The Netanyahu Government at Halfway Point:Keeping Things Quiet?Jonathan Spyer

The key policy challenge put forth by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the threat of the Iranian nuclear program. Yet there is a sense of contradiction between his bold assertion of dangers that must be stopped (when in opposition) and his cautious, tentative treatment of issues once in office. This contradiction appears to mirror his performance as prime minister from 1996 to 1999. At its halfway point, the second Netanyahu premiership has been characterized by pragmatism, caution, and a general desire to preserve the status quo. This approach is, however, unlikely to prevent the emergence of a nuclear Iran, Netanyahu's primary goal.

From 1996-2000, Benjamin Netanyahu served as prime minister of Israel. He was re-elected to the post in 2009. His second period of incumbency is taking place during a time of severe foreign policy challenges for the Jewish state. Building an effective response to these challenges is at the center of the agenda that Netanyahu has set himself.

The key challenge put forth by Netanyahu is the threat of the Iranian nuclear program. However, the perceived gravity of the Iranian nuclear threat is related to other aspects of the Israeli prime minister's conception of the region, and the threats facing Israel therein. Unlike many of his predecessors, Netanyahu came to the prime ministership with a worldview and strategy clearly articulated and written. As such, it is possible to some degree to measure the success or failure of his prime ministership to date in its own terms against a fairly clear yardstick.

This article will attempt to outline the core foreign policy perceptions and goals of the Netanyahu government in a number of central areas. Key events from the time Netanyahu took office in March 2009 will be discussed. Throughout, the policy success or failure of the actions of the government will be assessed in terms of Netanyahu's own professed goals and objectives. The domestic political constraints incumbent on the prime minister, and his success or failure in navigating these and ensuring the survival of his government, will also be considered.


The second Netanyahu prime ministership emerged from an unprecedented political situation in Israel. Prior to the elections of 2009, following every election since the foundation of the state, the president had tasked the leader of the party with the largest Knesset (Israeli legislature) representation with forming a governing coalition. In the elections of 2009, however, Kadima under Tzipi Livni won the largest number of seats (28), while Netanyahu's Likud won only 27.[1]

However, the overall right-wing bloc won more seats than that of the left, which presumably guided President Shimon Peres's decision to give the task of attempting to form a government to Netanyahu. The president sounded out party leaders in the days following the election, and based on the apparent likelihood that a Netanyahu-led coalition would prove more stable, he approached the Likud leader.

Netanyahu and Livni failed to reach agreement regarding a possible national unity coalition bringing Likud and Kadima together. The issue that prevented this was Livni's insistence on the rotation of the prime ministership, which Netanyahu was not prepared to consider. Rotation would have involved Netanyahu and Livni agreeing that one of them would hold the prime ministership for the first two years of the government, after which the other would take over. Such an arrangement has a precedent in Israel in the national unity government of 1984 to 1988, when the premiership was shared between Shimon Peres of Labor and Yitzhak Shamir of Likud.

Netanyahu then set about creating a coalition that would bring in parties to the right of the Likud and religious parties, as well as the left of center Labor Party. Labor, once the main party of Israel's center-left, went from being the second largest party to fourth place in the 2009 elections, making it a viable secondary coalition partner.

The government eventually formed by Netanyahu and the Likud included Labor, the right-wing Russian immigrant party Yisrael Beiteinu, and the Sephardic Haredi party Shas. Also in the coalition were the Haredi United Torah Judaism list and the small, nationalist religious Habayit Heyehudi list. This coalition gives Netanyahu a comfortable Knesset majority of 75 seats in the 120-member Knesset.[2]

As shall be seen, from the point of view of Netanyahu's preferred policy direction, the coalition that emerged was favorable. Had he succeeded in bringing Kadima, along with Labor, into the coalition the Likud would have represented the rightist edge in the government and thus would have been vulnerable to the possibility of being “ganged up on” by the two large parties to its left. In the coalition that emerged, the center-right Likud was in the comfortable position of occupying the center ground--between Labor to its left and Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas to its right. The presence of the right-wing elements (Yisrael Beiteinu, the small Ha’Bayit Ha’Yehudi party, and Shas) in the coalition would also provide a certain “balance” for Netanyahu from the demands of the U.S. administration, a situation that would not have pertained in a Likud-Labor-Kadima coalition. The element of balance derives from the fact that Netanyahu could credibly claim that reckless or hasty moves with regard to the Palestinians could lead to the collapse of his coalition, hence the need for him to tread carefully.

