Will U.S. Feud Unravel Netanyahu's Coalition?

It must feel like old times for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At one end of his political tightrope, an American administration is pressing him to make concessions to the Palestinians. At the other end, the super-hawks in his coalition are warning him to stand firm or lose his majority in Parliament. The last time Netanyahu faced such a predicament, in 1998, he agreed to hand over 13 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian control under a deal worked out at Wye River, Md. The result: his right-wing coalition unraveled and Netanyahu lost his grip on power. How close to falling is he this time?

Israeli coalitions are notoriously volatile and predictions about their fate should always come with qualifications and caveats. Mine? My editor made do it. With that out of the way, it's probably safe to say Netanyahu won't lose his job as a result of the current crisis over construction in East Jerusalem. The reasons have mostly to do with the way Israeli leaders have come to deal with the United States—but also with internal politics in both Jerusalem and Washington.

For one thing, Netanyahu has learned from his mistakes. At Wye River, the Clinton administration cornered him into saying either "yes" or "no" to an interim agreement with the Palestinians, either accepting the deal or accepting responsibility for wrecking the peace process. More resourceful Israeli leaders have figured out the best response to American ultimatums is "Yes, but.…" Ariel Sharon was the master of this strategy. When the Bush administration presented him with the "road map"—a 2003 blueprint for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking that required a full settlement freeze and the dismantling of most outposts in the West Bank—Sharon didn't argue much. Instead, he said yes but appended 14 conditions, among them that Palestinians maintain total calm in the West Bank and Gaza and choose a new leadership before serious progress could be made. The result: Sharon never stopped expanding settlements and left most outposts standing.

Netanyahu, in some ways, leans more to the right than Sharon did. