In October, when Tzipi Livni, who had won the race to succeed outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as head of Israel's ruling Kadima Party, announced that she was unable to form a governing coalition, you could almost hear the groans coming from across the Atlantic and from European capitals. The reason? Livni's failure to assemble a government means new elections will take place in February. And, if the polls are any guide, that means the Israeli political moment the international community has been fearing for years could be just around the corner: The dreaded Bibi Netanyahu may soon be back in power.
It's possible that no Israeli leader has ever been reviled so intensely in the West. When Netanyahu was booted from office by Ehud Barak back in 1999, Clinton officials were elated. The administration "has made little effort to conceal its interest in a victory for Ehud Barak," explained The New York Times on the day Israeli voters went to the polls. Netanyahu aide David Bar-Illan would later write of a "massive American intervention" intended to help Barak oust Bibi. James Carville, Robert Shrum, and Stanley Greenberg--Clinton advisers all--worked for Barak's campaign. "Dislike is not a strong enough word, " an acquaintance of then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once told me. "She hated him." Bill Clinton himself made his feelings clear in a meeting ten years ago with Shimon Peres, now Israel's president, when he reportedly said that he had lost confidence in Netanyahu.
A decade later, Bibi still has plenty of detractors in D.C. Netanyahu, editorialized The Washington Post last month, "is seen as inflexible and untrustworthy by many in Washington; his election could spell a fractious period in Israeli-U.S. relations." Indeed, Barack Obama has had unkind words for Netanyahu's party, telling a group of Jewish leaders back in February that "there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you're anti-Israel--and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel."
And, whatever the feelings of American politicians toward Bibi, they are mild compared to the disdain directed at him from European capitals, where the name Netanyahu can generally be counted on to elicit a grimace or a sneer. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder once described Bibi's ideas as "weird," while French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine--explaining in 1998 why his country decided to hold peace talks without Israel--said, "You can't have a peace summit with Netanyahu."
The source of all this scorn is simple: Westerners blamed Bibi for trying to torpedo the peace process in the late '90s--and many believe he will do so again today. The truth, however, is that, when it came to foreign policy, Netanyahu was always considerably more pragmatic than Americans and Europeans gave him credit for. He talked tough but relented time and again. Through Ronald Lauder, his emissary to President Hafez Assad of Syria, Netanyahu affirmed his willingness to give up the Golan Heights in exchange for peace. He may have kicked and screamed during the Wye River negotiations in 1998, but, in the end, he acquiesced--ensuring that the Oslo process moved forward. Bibi, wrote Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy at the time, has put the "final nail in the coffin to a claim by any major Israeli political party to 'all the land of Israel.'"
What's more, history has been kinder to some of Bibi's stances than many in the West would like to admit. His reluctance to view Yasir Arafat as a credible partner for peace was vindicated in 2000 when Arafat launched the second intifada, while his objection to Ariel Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza three years ago does not, in retrospect, seem quite so preposterous now that the territory has been taken over by Hamas.
Today, the practical distinctions between Netanyahu and his rivals on foreign policy are marginal at best. As the far-left Israeli columnist Gideon Levy has written, Bibi is "no worse than his fellow candidates, but immeasurably more persecuted." Of course, the three main contenders for prime minister--Netanyahu, Livni, and Barak--tend to play up their differences in order to distinguish themselves in voters' minds. But, in contrast to the 1990s when voters were sharply divided over Oslo, Israeli society has arrived at a remarkably coherent consensus on the peace process. Israelis are generally skeptical about the prospects for peace but are willing to play along in a cautious game of trial and error. It's pretty clear that, no matter who wins the upcoming election, the next prime minister will end up roughly carrying out the overwhelming popular desire for cautious pragmatism in negotiations with the Palestinians. As for the question of what to do about Iran's nuclear program, all three candidates agree that it's dangerous and needs to be stopped. Barak and Livni are hardly soft on Iran. Barak has had tough words on the subject: "It is our responsibility to ensure that the right steps are taken against the Iranian regime," he said a year ago. "As is well-known, words don't stop missiles." And, when Livni was recently asked if she supported discussions between the United States and Iran, her reply was blunt: "The answer is no."
And yet there are perfectly good reasons to be wary of Netanyahu--just not the reasons Americans and Europeans have generally fixated on when carping about Bibi over the years. A good number of Israelis are dreading Netanyahu's return to power, but their dread has less to do with Bibi's stance toward Palestinians, Syrians, or Iranians--and much more to do with how he has treated his fellow citizens. Netanyahu's first stint in office suffered from plenty of problems--he was disorganized and "prone to panic," as Ariel Sharon once said about him--but the biggest flaw was that Bibi was a divider, not a uniter. If this doesn't change, he will once again be a failed prime minister.
During the late '90s, Bibi essentially managed to alienate half of Israel. At a time when a sense of unity was essential--following Yitzhak Rabin's assassination--Netanyahu encouraged the right to hate the left and shamelessly exploited the country's divide between religious and secular. (He was once caught on tape whispering to a notorious rabbi that "they"--namely, everybody to the left of him--"forgot how to be Jews.") Worst of all, however, was his constant denunciation of elites, rhetoric that, in retrospect, makes him sound like an Israeli Sarah Palin. "We all know," Netanyahu once said, "that there's a small group here that's snobbish and arrogant." In May 1999, he told voters in the Tikvah market in Tel Aviv that "those elites, what's known as the elites, hate the people. They hate anyone who isn't them. They hate the Sephardim, the Russians, the Ethiopians. Anyone who isn't one of them."
Bibi lacked the wisdom of another Likud leader, Ariel Sharon, who realized in his second stint as prime minister that, to be a successful leader in Israel, one has to rule from the center--because of both the parliamentary political system (which requires holding together fractious coalitions of small parties) and the political culture (an Israeli prime minister frequently faces the kind of tough national security decisions that require broad agreement among the citizenry). Either Netanyahu didn't understand this, or he was unable to pick his fights wisely and selectively. As a result, he came to be viewed as the hostage of right-wing hacks and ultra-Orthodox parties. He had a coalition--but it was a coalition of angry minorities.
In politics, image can be everything, and, if Netanyahu wants to be a successful prime minister, he will have to change his. He will have to prove that he can be more cool-headed. He will need to find a way to recapture the confidence of the many Israelis who were hurt by the economic measures he promoted as a very successful, but also very conservative, finance minister. And, through his rhetoric, he will need to convince the center that he has learned his lesson and is ready to be the leader of all Israelis--just as Sharon did, after a decade and a half in the political desert.
If Bibi does win--and if, as seems likely no matter who occupies the prime minister's seat, progress toward peace continues to move at a less-than-swift pace--Americans and Europeans will invariably blame him. This will be largely unfair (Barak failed at Camp David, Sharon failed in Gaza, and Olmert failed at Annapolis), but it will also be convenient. Someone has to be blamed in such situations, after all, and the options are limited: Obama can't be blamed (he is too new), blaming the Palestinian president is boring (he is too weak), and blaming Arab leaders is useless (no one expects them to do anything anyway).
Most Israelis, by contrast, will know better than to fault Bibi if the peace process once again stalls. When it comes to his habit of governing by demagoguery and division, however, they may not be so forgiving.
Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based columnist. He blogs daily for The Jerusalem Post.
This article originally ran in the December 24, 2008, issue of the magazine.