For weeks now, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been engaged in public negotiations designed to bring Isaac Herzog, Chair of the "centrist" Zionist Union bloc, into his coalition government. And then, out of the blue, Netanyahu did a complete reversal, dropping Herzog and instead bringing the far right Avigdor Lieberman into his government.
The move caught Israelis and much of the rest of the world by surprise. Just one day before Netanyahu's announcement, liberal commentators were salivating over the prospects of a Netanyahu-Herzog coalition, basing their assessments more on wishful thinking than sound political analysis. Some speculated that national unity might moderate the government easing international pressure on Israel. A few days ago, when Egypt's President al Sissi offered to help facilitate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and both Herzog and Netanyahu in rapid succession issued statements supporting the Egyptian proposal, commentators were positively gleeful. Many even speculated that al Sissi's move had been orchestrated with Netanyahu and Herzog to help spur the Israeli unity effort.
Still others saw the entry of the Zionist Union into the hard-line Netayahu government as an insurance policy guaranteeing that the Obama Administration would not take or support any untoward actions against Israel at the United Nations for fear of disrupting the new fragile Israeli unity government. One respected Israeli writer called it a "stroke of genius"—a classic Netanyahu move: a feint to the left providing his government with a fig leaf to mask its continuing aggressive settlement policy in the occupied territories.
As much as Netanyahu and Herzog, each for their own reasons, wanted this unity charade to succeed, it was not to be. The Prime Minister had become increasingly annoyed by his out-spoken Minister of Defense Moshe Ya'alon who had recently taken to defend the right of the military to speak out against excessive use of force. Netanyahu wanted to replace him. Herzog appeared willing to accept the role but wanted other key cabinet posts for his bloc, as well. This would have required that Netanyahu displace other coalition partners, a move that would fractured his right-wing alliance.
And so, still needing to remove his troublesome Defense Minister and to expand his one vote majority coalition government, Netanyahu abruptly turned to the right and invited the controversial Lieberman (who once called for "beheading" Israeli Arab "traitors") to join the government, offering him the Defense portfolio.
With all these, Netanyahu has revealed key aspects of his governing philosophy.
He is a master maneuverer, but despite his occasional feints to the left, he is, at his core, a right-wing hardliner. He has no interest in ending the occupation or providing justice for the Palestinians. Even if Herzog had joined the coalition, it would only have been as a fig leaf to shield Netanyahu from Western critics—not a serious move toward peace. Equally important to note is that far from being a strong leader, Netanyahu is weak and constantly fearful of others, both inside and outside of his government, who may challenge his authority. Alongside his core belief in maintaining Jewish control over Eretz Israel stands his concern with maintaining his personal power.
These two goals define the man and explain his bullying and his maneuvers. His behavior has been shameful, but so too is the extent to which Israelis, Americans and others continue to enable his malevolent rule. As one Israeli military leader noted last week, Israeli society is on a slippery slope—becoming increasingly tolerant of racist violence. Even though some of the most disturbingly bigoted personalities are in the Netanyahu government, the leader of the "centrist" opposition was desperate to join this coalition to protect it from Western critics. The Europeans continue to threaten sanctions in the face of ever expanding settlement construction in occupied lands. On this issue, Netanyahu has been especially defiant. During his tenure in office, the settler population has increased by over 100,000. Despite this behavior, the Europeans have allowed themselves to be silenced and bullied by Netanyahu into inaction. As for the Americans, they have repeatedly expressed displeasure over Netanyahu's settlement policies and his blatant interference in US internal politics. Nevertheless the administration is now debating whether to reward his government with a 10 year aid package valued at $35 Billion—while Netanyahu, supported by allies in Congress, is brazenly holding out for $45 to $50 Billion.
And so, operating with virtually no restraints, Netanyahu continues to maneuver and to aggressively advance his hard-line agenda. He maintains his grip on power. Israeli society continues to become more extreme and intolerant. Palestinians are more despairing and desperate. And peace more remote.