Netanyahu's position was made yet more secure by two additional factors. First, the figure supposedly occupying the space to his “left” in the coalition--Labor leader Ehud Barak--in fact shares most of the prime minister's core assumptions regarding the order of priorities in Israeli policy. In particular, Barak and Netanyahu were of one mind in placing the Iranian nuclear threat front and center of their concerns. Alongside this threat of central importance--in Netanyahu's conception--is the rise of Islamist extremism in the region and the consequent threat of terrorism. The meeting point between these two processes, in the Hamas and Hizballah organizations--which maintain active fronts against Israel--is also a central focus.[3]

Barak's skepticism regarding Palestinian intentions, following his experience as prime minister at the 2000 negotiations, also no doubt facilitated his easy transformation to functioning as defense minister in a government whose core positions on the diplomatic process sharply differed from those of the Labor Party. Barak's position in his own party is weak, and he has probably abandoned any chance of returning to the prime ministership given the declining strength of Labor.

Barak has emerged as the key policymaking partner in the Netanyahu government. In effect, the prime minister and defense minister form an exclusive policymaking echelon for key decisions, above all other members of the cabinet and the so-called “inner cabinet” of seven ministers.

The second factor that proved to be to the advantage of the government formed by Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009 was the relative weakness of the opposition. As opposition leader, Tzipi Livni failed to maintain a high level of visibility or to develop a clear and consistent critique of government policy. In the main, this reflected less a particular failure in the leader of the opposition and more the fact that the Netanyahu government was launched on a more or less centrist path and sought with some success to avoid major, eye-catching moves that would have enabled the opposition to depict it as a government of the radical right.


The agenda of Benjamin Netanyahu is dominated by--but not solely concerned with--issues relating to the field of foreign affairs and defense. As noted above, the single most important item on Netanyahu's agenda is the threat, as he sees it, posed to Israel by the combination of the nuclear ambitions and the extremist ideology of the Iranian regime. Netanyahu was among the first Israeli politicians to prioritize the Iranian issue. He spent the period prior to his return to the Likud leadership speaking and writing extensively on this matter.[4] It has been suggested that he sees his central policy task in the prime ministership as preventing the emergence of a nuclear Iran. He has described the matter as an existential issue. Netanyahu sees the Iranian nuclear issue as part of a larger problem of Iranian regional ambitions, which also takes in the matter of Iranian support for Hamas and Hizballah.

Far lower on the agenda for Netanyahu is the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians. Netanyahu emerged onto the political stage in Israel as an arch-skeptic regarding the 1990s Oslo process. His view then was that the peace process between Israel and the PLO was based on an entirely spurious conception, which held that the Palestinian Arab national movement was ready for peace and historic compromise with Israel and Zionism. There is no evidence to suggest that Netanyahu has altered this core perception. On the contrary, he feels that the violent events of 2000-2004 that followed the collapse of the Oslo process wholly justified his early skepticism. This point of view is shared by many Israelis, and is one of the reasons for the return of Likud's political fortunes.

Nevertheless, the experience of his first prime ministership also indicates that while Netanyahu has a clear conception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to which the Palestinian national movement has not reconciled itself with Israel's existence, this does not necessarily translate into a policy on the ground of confrontation with the Palestinian Authority (PA). While expressing his opposition to Oslo at that time, Netanyahu did not seek a radical reversal of the peace process or to challenge its basic parameters when in office.[5]

Prior to his re-election in 2009, Netanyahu stressed the need to support Palestinian efforts to build up their economy and civil society on the West Bank. He also stressed the need for the Palestinians to accept Israel as a “Jewish state,” as an indicator of whether a true move toward historic compromise had been made.[6]

