News analysis

Israelis ask: How will Netanyahu lean now?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on Dec 25, 2016.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on Dec 25, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

Analysts say UN settlement resolution must push Israeli Premier to take consistent stand

JERUSALEM • For years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a conservative, has played a double act - competing domestically with his right-wing rivals in backing the settlement projects all over the occupied West Bank, while professing support for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Now, with the stinging United Nations Security Council resolution last Friday condemning Israeli settlement construction as lacking any legal validity, Israeli politicians and analysts on the right, the left and in the political centre say Mr Netanyahu's game may soon be up.

The Israeli right - feeling empowered by the advent of the Trump administration, which is expected to be more sympathetic to Israel's policies - is pushing Mr Netanyahu to abandon the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, long considered the only viable solution to the conflict.

Mr Naftali Bennett, the leader of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party in Mr Netanyahu's governing coalition - with whom Mr Netanyahu and his Likud Party compete for votes - is goading him to take on more extreme positions like annexing parts of the West Bank, adding to a sense in Israel that the real Mr Netanyahu may have to stand up and decide which side he is on.

"He has to choose between the international community and Bennett," said Dr Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "It is not an easy choice, but he has to make a choice."

He added: "Is Israel going to alienate itself from the whole world for the sake of settlement activity? And it is the whole world. Is this what Zionism is about?"

For a second consecutive day on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu lambasted the departing Obama administration, publicly accusing it of having orchestrated last Friday's Security Council resolution, despite denials from Washington.

The United States refrained from using its veto power - as it had done many times before to shield Israel - and abstained in the 14-0 vote.

"From the information that we have, we have no doubt that the Obama administration initiated it, stood behind it, coordinated on the wording and demanded that it be passed," Mr Netanyahu said at the start of his weekly Cabinet meeting. He said he was looking forward to working with President-elect Donald Trump's administration when it takes office next month.

The Foreign Ministry summoned ambassadors of countries that had voted in favour of the resolution for personal meetings with ministry officials in Jerusalem, despite the Christmas holiday. In a highly unusual move, Mr Netanyahu, who is also the Foreign Minister, summoned US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro for a meeting on Sunday night.

With the Israeli occupation in its 50th year and the peace process frozen, Dr Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestine Liberation Organisation official and veteran negotiator, called on Israel "to seize the opportunity, to wake up, to stop the violence, to stop settlements and to resume negotiations".

Mr Netanyahu says he is ready for negotiations any time, but with no pre-conditions. The Security Council vote seemed to have caught Israel off guard.

"I hope for Netanyahu's sake (and also for ours) that he knows the truth at least deep in his heart - it was the chronicle of a failure foretold," Mr Ben Caspit, a political commentator, wrote in the Maariv newspaper on Sunday.

Many commentators pointed to Mr Netanyahu's increasingly vocal backing for the settler cause. That includes his advancement of highly contentious legislation, known as the Regulation Bill, that would retroactively legalise settler outposts and homes built on privately owned Palestinian land and force the owners to accept compensation.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 27, 2016, with the headline 'Israelis ask: How will Netanyahu lean now?'. Print Edition | Subscribe