Learning to Live with Bibi

Netanyahu's back, and Barack Obama needs to find a way to work with him this time around.

In the spring of 1996, with Israelis still mourning the late Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres locked in a tough race for prime minister with Benjamin Netanyahu, I quipped to my friend and colleague Dennis Ross in one of the worst political predictions of the modern era: There's no way Bibi can win this thing. He can't be prime minister of the state of Israel.

Seventeen years later, Netanyahu has now served for more years as Israeli prime minister than anyone other than David Ben Gurion, and though much weakened by this week's elections, is about to begin coalition negotiations toward an unprecedented third term.

But looking at the Israeli press this morning, you'd think that he's already toast. "'King Bibi,'" writes columnist Bradley Burston, "has managed to plummet to victory in a technical triumph that has every appearance of a debacle." Bibi's campaign failed, the inestimable Aluf Benn writes in Haaretz, because he had nothing much to say.

They're both right, of course. The election results in Israel were a clear defeat for the right, a non-victory for the left, a clear affirmation that there is a center in Israel, and an indication that many Israelis are indeed looking past Netanyahu for something new.

But it would be a mistake in 2013 -- just as it was in 1996 -- to write off Bibi or to conclude that Israeli politics are somehow on the verge of transformation. Remember: This is the topsy-turvy, volatile world of Israeli politics, where since independence there have been 32 governments, each lasting roughly 1.8 years. And this is a place where principles compete with the rough trade of street politics, coalition horse-trading, and downright meanness. And that is squarely in Netanyahu's wheelhouse. He knows how to survive in the shark-infested waters of Israeli politics. Indeed, in the curious interaction of domestic politics, national security, and, most importantly, the absence of charismatic leadership, there's still life left in King Bibi. And here's why.

1. The Arabs and Iran are still Bibi's best talking points

This wasn't an election about the peace process or Iran, which is why Bibi flopped, the rightist annexationist Naftali Bennett failed to meet the sky-high expectations placed on him, and why Yair Lapid, who focused on social and economic issues, fared so well.

But the security issue -- the matzav ("the situation" in Hebrew) -- is omnipresent. It's in that world where Netanyahu flourishes. And you can always count on the Arabs to offer up a lifeline.

Sure, Israeli behavior toward Palestinians on the West Bank is bad -- but compared to what? Israel's neighbors always seem to find a way to rescue the right these days. Take a look around. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad murders his own people; in Gaza, Hamas talks of pushing the Jews into the sea; in Egypt, President Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood espouse the worst kind of anti-Semitic tropes; and in Iran, the mullahs can't seem to open their mouths these days without muttering something about the evil Zionists.

Nowhere is there an Arab or Muslim leader who is attractive or powerful enough to challenge the Israelis, gain a constituency among the Israeli public, or give the Obama administration enough leverage to present Israelis with a real choice on peace. And in this world, Netanyahu understandably thrives.

2. There's no peace process to fight over

As long as there's no real peace process that creates a real choice for most Israelis, Netanyahu will continue to have a key role. Sure, Lapid, a potential partner for Netanyahu's coalition, espouses two states. But like his famous father, Shinui party stalwart Tommy Lapid, he's tough on peace issues such as dividing Jerusalem or the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

And in case you hadn't noticed, there is no peace process at the moment, a fact that neither Lapid nor the many other centrists emphasized in their campaigns. While Israelis are focused on domestic issues, the peace process has gone missing either because the security situation is too good (no suicide terror, Iron Dome.) or because the regional situation is too bad (a divided Palestinian leadership, an anti-Semitic Morsy, etc.)

Most likely, the kind of peace process that will emerge over the next year is one that Netanyahu can support -- a bottom-up approach with little focus on the identity issues such as Jerusalem and refugees, and maybe quiet discussions between Israelis and Palestinians on territory and security around which the prime minister can maneuver. But don't get your hopes up.

3. John Kerry needs a friend

We are going to have a new secretary of state who will have responsibility -- assuming he can convince the president to let him handle the issue -- for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian problem. And the last thing Kerry wants is a worsening of ties between Netanyahu and Barack Obama that makes it impossible for him to do his job on such a key issue.

If Kerry wants to have a chance of succeeding -- even to manage the problem -- he'll need a relationship with Netanyahu based on some measure of confidence and trust. This is even more important given the absence of such trust between Obama and the prime minister.

George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir didn't get along. James Baker, Bush's hard-nosed secretary of state, managed to hammer out a working relationship with then Prime Minister Shamir -- tense at times but functional. Without it, there would have been no Madrid peace talks -- and without that, the Oslo talks would have been harder to produce. If Kerry is smart, he'll keep the door open to Netanyahu and try to hammer out at least a modus vivendi. Bibi, meanwhile, is going to try to build on his already positive relationship with Kerry.

