by Matt Ellison
On Thursday, September 8, the Center for Jewish Civilization (CJC) in the School of Foreign Service hosted an event discussing “The Netanyahu Premiership: A Retrospective,” which covered a range of issues in Israeli politics and public life.
Benjamin Netanyahu has served as Prime Minister of Israel since 2009. Only Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, whose length of service “Bibi” is set to surpass in 2019, eclipses Netanyahu’s longevity in office.
The event began with remarks from SFS Dean Joel Hellman and included a panel discussion with former Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiator Ambassador Dennis Ross, former White House advisor on Middle East policy Elliott Abrams, visiting Israeli Professor and historian Benny Morris, and former Chief Haaretz correspondent, Natasha Mozgovaya. Georgetown Professor of Government and International Relations, Robert J. Lieber moderated the event.
Netanyahu’s Longevity As Prime Minister
Professor Lieber set the stage by asking the panel first what accounted for Netanyahu’s longevity as Israeli’s Prime Minister.
“Luck plays a part in the success of any leader” Elliot Abrams said. “His political career comes at a time when Israelis have become disillusioned by the peace process. If they all thought, ‘We’re on the verge of peace—it can happen now, if we could just get to the table we can do it’—I don’t know that he would win an election. But Israelis don’t believe that. They are disillusioned by the Intifadas and the continuing failure of the peace process.”
Natasha Mozgovaya and Ambassador Dennis Ross cited Netanyahu’s promise to focus on security as critical to Netanyahu’s staying power. “He has been consistent in his message which is basically promising security to Israelis,” Mozgovaya said. “That always hooks people in a country where security is almost always the main issue. Fear works because there is always something to be afraid of in this region.”
Ross added that “Netanyahu has made himself ‘Mr. Security’ and that became kind of his emblem.”
Several of the panelists weighed in to say that a lack of viable alternatives and Netanyahu’s own shrewd political abilities do more to explain his longevity as Prime Minister than does any great affection for Netanyahu on the part of the Israeli electorate. “There is also the general perception that there is no alternative to him,” Ross said. “It’s not that he’s greatly loved today. If you look at the polls, that’s not the case. If you look at the last election, even in victory his party gets 25% of vote.”
“The main reason for [Netanyahu’s] longevity in office is his desire to stay in office and his working at it,” Benny Morris said. “He spends a great deal of his political energy and capital on staying in power—giving the religious people what they want, giving the right what it wants, sometimes in nodding to the left—he does everything in order to stay in power, leading secondarily in the interests of Israel, and this is one [of] the criticisms of the man.
Netanyahu’s Governing Style
Turning its attention to Netanyahu’s governance, the panel discussed how Netanyahu has treated controversial issues regarding Palestinians and the settlements of Israeli Jews in territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War.
“He has governed largely by the threats he sees, not the opportunities, his political base and what he thinks his political base will ultimately tolerate,” Ross said. “Today Israelis have this wall, both virtual and real in Gaza that separates them from the Palestinians,” Mozgovaya commented, “So Netanyahu can afford not to deal with this issue proactively.”
“I think he’s a pessimist,” Abrams said. He explained that Netanyahu looks at prospects for comprehensive peace with Palestinians and sees failed attempts since the Clinton administration with little present cause for hope. “It will be decades more and the Arab world is a horrible mess so you make your friends where you can find them,” Abrams continued.
Despite this general pessimism, according to Abrams, Netanyahu has taken steps towards improvement on the ground. “I think he has a more sensible policy on settlements than he is given credit for,” Abrams said. “If you look at what he’s done on the ground, comparing him to previous Prime Ministers, more Arab-Israelis are permitted to shop in the West Bank, and fewer checkpoints and obstacles [are in place] than before he became Prime Minister,” Abrams explained.
Mozgovaya added, “Many people in Hebron saw Netanyahu as a traitor because of the concessions that he made during his first term, basically he was willing to give up 80% of the territory there.”
