Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still looks like the prohibitive favorite to win Israeli elections next year. But in a popularity contest among world leaders, he likely wouldn’t garner many votes — even from Israel’s allies.
This much seems clear from the lopsided U.N. vote to recognize Palestinian statehood — which saw key European countries either back the bid or abstain. And Netanyahu’s response — advancing building plans in Jerusalem and the West Bank, including in the sensitive E-1 zone near Maale Adumim — further angered Western allies, including the Obama administration, which had stood with Israel in opposing the Palestinians’ U.N. bid.
Netanyahu’s strained relationship with the Obama administration was brought into sharp relief this past weekend at the Saban Forum in Washington, where former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel reportedly accused Netanyahu of repeatedly betraying President Obama.
Also speaking at the forum, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert made public Emanuel’s remarks and embraced their substance. Referring to the Netanyahu government’s construction plans, Olmert said that "declaring 3,000 building units is the worst slap in the face of a U.S. president." (The pro-Netanyahu Israeli daily Israel Hayom noted that Olmert was himself an advocate of building in E-1 only six years earlier.)
Netanyahu, of course, has had a famously rocky relationship with President Obama, but he has arguably had an even more tumultuous time with some of Israel’s other Western allies. These longstanding tensions boiled over in the past week.
Since the U.N. vote, we’ve seen a slew of articles scrutinizing Israel’s failure to muster more support for its position from Western countries.
Pro-Israel journo Jeffrey Goldberg noted that a revolt within Australia’s ruling Labor Party scuttled the country’s prime minister’s plan to oppose the Palestinian statehood bid and led instead to an Aussie abstention. Citing the support expressed for the U.N. resolution by a former Labor prime minister who is known as a friend of Israel, Goldberg blames Netanyahu for Israel’s isolation: “Likeminded leaders around the world are finding it increasingly difficult to justify the actions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel likewise decided to abstain rather than vote against the Palestinian statehood measure. She will be meeting with Netanyahu this week in Berlin, and she is expected to give him an earful.
From the start, Netanyahu and Merkel have clashed on the question of settlements. Merkel apparently often felt she was misled by Netanyahu, such as when he leaked specific parts of their conversations and did not fulfill promises on the Palestinian issue.
It is commonly known in Berlin that Merkel has no illusions regarding Netanyahu’s intentions as far as the peace process goes, and no longer believe he will surprise anyone with a sudden change of direction. Apparently, as far as Merkel is concerned, Netanyahu cares more about tactics and political survival than about a long-term strategy that would secure the future of Israel and the Jewish state.
Netanyahu should expect to hear some unequivocal messages concerning the punitive measures Israel announced against the Palestinian Authority, as well as his plans to promote construction in the E-1 area, which would connect Ma’aleh Adumim settlement with Jerusalem, and to add 3,000 units in the West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem.
France voted for the statehood resolution, and its president, Francois Hollande, blasted the Israeli government’s construction plans. Hollande was also reportedly irked by Netanyahu’s actions on a visit to France this fall. Hollande’s predecessor, the pretty Israel-friendly Nicolas Sarkozy, also came to dislike Netanyahu, as was captured vividly by the infamous live mic incident when he called the Israeli prime minister a “liar.”
Some of Netanyahu’s critics argue that his clashes with foreign leaders stem largely from a single source: Netanyahu, these critics allege, is simply not a supporter of a two-state solution, his late-in-career public embrace of it notwithstanding. The former veteran Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas tweeted that Netanyahu’s settlement plans reflect “what and who he is. Very right wing, no 2-state model” and suggested that it is “about time” that Washington” “figure this out.”
So this is the laundry list of criticisms: He either not a real supporter of a two-state solution (Pinkas, giving voice to what some world leaders probably think privately) or is too concerned about his political survival to take risks for peace (Merkel per Haaretz). He betrays Israel’s friends (Emanuel and Olmert) and is not honest (Sarkozy). He meddles in U.S. elections. (The last point practically became conventional wisdom during the campaign season: Politico’s Maggie Haberman at one point wrote that Netanyahu had “all but endorsed Mitt Romney in Israel.” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the immediate past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote that Netanyahu was “completely out of control” during the U.S. presidential campaign.)
Whether these perceptions are fair or not (and Netanyahu has counterarguments, such as the refusal of the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table and his earlier agreement to a partial settlement freeze), they appear to be embraced by the leaders of Israel’s most important allies. That’s the reality with which Netanyahu and Israel have to grapple.