During a recent interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, President Obama argued that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s high approval ratings among Israelis make him less willing to “engage in risky and divisive political endeavors” and therefore a hindrance to progress in peace negotiations. Yet, we know that to be generally untrue. Political weakness, not strength, prevents leaders from taking actions that might be unpopular. Popular leaders both have more ability to weather a storm of criticism and more ability to convince populations that needed but unpopular actions should be done. President Obama is certainly not unaware of this.
What does he mean then when he says that a strong and popular Netanyahu is “less inclined to engage in risky and divisive political endeavors?” It certainly hasn’t meant that Bibi is less capable of arguing against positions of members of his cabinet who are pushing him. He’s even been applauded by the Israeli opposition leadership in regard to his actions in Gaza and has the support of around 90% of the Israeli Jewish electorate for his conduct of this conflict. The Israeli people generally trust him to do the right thing. What this means for Netanyahu is that the population is more inclined to support him if and when he takes risks. Thus, right now, PM Netanyahu is precisely in a position from which he can make hard decisions for peace, the opposite of what President Obama appears to argue.
However, what President Obama means when he says that Netanyahu is less like to “engage in risky and divisive political endeavors” is that PM Netanyahu is less likely to be pressured by America and Europe to take steps that Netanyahu believes are wrong and are dangerous and risky for Israel. There is little doubt when this happened recently. We know dates, in fact. It happened over the weekend of July 25-27, when Sec. State Kerry and then President Obama himself reached out to PM Netanyahu to put pressure on him to agree to concessions demanded by Hamas in order to achieve a ceasefire. Netanyahu’s response to the US was to tell the US to “not ever second guess me again (on Hamas).” It also has happened over the past few days when Israel refused to agree to similar concessions demanded by Hamas.
Both the Obama Administration and PM Netanyahu likely believe that any likely alternative to Hamas rule in Gaza will be worse, but their assessments of what that understanding necessitates in the aftermath of this conflict differ. The United States would like to negotiate the end of the naval blockade and the weakening of border restrictions with the belief that the goal is to improve prosperity in Gaza under Hamas’ rule, knowing that doing that will result in the strengthening of Hamas politically and potentially militarily, but believing that to be the best of only bad possible outcomes. This policy is also one supported by Qatar and Turkey.
Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority all disagree with that plan, believing that in the least Hamas must be weakened politically and militarily after this conflict. Israeli doves would like to see Israel pursue peace with the Palestinian Authority and believe that a Hamas controlled Gaza is an impediment to the establishment of a lasting peace with the Palestinians. Therefore, in the least, they would like to see the Palestinian Authority strengthened, perhaps taking over border control in Gaza as well as supervising funding transfers and the distribution of goods that enter Gaza. Notably, this puts Israeli doves in direct opposition to the ceasefire plan proposed by America.
The vast majority of Israelis, left and right, believe that Israel cannot live with the consequences of Hamas both remaining in power and growing in strength. In fact, it appears that Israelis can no longer tolerate living alongside Hamas as it was before this conflict, able to construct tunnels, fire rockets across the nation, and disrupt Israeli lives substantially. They are less willing to live alongside a potentially much more disruptive and deadly Hamas a year from now with relaxed border controls in place.
Those whose lives are actually on the line, Israelis on both sides of the political spectrum, the Egyptians, and the Palestinian Authority all believe that no concessions that would strengthen Hamas politically, much less militarily, can be allowed as a result of this conflict and that the worst case scenario that can be allowed is for Hamas to remain armed and in power with the blockade continuing and the borders remaining sealed.
Because the US policy position concerning Gaza appears to be that border controls should be eased, the United States opposes Israel’s position on Gaza.