“He gets the worst of both worlds,” Ross said. “He doesn’t get credit from the outside for restraint because the declared policy is one of building everywhere; he doesn’t get credit from the settlers because they see him restraining, but he manages.”
These and other topics were discussed further in a lively Q&A session that followed the moderated portion of the event. Some audience members expressed concerns about the panel’s lack of diverse views on the topic. The Q&A session was briefly disrupted by students protesters who left, escorted by GUPD, after Lieber informed them that their disruption violated University Free Speech and Expression policy.
Obama and Netanyahu Relationship
Many panelists commented on the Israeli Prime Minister’s notably sour relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama as another low point of Netanyahu’s premiership.
Ross said, “It’s easy for everybody to rivet on this relationship between this Prime Minister and this President and think, we’ve never seen anything like this before. Not so, we have. It’s not unique; we’ve seen it before.” Ross said. “They have very different world views. President Obama tends to look at adversaries as those whose behavior you can change if you can basically address their grievance. That goes against every instinct that Bibi has.”
Abrams was more pointed in his criticism of the Obama foreign policy team, especially National Security Advisor Susan Rice, in mishandling the Obama-Netanyahu relationship. “It is not unique for leaders of countries not to get along,” Abrams said. “What do you do? You try to try to work around it to the extent possible. That’s the job of the National Security Advisor and the White House staff.” Abrams added, “The White House staff made it worse. Susan Rice made it worse. The person who called Netanyahu a chicken blank made it worse, and that person was never punished. That crude attack on Netanyahu was made for publication—it wasn’t made off the record—by the White House staff member who said it.”
“That was in Obama’s second term,” Ross added. “In the first term, when Tom Donilon was the National Security Advisor, every time there was a misunderstanding either I or he would deal with it. In the second term you didn’t have that—and what Elliot says is right. That message, those leaks, were seen as inspired and supported by the President, so it deepened the suspicion of the Israeli side.”
“Both leaders lost faith and lost trust in each other pretty early but because of people who cared, like Ambassador Ross for example, it took some time before it exploded badly,” Mozgovaya said. “Negotiations on Iran were the big trouble for the Israeli government and where they finally lost faith that the American government is basically standing for them.”
Ross said, “By giving a speech in Cairo and not going to Israel, where he was addressing effectively the Arab/Muslim narrative but not the Israeli narrative, he made Israelis think everything was going to come at their expense.”
“The Israeli public, and Netanyahu along with them, sensed in Obama that he was like Eisenhower in the sense that he didn’t project or appear to feel anything special for Israel—as Bill Clinton did, as Ronald Regan probably did, certainly as Bush did,” Morris said. “Obama emphasized this by going to Cairo as his first step, which was very stupid, and they felt that the guy isn’t with us.”
Morris added, “There is another problem here and that’s the character of Bibi Netanyahu. He doesn’t have friends. He’s somebody that doesn’t have friends in Israel and he doesn’t make friends apparently easily in the capitals as well.”
“Bear in mind that Bibi is also about to sign a close to $40 billion arrangement with the United States because nobody else is going to provide that kind of support,” Ross said. “Nobody else can be counted on to be a true friend of Israel the way the United States can.”
Netanyahu’s Achievements and Failures
The panelists generally praised Netanyahu for managing, as Abrams put it, “this period of turmoil well,” and for building good security relationships with neighboring Arab states. When it came to criticisms, though, the panelists took issue with an array of faults, from Netanyahu’s economic policy at home to his inability to bridge gaps with Palestinians.
“People have talked about his economic achievements—I have my doubts,” Morris said. “He crowned capitalism—a very vicious capitalism—much stronger in Israel than it was before. The rich are much richer, the poor are much poorer, and the middle class is basically wasting away. The children of the middle class are simply unable to live, unable to buy apartments that the parent generation was able to do and Bibi has made that much more acute.”
“His biggest mistake on the domestic front was that he didn’t help in healing gaps that are already there,” said Mozgovaya. “An even deeper gap has been created now between the Arab Palestinians that are Israeli citizens and Israelis.”