4. American enablers

I'm also betting that the Obama team, bogged down as it is with so many other issues, won't get terribly creative on the peace process and will play to Netanyahu's strengths -- an interim, incremental, and bottom-up process that avoids the tough issues and steers clear of high-profile initiatives. Rather than try to undermine Netanyahu, a second-term president (even one with visions of being the father of Palestinian statehood) will likely play it safe and try to work with the new government. And who could blame him? Even if Obama decides to roll the dice, he needs an Arab or Palestinian partner to help him. And those are in very short supply.

5. Iran must be managed

There's another powerful reason Bibi will remain relevant: He's Mr. Iran. Even more than the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or lack thereof, Iran will require cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem if an agreement on the nuclear issue is to be reached or successful military action undertaken.

Iran isn't Palestine, some localized shepherd's war even with regional resonance. The Iranian nuclear issue could have grave economic, military, financial, and political consequences for the entire Middle East and international community. The stakes are simply too high to accommodate huge policy differences or public rifts, let alone a breakdown in cooperation that compels the Israelis to take unilateral military action.

Many think this will be the year of decision with regard to the Iranian nuclear issue. Maybe yes; maybe no. Regardless, Obama and Netanyahu need to reach some kind of understanding -- first, on avoiding unilateral Israeli military action until the diplomatic effort has run its course; second, on what kind of negotiated solution the Israelis will accept; and third, if all of this fails, on what level of cooperation the two countries will engage in if military action is required. The new coalition -- if it's broad enough -- could either provide a foundation for military action against Iran or constrain it. But either way, Netanyahu will find himself in the middle of the mix with a critical role to play.


Netanyahu survives because Israel is confronting its own leadership crisis and is in the middle of an ongoing changing of the generational guard, from its founders to a generation of younger, less authoritative leaders. Ariel Sharon lies in a coma and while Shimon Peres is amazingly vibrant at 89, these two are the only historic figures that remain. A series of younger and less legitimate politicians -- Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak, and Tzipi Livni have tried to fill that vacuum and failed.

Whatever your views of Netanyahu -- unprincipled, visionless, all tactics at the expense of strategy -- he has not only survived but prospered in the dysfunctional, byzantine, and leaderless world of Israeli politics. Perhaps this election will be the beginning of the end of his run -- a triumph for a new Israeli politics based on moderation, democratic principles, and even a new approach to the Palestinians. We can always hope. But more likely for the time being, Bibi, while he's clearly down, is by no means out.

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Reality Check

What's Really Behind the Hagel Fight

Let's face it: This battle is about Obama, not his would-be secretary of defense.

The more I watch the soap opera that surrounds Chuck Hagel's nomination for defense secretary -- and there are more episodes to come -- the more I wonder if he's really the main event.

Sure, the former senator is an outspoken maverick who has angered fellow Republicans, said some things that upset the pro-Israel community, taken positions on Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran that were out of sync with U.S. policy, and driven the neocons crazy in general.

But my sense is that the real subtext in this melodrama is about more than the questions Hagel's detractors have raised: Is he qualified for the job? Is he endemically hostile to Israel? Is he going to emasculate the U.S. military, in which he proudly served, and willfully weaken the defenses of a country he deeply loves?

These are questions to which the answers are already clear: yes, no, and no. The hearings before the Armed Services Committee will give Hagel an important opportunity to defend himself and explain his beliefs about U.S. national security. And unless he makes some self-inflicted gaffe, he's likely to make it through the confirmation process.

That's why I think that the Hagel affair really isn't about Chuck Hagel.

This is really a fight about Barack Obama. It is being driven by three somewhat overlapping constituencies -- a pro-Israel community that doesn't trust the president, a Republican party and a neoconservative elite struggling unsuccessfully to define its own foreign policy identity, and finally, a party in opposition that is determined to remind Obama that, reelected or not, he doesn't have a free hand.

Obama, Israel, and American Jews

Hagel's support for a special relationship with Israel -- but not an exclusive one, where Israeli policies are above scrutiny and criticism -- is really how Obama feels too. Hagel articulates on Israel what Obama cannot -- a frustration with some of Israel's policies and a belief that the United States needs to exhibit more balance and show greater sensitivity to Palestinian and Arab concerns.

Like Obama, Hagel isn't an enemy of a Jewish state, let alone, as some of his detractors have charged, a hater of Jews. But he's clearly not emotional or emotive when it comes to Israel either.

