In January, Israeli voters will go to the polls for elections that promise to hand Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a renewed mandate. Few prospects are more loathsome to the Israeli left, to the administration in the U.S. of President Barack Obama, to most European leaders and to many American Jews. But no one regards the prospect of another Netanyahu government with more anguish than the Palestinians. In the long and tortured history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Palestinians have reviled no Israeli prime minister – with the possible exception of Ariel Sharon – more than they have Netanyahu. The reason is simple: He is one of them.
Literally, of course, he is not. But, unlike previous Israeli prime ministers (again, with the possible exception of Ariel Sharon), Netanyahu has emulated the Palestinian political strategy of sumud, or steadfastness.
The philosophy of sumud is rooted in the Palestinians’ implacable belief in the righteousness of their cause and the justness of their methods. It operates both passively and actively in Palestinian culture, demanding stubbornness and tolerating ruthlessness, violence and duplicity.
At the core of sumud lies the unswerving, blinkered view that Israel is illegitimate and that its duration is limited. As a result, Palestinian leaders have for decades mobilized their society to outlast Israel. Indoctrination begins at a young age through family, education and media, and later encourages a more aggressive form of resistance, which includes terrorism.
In other words, Palestinians are playing a long game. But plans for a functioning Palestinian state that do not depend on foreign aid have been conspicuously absent, save for the recent efforts of the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad.
Netanyahu’s version of sumud is evident in both his policies and rhetoric, which have focused on Israel’s legitimacy, necessity and permanence. Indeed, both as prime minister and candidate, Netanyahu has used his speeches to frequently offer lessons in Jewish history, while casting the “Holy Land” as both a Jewish right and an Israeli national symbol.
Addressing the United Nations in September, Netanyahu highlighted his core message for all, especially Israelis: “Three thousand years ago, King David reigned over the Jewish state in our eternal capital, Jerusalem. I say that to all those who proclaim that the Jewish state has no roots in our region, and that it will soon disappear.” Such rhetoric compliments a long-term strategy of strengthening Israeli control over core areas, especially Jerusalem and its suburbs.
Indeed, while settlement-building in the West Bank has slackened, it continues to take place. Moreover, aggressive counterterrorism activities and the separation barrier have decisively reduced cross-border attacks, which has contained mounting pressure in Palestine as the conflict remains on the back burner. And Netanyahu continues to oversee Israel’s economic expansion and improved foreign relations, despite hostile rhetoric from Europe and elsewhere.
The Palestinians seem to recognize Netanyahu’s variety of sumud for what it is. His steadfastness – and declining international interest in their struggle, as the world’s focus shifts to the Arab Spring’s Islamist winter – has stymied any advance toward an agreement.
The United States is, perhaps, equally frustrated. Israeli prime ministers are supposed to come in two varieties: heavily accented Eastern European men and grizzled military officers who talk a good game before acquiescing to the latest American or international demands for concessions, talks and aid. While previous prime ministers like Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir were not averse to lecturing, they lacked strategic cunning.
Netanyahu’s unwillingness to compromise disconcerts, confuses and often enrages the Americans. His relentless disquisitions on Israel’s strategic environment, security requirements, red lines and Jewish history are offset only by conciliatory talk about reopening the negotiations, which are immediately rejected by the Palestinians, who, like him, fear showing weakness.
Furthermore, Netanyahu’s unsentimental assessment of the Middle East does not line up with that of the Obama administration – in thrall to its collapsing romance with moderate Islamists – and its devoted supporters among Jewish Americans. These groups do not understand Netanyahu, who proclaims Jewish rights, defends his country’s interests and hints at conciliation but gives up little – much as would a traditional Arab leader.
Despite considerable Israeli disgust with Netanyahu’s party, allies and policies, no credible rival exists. Israelis grudgingly accept that the country and its geopolitical situation are relatively stable, especially in view of its immediate neighborhood – a burning Syria, a smoldering Egypt and a volatile Lebanon. Moreover, those variables that could upend Netanyahu’s re-election – namely the situation in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, for example, or deteriorating conditions in the Sinai Peninsula and Jordan, any of which could drag Israel into unwanted military operations -- now appear unlikely to influence the electoral outcome.
As a result, Netanyahu’s position is strong. The Palestinians initiated a zero-sum game that has given him the upper hand. By using the Palestinians’ own strategy, he has cornered them. After all, genuine peace efforts by the Palestinians – based on a two-state solution with no “right of return” for post-1948 refugees – would enrage Hamas and revive factional violence. This would add another self-defeat to an already long list.
With such help from the Palestinians – for example, Hamas bitterly castigated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently after he inadvertently implied giving up the right of return – Netanyahu may well rule Israel and Palestine for the foreseeable future.
Alex Joffe is a fellow of the Middle East Forum. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).