Regarding the issue of Syria, Israel's northern front, and the Hizballah threat, Netanyahu's approach has been more straightforward. Despite media speculation at various junctures, there has been no serious attempt by the Netanyahu government to commence a negotiating process with the Asad regime in Syria. Controversy remains regarding the extent of concessions that may have been offered to Hafiz al-Asad during Netanyahu’s first prime ministership.[7]

Elements close to the defense establishment and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are understood to favor the “Syrian track.”[8] This is perhaps the most significant difference in the Netanyahu-Barak partnership. In the Barak camp, it is evidently considered that there is a real possibility that the Syrian regime might be tempted away from its alliance with Iran in return for the ceding by Israel of the Golan Heights. But since 2009, there appears to be little ambiguity regarding the fact that Netanyahu and his closest advisers do not share this emphasis and no evidence has emerged of efforts to revive the Turkish-mediated talks that broke down during the period of Ehud Olmert's prime ministership.[9] Syria is regarded as firmly embedded in the pro-Iranian camp and likely to use any concessions to its advantage while failing to alter this orientation.

On Hizballah, the remaining business of the exchange of Hizballah prisoners for the corpses of the two Israeli soldiers killed in the kidnapping attempt that began the 2006 Lebanon War was carried out by the Ehud Olmert government. This leaves, from the Netanyahu government's point of view, no immediate specific issue on the Hizballah file requiring attention.

The northern border has been quiet since August 2006. Hizballah is rearming and Israel is observing this process closely and seeking to raise world and U.S. awareness of it. However, for as long as the border is kept quiet from Hizballah's side, it is likely that Israel will perceive an interest in maintaining the status quo, while seeking to maintain international attention on Hizballah arms.

An additional matter considered by Netanyahu to be of strategic importance is the need to preserve Israel's international alliances. First and foremost, in this regard, Netanyahu is aware of the importance of preserving Israel's strategic alliance with the United States. Yet Netanyahu is also acutely aware of the need to address the campaign seeking to “delegitimize” Israel in the West.[10] This campaign--of particular strength in some Western European countries--seeks to promote a boycott and sanctions against Israel.

The Netanyahu prime ministership is, therefore, one dominated by a view of the region that sees Israel as facing a concerted and related series of threats. Iran is seen as committed to the destruction of Israel and the pursuit of nuclear weapons. It is seen as a rising power in the region, basing its growing influence on its appeal to radical and anti-Western sentiment. It is viewed as having linked up with extremist Islamist forces among the Palestinians and in Lebanon in order to wage proxy war against Israel.[11]Yet Netanyahu's view is also fundamentally confident and optimistic--not regarding the prospect for a peace settlement, but regarding the belief that Israel possesses the necessary strength to prevail in the contest opening up.

The Palestinian Authority is viewed as still committed to a version of Palestinian nationalism that would preclude the successful conclusion of a final status accord. The positions of Fatah on final status issues such as the demand for the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees and their descendants as well as the future status of Jerusalem are central here. At best, therefore, the status quo can be maintained in the West Bank, while the PA leadership develops the economy and society.

The policy that might be expected to emerge from the conception outlined above is one of assertiveness against the prospect of a nuclear Iran. In other areas, one might expect caution. This is in essence based on a perception that no real diplomatic advancements are likely in the current regional climate and that Israel's task in terms of national strategy is to maintain its deterrent edge in a region of increasing dangers and increasingly assertive enemies, while at the same time investing effort in combating efforts to weaken its alliances with its allies through “delegitimization.” Of course, this strategy has been made problematic by the emergence in Washington--almost simultaneously to the election of the Netanyahu government--of a U.S. administration that sees the region in a very different way.

The administration of President Barack Obama has made the repairing and enhancement of U.S. relations with the Muslim world a priority, and the president places the solving of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict high on the list of priorities in achieving this.[12] The core difference in outlook on the region between Washington and Jerusalem has been the most salient dynamic during the period of Netanyahu's second prime ministership, and has informed every element of its attempt to implement its strategy.

Following is an examination of the Netanyahu government’s attempt to implement its strategy in crucial areas. The focus will be on the Iranian nuclear program, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Israel's northern border, and the issue of delegitimization.


