In recent months, there has been mounting indiscriminate criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policies by government officials. Although such behavior has been a feature of Israeli politics since the onset of the post-Begin era when Cabinet responsibility began to erode, the incessant infighting is currently preventing us from acting coherently on the world political stage and is contributing to the perception that Israel is a banana republic. It also enables the Palestinians to divert attention from their intransigency and to cast themselves as victims occupying the moral high ground. The internal strife may also bring about the collapse of the government.
This situation must be rectified now, before upcoming diplomatic talks get underway. The government must totally set aside domestic political considerations, formulate a strategy based exclusively on Israel’s best interests, and speak with one voice. If not, our lack of cohesion will damage our relationship with the US and intensify the international community’s efforts to impose solutions upon us.
By any objective assessment of the current situation, nothing can be achieved with the Palestinians at this point given the absence of a genuine partner, even if we reach the negotiating table. Palestinian leaders are unwilling and unable to make concessions. Their ongoing incitement to hatred and repeated proclamations of their intent to merge with the genocidal Hamas leave no room for illusions.
Ironically, there is currently a broader consensus about the peace process among Israelis than at any time since the massive rift following the adoption of the Oslo Accords. Most Israelis agree that, under the present circumstances, the status quo is preferable to unilateral withdrawals. We have absorbed lessons from the Gaza disengagement and are conscious of the mortal threats that would confront us if terrorists in close proximity were to target Israel’s heartland, including its major cities.
Despite shrill calls from the far right to annex the West Bank, the vast majority of Israelis remain opposed to such a move. Already facing major challenges to integrate increasingly radicalized Arab Israeli citizens, we are unwilling to absorb large numbers of additional Arabs. Recognizing that to remain a democratic state, Arabs living under Israeli jurisdiction must be granted the right to vote and, even if Jews remain the majority population, a major increase in the number of Arab citizens would transform the country into a binational state. Most of us dismiss implausible notions of Arab autonomy or dual nationality at the same time that we find a population transfer inconceivable.
Yet within the government, calls for annexation are growing stronger with prominent ministers publicly repudiating government policies that reflect public consensus. Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin is a vocal proponent of annexation of the disputed territories. If Avigdor Liebermann overcomes his legal problems and resumes his position as Foreign Minister, he will undoubtedly return to outbursts contradicting the Prime Minister’s policies. Minister for Industry and Trade, Naftali Bennett, and Deputy Minister of Defense, Danny Danon, repeatedly dismiss or mock the government-approved two-state approach.
Much of this stems from genuine ultra-nationalistic motivations, but some is simple pandering to domestic constituencies without consideration of the political consequences.
The situation is further exacerbated by the shenanigans of the Likud Central Committee, a highly organized minority within the 3,600 Likud membership that publicly humiliates the Prime Minister. Danon, the newly-elected Central Committee Chairman, has proclaimed that all future diplomatic initiatives will require Central Committee approval prior implementation. Yet most Israelis, including a majority of Likud supporters, would strenuously oppose giving faceless minority groups the ostensible right to veto government actions.
In recent years, the swiftly changing political climate has created a situation in which the government seemingly endorses the right of ministers to openly criticize its policies. In order to cobble together a coalition, Prime Minister Netanyahu was obliged to appoint ministers with opposing views. He may even deliberately have done so to prevent US and other foreign governments from succeeding in pressuring us to make excessive unilateral concessions, reminding them that if his government collapsed, a far more hawkish administration would replace it. Deputy Foreign Minister Elkin has even said publicly that internal strife is positive, because it demonstrates the variety of views within the party that the Prime Minister must take into account if he is to retain power.
Some right wing elements applaud “tough” dissent within the government. But in doing so, they unwittingly provide grist for emotions that have had costly political consequences in the past. The radical right brought about the collapse of previous national camp governments, which paved the way for left-wing takeovers. Their current behavior is reminiscent of their counterparts prior to the formation of Kadima and the disastrous Gaza withdrawal.
The “tough” right today also continues to delude itself. While it attempts to appear otherwise, it represents a narrow fringe of the electorate. The vast majority of Israelis support the implementation of a two-state solution – if Palestinian leaders emerge who are genuine peace partners willing to ensure Israel’s security. And while the far right would have us believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu is incapable of leading the way, he remains head and shoulders above any other potential Likud leader, despite his imperfections.
Setting aside the pros and cons of the issues involved, the fact remains that no responsible democratic government can grant license to ministers to publicly criticize its policies. (Such latitude is inconceivable in Europe or the U.S) Unfettered criticism from high-ranking officials within the government – regardless of whether it emanates from the left or the right – reflects a hyper-democracy that borders on anarchy. It emphasizes disunity if not disfunctionality, can result in massive blunders by impulsive individuals and chaos that can lead to a breakdown in accountability to the electorate. Unless stemmed, it will inevitably have severe repercussions both within Israel and without, including damaging our credibility with Israel’s friends in Congress and the American public.
The impending peace negotiations and the current regional chaos require the government to close ranks and demand that ministers behave like responsible members of a single political administration rather than heads of independent fiefdoms. If ministers feel sufficiently concerned about issues to break ranks and publicly criticize the government, they should resign and join the opposition. That is how real democracies function and what the majority of Israelis expect from their elected representatives.
If the government fails to reign in its officials and speak with one voice, it will continue to undermine Israel’s credibility, create doubt about our genuine commitment to a peaceful settlement and provide yet another propaganda victory for the Palestinians.
The writer may be contacted at [email protected]
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom