Over the past nine months Israel has suffered turmoil, hostility, and an increasing lack of international sympathy. Since in all likelihood things will not get much better, this may be the moment for Israel to try to seize control of some of its diplomatic and political destiny. That will require the great political courage and toughness Prime Minister Netanyahu possesses but has not been willing to exercise.
Nudging from Secretary Clinton, warning signals from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, pressure from the EU, and frustration from the Quartet all require a much more encouraging response from Israel.
Ultimately the most important signal will involve the settlements question. It comes with political consequences that Israeli political leaders have been unwilling to face directly. Announcing the expansion of housing in the Gilo section of Jerusalem just after the recent ugly scene at the UN was a signal of bravado aimed strictly for internal political consumption. Instead, the government could have called the Palestinians’ bluff and announced an indefinite settlement freeze, subject to progress in face-to-face negotiations without pre-conditions. (While Netanyahu did establish an unproductive settlement freeze in Sept. 2009 for 10 months, there were conditions and terms on both sides that stymied negotiations.) While it is not clear that Abbas would accept these terms or that these discussions would ever progress, such a move would have suggested that Israel was willing to give it a full try.
The timing is good for Israel, if bad for Netanyahu. Israel faces no immediate military crisis. That is not to minimize the threat from Iran or even a militant explosion from Syria. The need to maintain vigilance against potential terrorists persists. But Israel is currently in a position where it could negotiate from a position of military strength.
No, Netanyahu’s biggest test lies within his own Likud Party, and especially among the hard-line members of his coalition. Were Netanyahu to impose a settlement freeze, Avigdor Lieberman might well withdraw his Yisrael Beitenu party from the government, forcing Netanyahu to bring in Kadima. Alternatively, Netanyahu could allow the country to go to elections immediately. Netanyahu might lose, but he might also galvanize voters grown weary of the status quo.
Bold leadership is also needed on the domestic front. Since the summer, Israel has seen public demonstrations and agitation against its growing economic and social gaps. It is remarkable that few political leaders have exploited this unrest to mobilize a genuine political movement for change.
Violent acts by a growing number of out-of-control radicals on both sides of the conflict and on both sides of the Green Line also call for bold reactions. Radical Jews are suspected in an attack of a mosque in the Galilee after Rosh Hashana and the desecration of Muslim and Christian cemeteries in Jaffa. Radical Palestinians are suspected in Yom Kippur attacks on Joseph’s Tomb outside of Nablus and the fire-bombing of a synagogue in Jaffa.
Added to these considerations is the U.S.-Israel relations card. It seems that the Netanyahu government now believes it can operate on automatic pilot through November 2012, after largely silencing any objections from the Obama administration. Having caused a panic within the Democratic Party over possible dramatic Jewish voter defections in key electoral states next fall, Netanyahu is convinced that his cozy relationship with the Republican Party and many of its candidates will secure solid, unchallenged support from Washington, whatever Israel might do. This will enable Netanyahu to continue to secure his coalition in preparation for his own reelection campaign.
There may be no better time than now for Israel to seize the diplomatic initiative. Sadly, the picture does not bode well for progress.