Netanyahu views the challenge posed by the Iranian nuclear program as the key foreign policy issue facing Israel. In the years as leader of the opposition prior to his return to the prime ministership, Netanyahu used every opportunity to cast the Iranian threat in the most dramatic terms possible. The statement, '"It's 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs," encapsulated his approach.[13] Crucial to Netanyahu's message at this time--and crucial to his policy as prime minister with regard to Iran--is the notion that Iran and its nuclear ambitions represent a danger not to Israel alone, but to the region as a whole, and even to the Western world.

Netanyahu also stressed that Iranian regional ambitions had a paramount influence on other regional processes, in particular, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As he put it, "What happens in Iran affects what happens in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not the other way round."[14] Such statements presaged Netanyahu's diplomatic policy as prime minister, which was to stress Israeli support for additional, harsher and “crippling” sanctions against the Iranian economy--both imposed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and by individual countries.[15]

Netanyahu said in an interview with a U.S. magazine shortly after assuming the prime ministership that “Western civilization” will have failed if Iran acquires nuclear weapons. He added that he saw this as the second great task facing President Obama, along with salvaging the U.S. economy.[16]

Support for additional sanctions was accompanied by hints that Israel had not ruled out the use of force. Un-named officials quoted by the Atlantic, for example, stressed that in Israel's view Iran's defenses were “penetrable” and that Israel would not necessarily need U.S. approval for an attack. [17]

Netanyahu throughout sought to accommodate himself to the U.S. position, while at the same time seeking to toughen it. Thus, when “engagement” was the U.S. intention, Netanyahu said that he supported it, if it produced results (while adding that he doubted it would). Similarly on sanctions, Netanyahu stressed that given the weakness of the Iranian economy, the country was “susceptible” to sanctions, providing that they were “ratcheted up by a variety of means.”[18] It has also been suggested that the Israeli security services have engaged in a clandestine campaign of sabotage against the Iranian nuclear program.

The very nature of the policy, however, meant that other than public diplomacy, possible sabotage, the implicit threat of possible Israeli military action, behind the scenes lobbying and presumably an ongoing attempt to monitor the development of the Iranian nuclear project, Israel's role was basically that of a bystander.

Regarding the issue of potential military action, Netanyahu, on assuming the prime ministership, refused to rule it out. However, according to media reports, President George W. Bush had declined to give Israel permission to carry out such an attack during his term of office,[19] and it appears likely that a similar state of affairs has persisted into the Obama administration. It is clear that while both the United States and Israel were convinced that Iran was seeking a nuclear weapon, there were major differences between the two countries, both on the projected time frame for this and on the sense of urgency attached to the issue,.

A series of blunt statements by senior U.S. officials in the period following Netanyahu's assuming the prime ministership revealed the differences between the United States and Israel in perceptions of the relative urgency of the Iranian nuclear file. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said that an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would undermine stability in the Middle East and endanger the lives of Americans in the Persian Gulf. [20]

The policy of the administration, meanwhile, was initially set toward engagement with rather than pressure on Iran. The very different emphasis of Netanyahu and Obama was evident following their first meeting after taking up their respective posts. In May 2009, Obama spoke of negotiations with Iran while saying that he would reassess at the end of the year if the process appeared to be going nowhere. Netanyahu publicly thanked him for keeping “all options on the table.”[21] This is understood as a euphemism for maintaining the possibility of military force against Iran.

The Iranian regime’s suppression of dissent following the contested 2009 presidential election results and the revelations of an additional nuclear facility near Qom[22] helped to disillusion the administration with the idea of engagement, along with the increasingly obvious fact that Iran was playing for time and was not interested in a real negotiation. Still, the pace toward further sanctions was far slower than Israel would have liked to see.

When a fourth UNSC sanctions resolution was finally agreed upon in June 2010, it fell still far short of the “crippling” restrictions the government of Israel had recommended. Nevertheless, the passing of the resolution and the subsequent approval on July 1, 2010, into law of additional, tougher sanctions by the U.S. Congress may have played an important role in improving the atmosphere of relations between Jerusalem and Washington.[23]

The sanctions approved by Congress went further than any previous measures in punishing foreign suppliers of refined petroleum to Iran and blocking access to the U.S. financial system for banks doing business with Teheran. Yet despite the undoubted increased severity of the new measures, in terms of the substantive goal of preventing a nuclear Iran, their likely effectiveness appears low. Iran has itself dismissed the sanctions and vowed to continue its enrichment of uranium.

Netanyahu is clearly also of the view that the sanctions are likely to be ineffectual, and on the basis of the supposedly improved relations between himself and Obama following their meeting in July 2010, he has begun to express himself in clearer terms in this regard. In a statement to Fox News, the prime minister stated clearly that in his view only the threat of U.S. military action might curb the Iranian nuclear drive. He stated that the new sanctions would probably not be sufficient. Netanyahu went on to say that he thought that a nuclear Iran could not be deterred or contained.[24] In other words, Iran must be prevented from getting nuclear weapons rather than--as the Obama administration seemed to be concluding--expecting it could successfully be prevented from using them once they were in its possession.

Unless military action is approaching, therefore, it appears that in its own terms, Netanyahu's tireless public diplomacy against a nuclear Iran has achieved very little. Iran appears to be moving at speed toward a nuclear capability, its uranium enrichment and missile programs proceeding apace.

Thus, Netanyahu, in the key self-defined objective of preventing a nuclear Iran--which he has referred to as a “hinge of history”--appears to have achieved little of substance as of this writing. Indeed, many analysts concur that unless military action is taken, a nuclear Iran appears to be inevitable.

Should such predictions prove accurate, it is possible that Netanyahu will leave office prior to the emergence of a nuclear Iran, or may even be in office when Iran is judged to have achieved a nuclear weapons capability. It is of course difficult to imagine how, in the absence of a sense of urgency in other countries over the question of Iranian nuclear ambitions, a coalition could have been built to take determined action to prevent it. Yet if preventing a nuclear Iran is the yardstick by which Netanyahu himself invited his prime ministership to be judged, then failure is at the moment looking likely--unless unpredictable occurrences such as military action intervene to transform the situation.

In this latter regard, it is worth noting an internal contradiction in Netanyahu's statements on the Iranian nuclear effort. On the one hand, he stresses his view of the regime as deeply ideological and committed to a religious ideology, and therefore not subject to the normal rules governing nuclear deterrence between states. Yet on the other hand--according to his public statements at least--Iran could only be curbed by the threat of U.S. military action. If, however, a nuclear Iran would be undeterrable because its leaders are given to non-cost benefit type thought, it is not clear why a not yet nuclear Iran might be inclined to a cost benefit analysis if threatened with U.S. military action.

The current author’s estimation on this matter, which is merely speculative, is that Netanyahu does not really believe that the Iranian regime can be deterred by the threat of military action. He has, however, adopted an approach of “educating” the U.S. administration step by step. That is, if one follows the logic of Netanyahu's position, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that the Israeli prime minister regards a nuclear Iran as an existential threat to Israel, and thinks that the only way to stop this is by military action. He may well be doing his best to persuade the United States and other allies of this position.

What this will mean in policy terms cannot be accurately predicted, of course. Yet the inner logic of Netanyahu's position, the centrality of the Iranian issue to his thinking, and his current failure to do a great deal about the Iranian nuclear drive should all be taken into account. They point in the direction either of the failure of Netanyahu's prime ministership in the terms it set for itself or military action to stop or set back the Iranian nuclear program.

It is also worth bearing in mind that according to informed sources, Netanyahu intends to stand again for the leadership of the Likud and for the prime ministership.[25] As such, the time frame in which he is thinking is not one in which he has only a year or two remaining. It is also generally considered that Netanyahu would be almost certain to win any contest for the Likud leadership at the present time. Thus, his plan may well be to hold elections again next year or the following year, on the basis of a sound economy, an ongoing negotiating process with the Palestinians, and above all a continued determination to neutralize the Iranian threat.[26]

Israeli-Palestinian Track

As noted above, Netanyahu's career has been largely informed by the sense that the Palestinian national movement (and of course Hamas) continues to hold to a refusal to accept the permanent existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state, and that as such, a permanent agreement between Israelis and Palestinians is not a feasible ambition. There is no reason to assume that this view has been altered.

Netanyahu came to a power at a time when the Palestinian national movement had effectively split into two, with a Hamas-controlled statelet in Gaza rejecting the very basis of the 1990s peace process. Netanyahu had stressed the idea of an “economic peace” with the West Bank Palestinian Authority and concentrating on grassroots initiatives and the development of institutions. It may be assumed that he had hoped the quiet management of an ongoing, intractable conflict would characterize relations between Israel and the Palestinians, enabling him to focus on the more pressing issues of Iran and its regional ambitions and influence.

This hope, of course, has not been realized. Rather, the U.S. administration chose to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front a central part of its regional strategy. Netanyahu was forced to adjust accordingly. The crucial importance of maintaining the strategic relationship with the United States necessitated efforts to stay on the “same page” with the administration on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, in spite of the view among those close to the Israeli prime minister that the U.S. view of what was achievable in this regard was and remains deluded.

Achieving this, however, requires something of a diplomatic and political tight rope walk for the prime minister. He has needed to convince the U.S. administration that he is not the factor obstructing its efforts to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track (and hopefully demonstrate to their satisfaction that Palestinian positions made a permanent status agreement unachievable), while at the same time avoiding the departure of right-wing coalition partners. At the beginning of his premiership, in a significant speech at Bar-Ilan University in June 2009, the prime minister expressed in clear terms his support in principle for the creation of a Palestinian state.[27] The government subsequently accepted a ten-month moratorium on settlement building at the end of 2009.

Over time and with a number of stumbles along the way, Netanyahu appears to have managed to position Israel in such a way as to avoid the impression that it was acting as a deliberate obstruction to Obama's Israeli-Palestinian policy. This did not, however, prevent tensions from resurfacing--most famously in March 2010 during a visit to Israel of Vice President Joe Biden, when the administration objected to the announcement of an Israeli construction plan in a Jerusalem neighborhood across the Green Line.

The Israeli positioning certainly did not end all tensions and suspicion with the U.S. administration. The differences between Netanyahu and Obama are substantive and deep. Yet at the time of writing, Netanyahu and President Obama have managed to prevent their genuine differences on regional strategy from turning into a major rupture in relations.

It is considered that concern in the U.S. Democratic Party over the deterioration in relations in the build-up to the Congressional midterm elections in November 2010 may have contributed significantly to Netanyahu's successful “reset” trip to the United States in July 2010. This of course raises the possibility of a further “reset” in relations after the elections--back in the direction of confrontation. There are persistent rumors that in the absence of progress and a move toward direct talks, the United States may introduce its own plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace next year. Should these rumors prove correct, such a move would serve once more to raise tensions in the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem.

Regarding the matter of the Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks, the process has failed to make substantive progress for predictable reasons. The Palestinian side wanted to move directly to the discussion of final status issues--specifically, the future borders of a Palestinian state and security arrangements, on terms to its liking. The Israeli government, by contrast, stressed the need to focus initially on practical, on-the-ground issues on which progress could be made.

During his July 2010 visit to the United States, Netanyahu stressed the Israeli demand for direct talks to begin, as he has done consistently since mid-2009. The Palestinian Authority refused to countenance this, unless Israel renewed the settlement moratorium and extended it to include east Jerusalem (as well as continuing its demand for Israel to express its terms on borders in a final settlement). For Netanyahu, who in any case has few expectations of the talks, the prospect of the Palestinians beginning to overplay their hand as U.S.-Israeli relations are patched up is a promising one. The agreement by the Palestinian Authority to the commencement of direct talks in late August 2010 does not substantially alter the picture. There is little reason to assume that Netanyau expects the talks to yield substantial results. Yet his demonstrated willingness to participate in them serves his broader strategy.