Obama is the first U.S. president who doesn't think the Israelis are cowboys and the Palestinians are Indians. He was only six at the time of Israel’s stunning victory during the six day war and likely internalized little of the David vs. Goliath tropes relating to Israel and the Arabs. (If anything, he emerged with the opposite image of Israel as the mighty power occupying the West Bank and Gaza and the Palestinians as David.) And unlike Hagel, Obama didn't grow up in a political environment where being "strong on Israel" mattered much for most of his political career.

All of this is reflected and exacerbated by the ongoing melodrama of his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Rightly or wrongly, the mutual impressions have been fixed: Netanyahu believes the president is insensitive -- even bloodless -- about Israel's fears and concerns, and the president thinks the prime minister is a con man who operates with a wanton disregard for American interests.

Four years in with another four to go, it's clear to all but the interminably obtuse that these two just don't get along. And there's growing unease in the Jewish community and in Israel that tensions may rise further, as Obama looks toward his legacy and Netanyahu is pulled rightward by even more hardline members of a new coalition.

So much of the opposition to Hagel flows from this dynamic. If the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu weren't so dysfunctional, I bet the concern about this would-be defense secretary wouldn't be nearly as acute.

Republicans in Search of a Foreign Policy

I'm betting too that a good part of the opposition to Hagel comes from Republicans who are frustrated that they can't identify a new foreign policy approach for their party, and who are very unhappy about the one the president is following. This malaise is orchestrated by neoconservatives who wax nostalgic for the good old days of Ronald Reagan's principled but practical approach to foreign policy. (They can't be pining away for the Bush 43 years, can they?)

That the Republican Party is at sea on foreign policy grates the party leadership for two reasons. First, Obama's approach has essentially stolen pages from the Republicans' playbook: He's morphed into a less ideological, more disciplined version of George W. Bush -- keeping Gitmo open, escalating the drone war, surging troops into Afghanistan, toughening sanctions on Iran.

And second, Obama has borrowed from the Republican realism of the George H.W. Bush administration: He has avoided risky and open ended military campaigns, valued multilateral diplomacy, and always made sure that he had the means to carry out his ends.

What Obama has abandoned is the Republican crusader sprit of aggressively championing American values -- muscular interventions, turning American policy into a morality play of good against evil, and touting the American exceptionalism of the Iraq years. And worse, the American public seems to have embraced Obama's policies as the right course for the times.

Hagel is the poster child for this realism. As a Republican renegade who supported the Iraq war and then turned against it, he is a man the crusaders love to hate. He is a decorated combat veteran with a mind of his own, with an interest perhaps in trimming the Pentagon's budget -- a man who will urge caution and deliberation before projecting military force abroad and who believes in trying diplomacy first (with Iran, for instance) before going to war.

And for key Republicans like Sen. John McCain, that's frustrating in the extreme. Not only can't the Republicans identify a foreign policy issue that separates them in a practical way from the Democrats, the world seems inhospitable for grand rescue operations. (see: Syria, Iran, the Arab winter, and Afghanistan.)

Opposing Hagel is a political and philosophical imperative for the Republican Party, which has lost its footing in foreign policy and can't find an effective way to attack the president's. But whether Republicans can use the Hagel confirmation hearings to showcase their new approach, or whether they will simply fall back on their old habits, remains to be seen.

We're Still Here

Finally, opposing Hagel is mandatory station identification.

Obama is only one of 17 U.S. presidents to be elected to a second term (and only 14 served out the entire eight years). And yet, you'd hardly know it. Whatever mandate or electoral bounce normally accrues to second-term presidents, this one seems more alone and powerless than ever.

Obama's clear choice for secretary of state, Susan Rice, took herself out of the running because of Republican and Democratic pressure over Benghazi. The grand deal for avoiding the fiscal cliff collapsed. The president's candidate for defense secretary is facing a tough nomination fight -- and whether it's gun control, the debt ceiling, or immigration reform, Obama will face other tough fights from Republicans who want to remind him that he can't have his way without their cooperation and support.

The threat to Hagel may have diminished somewhat, with influential New York Sen. Chuck Schumer announcing his support. But what if he doesn't make it through?

I really admire Hagel's service, his guts, and his view that when it comes to using American military power the fact that we can doesn't always mean we should. I think he's just what the doctor ordered these days.

Still, I won't believe the sky is falling if Hagel isn't confirmed or that it would mean a catastrophic defeat for Obama and for U.S. foreign policy or a validation that the neoconservatives and pro-Israeli community are now 10 feet tall. The fact is, as we saw with Susan Rice, the White House will find a suitable fallback. Indeed, as Charles de Gaulle implied in his comment that the cemeteries of France are filled with indispensable people, nobody really is. Nobody, that is, except perhaps Barack Obama, the most controlling foreign-policy president since Richard Nixon. It's likely that Obama will make all the key decisions on foreign policy during the next four years -- with or without Chuck Hagel at his side.

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