change in their country's politics since 2001 has been the disappearance of what used to be called "the peace camp." As David Hazony observed in Commentary's blog after the February Knesset elections:

"Of the four major parties today, three of them are Likud and its spin-offs: Kadima was founded by Ariel Sharon and is mostly made up of former Likudniks; Yisrael Beitenu's chairman cut his teeth as the head of the Likud's central committee. Not only this: The classic parties of the pro-peace camp in Israel are but a tiny shadow of their former selves: Labor, which for decades, until as recently as 1996, led the country, is down to the lower teens. Shinui is gone. Meretz, the far-left party, is down from 10 seats in 1999 to around 4. If we call Kadima centrist, then the left in Israel as a whole will not break 20 seats [out of 120]."

The most arresting change in Israeli politics since 2001 has been the disappearance of what used to be called "the peace camp."

The intellectuals of the left have reconsidered, too, most spectacularly the historian Benny Morris. Now Ehud Barak himself has enlisted in Netanyahu's new government.

What remains of the left in Israel is appalled. "[T]his is a right-wing government. There has never been a government with (Avigdor) Lieberman as foreign minister. The Labor Party, with such a small number of party members supporting the coalition, can't even act as a fig leaf," former Meretz chairman Yossi Beilin said as Netanyahu took office.

Beilin shouldn't get so excited. Netanyahu's last prime ministership was hardly one of nationalist last stands. Netanyahu did not opt out of Oslo. Brought to office by a Hamas bombing campaign, he refrained from hitting back once in office. When Palestinian police actually opened fire on Israeli forces during the Tunnel riots of 1996, Netanyahu's response was restrained: He did not dismantle the police force, did not break off negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. On the contrary, he joined the negotiations at Wye River and surrendered Hebron.

True, Netanyahu has said some tougher-sounding things since leaving office. Then again, he said tough-sounding things before entering office the first time. As prime minister, however, he governed well within the Israeli establishment consensus, and he will likely do so again.

For the ambitious peacemakers in the Obama administration, the problem is not Netanyahu, but the fact that Israelis have lost faith in peace processes that have brought them not peace but war, rockets not normality. Over the horizon, Israelis see the gathering threat of a nuclear Iran, which promises to annihilate their country as soon as it has the means to do so.

If the Obama administration wishes to make peace, these are the facts it will have to acknowledge. It can be feared, however, that the administration's instincts will revert to the worst habits of the Clinton days: To imagine that we can reach peace by closing our eyes to the realities of conflict--and to treat Israel's anxieties about the murderous intentions of its neighbors as impediments to be pushed aside. The "process" becomes everything; the "peace" will arrive just as soon as enough concessions can be bullied out of the Israelis.

Obama may be tempted to frame the coming debate as a personal contest between himself and Netanyahu, just as Clinton did, in the hope that his popularity within the American Jewish community will isolate him from criticism. If Obama chooses this option, he is peddling fantasies, not peace; Netanyahu speaks not only for himself, but for the majority of an Israeli public that has learned caution from bitter experience.

The right target for the Obama administration's urgent pressure is Iran, not Israel. The obstacles to peace are the animosities of Israel's neighbors, not the personality of Israel's prime minister.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • David Frum is the author of six books, most recently, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2007). While at AEI, he studied recent political, generational, and demographic trends. In 2007, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph named him one of America's fifty most influential conservatives. Mr. Frum is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for The Week and Canada's National Post.

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