Thus, in terms of his very low expectations regarding the Israeli-Palestinian track, Netanyahu may be able to look back with some satisfaction. He has succeeded to prevent serious differences on the Palestinian issue from resulting in a profound rupture in relations with the United States. In spite of the effective deadlock in the diplomatic process, the West Bank is relatively tranquil and its economic and security situation improving. The Hamas Gaza enclave remains isolated, despite international pressure having forced the Israeli government to ease the terms of the blockade. Hamas continues largely to hold to the unilateral ceasefire it adopted following Operation Cast Lead, meaning that the Gaza border has been quiet.

The North: Syria and Hizballah

Indirect, Turkish-mediated negotiations between Israel and Syria broke down after Operation Cast Lead, during the prime ministership of Ehud Olmert. There have been no known attempts to revive the talks under Netanyahu. In Lebanon, meanwhile, Hizballah is continuing the process of rebuilding its power and armaments close to Israel's border. Again, Israel has sought to raise world attention to the fact of Hizballah rearming in various ways--including releasing intelligence maps detailing Hizballah's deployment in a south Lebanese town--but has avoided decisive action.[28]

Israeli analysts generally consider that renewed conflict with Hizballah is at some stage inevitable. The desire of Hizballah to avenge the killing of senior movement operative Imad Mughniyah is cited as a possible spark for a future conflict. The possibility that Israel may take preemptive action to prevent Hizballah deployment of certain types of weaponry has also been raised. There are credible reports that Israel was dissuaded by the United States from attacking a Syrian arms convoy carrying long-range missiles to Hizballah earlier this year.[29] It is also expected that in the event of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, Hizballah would launch rockets and missiles at Israeli population centers.

Yet despite the stark prospect of possible future conflict in the north, the current situation is one of uneasy quiet. This situation has pertained since the conclusion of the 2006 war. Another round of warfare between the sides is probably inevitable. This does not mean that it is necessarily imminent. It appears that neither side has an overriding interest in opening conflict at the present time. Netanyahu is also under no pressure to deviate from his desired policy with regard to Syria and the northern front. It is thus likely that his preferred approach based on deterrence and containment will continue, absent Syrian or Hizballah action to make it no longer tenable.


The image of Benjamin Netanyahu internationally and to some degree in Israel is of a conviction politician, with a very firm and ideological view of the world. In Israel, however, the prime minister is also popularly viewed as given to indecisiveness, preferring to avoid making major decisions until circumstances effectively force him to do so. The result is a combination of conceptual boldness and clarity with extreme practical caution and avoidance of major initiatives.

In his first prime ministership, Netanyahu rose to power against a background of suicide bombings and terrorism, during the period of the Oslo process. While vociferously opposed to Oslo, Netanyahu did not in practice set about seeking to dismantle or reverse the framework of the agreement. Rather, he slowed its implementation, introducing the principle of “reciprocity”--meaning that the Palestinians would be held to a higher standard in terms of their own adherence to the agreements, in return for further Israeli implementation of them.

In practice, what this meant was that no major change was effected. Territorial concessions continued, at a slower rate, and the Prime Minister's Office engaged in an energetic information campaign to highlight the failure of the Palestinian Authority to adhere to its responsibilities under the accords. Netanyahu's frank opposition to the basic assumptions of the peace process continued. Yet the process continued under his government, and it was Ariel Sharon--rather than Netanyahu--who from 2002 onward, put a policy in place that consistently abandoned the assumptions behind Oslo and took measures to reverse them on the ground.

So far, at least, it appears that Netanyahu is taking a similar approach to the major policy issue of his second prime ministership--namely, the Iranian nuclear program. It remains to be seen if the prime minister's apparent relative passivity in this regard is only a smokescreen, or if Netanyahu will leave office having made very clear why a nuclear Iran would be in his view a bad thing, without having taken decisive action (possibly beyond ordering the Israeli security services to disrupt the program) to prevent it.

Yitzhak Shamir, a very different political figure, once responded to a question as to how he hoped to be remembered by saying that he hoped Israelis would remember that he “kept things quiet.”[30] At the half way point of his second prime ministership, there is a growing sense that Benjamin Netanyahu may share the ambition for a similar legacy. The difference is that with Shamir, the desire to preserve the status quo went hand in hand with his larger strategic ambition of preventing territorial rearrangements west of the Jordan River. With Netanyahu, on the other hand, there is a sense of contradiction between his bold assertion of dangers that must be stopped (when in opposition) and his cautious, tentative treatment of issues once in office. Of course, Netanyahu's prime ministership is not yet over, and events may yet occur to reverse this perception. Yet at its halfway point, the second Netanyahu premiership has been characterized by pragmatism, caution, and a general desire to preserve the status quo. This is largely in keeping with his performance in the period from 1996 to 1999. Whatever the inherent merits and demerits of such an approach, it may be asserted with some confidence that it is unlikely to bring about the single most important goal that Netanyahu set himself--namely, the prevention of the emergence of a nuclear Iran.

*Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center. He is a columnist at the Jerusalem Post newspaper and a frequent contributor to other publications, including the Haaretz English edition and the Guardian Comment is Free website. His first book, The Transforming Fire: the Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict will be published in November 2010 by Continuum.



[1] "Final Election Results Bring Political Uncertainty," Voice of America, February 13, 2009,

[2] Amnon Meranda, "The Knesset Approves: The Netanyahu Government Sets Out" [Hebrew], Yediot Ahronot, April 1, 2009.

[3] Bret Stephens, "Iran Is the Terrorist 'Mother Regime,'" Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2009,

[4] Ibid.

[5] See Ya'acov Lozowick, "Inventing Netanyahu's Past," May 22, 2010,

[6] Amos Harel, Ami Issacharoff, and Akiva Eldar, "Netanyahu Demands Palestinians Recognize ‘Jewish State,’" Haaretz, April 16, 2009,

[7] Daniel Pipes, "What Was Binyamin Netanyahu Ready to Concede on the Golan Heights," Daniel Pipes Blog, June 27, 2004 (updated March 6, 2009),

[8] Barak Ravid, "Defense Establishment Paper: Golan for Syria Peace, Plan for Iran Strike," Haaretz, April 3, 2008,

[9] "Israel Must Keep Much of Golan: Netanyahu Aide," Al-Arabiyya, July 10, 2009,

[10] "Building a Political Firewall Against Israel's Delegitimization," Reut Institute, March 2010,

[11] Stephens, “Iran Is the Terrorist 'Mother Regime.”

[12] Mark Tran, "Barack Obama Seeks to Mend Muslim Ties in Middle East Diplomacy Drive," The Guardian, January 27, 2009,

[13] Peter Hirschberg, "Netanyahu: Its 1938 and Iran is Germany; Ahmedinejad Is Preparing Another Holocaust," Haaretz, November 14, 2006,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Barak Ravid and Amos Harel, "US Vows Commitment to Israel, Wary of War over Iran Nukes," Haaretz, February 22, 2010,

[16] Jeffrey Goldberg, "Netanyahu to Obama: Stop Iran--Or I Will," The Atlantic, March 31, 2009,

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Jonathan Steele, "Israel Asked US for Green Light to Bomb Nuclear Sites in Iran," The Guardian, September 25, 2008,

[20] Peter Apps, "Scenarios: Global Impact If Israel Strikes Iran," Reuters, March 29, 2010,

[21] "Remarks by President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu," White House, Office of the Press Secretary, May 18, 2009,

[22] Catherine Philp, "How Secrecy over Iran's Qom Nuclear Facility Was Finally Blown Away," Times, September 26, 2009,

[23] "US Congress Backs New Sanctions Against Iran," BBC Online, June 24, 2010,

[24] "Fox News Sunday Interview with PM Netanyahu," July 11, 2010,

[25] Conversation with senior Likud official, July 23, 2010.

[26] Ibid.

[27] "Full Text of Netanyahu's Foreign Policy Speech at Bar-Ilan," Haaretz, June 14, 2009,

[28] Yaakov Katz, "Sending Hizbullah a Message," Jerusalem Post, July 9, 2010,

[29] Richard Beeston, "Syria Accused of Arming Hizballah from Secret Bases," Times, May 28, 2010,

[30] Quoted in Thomas Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1989), p. 283.


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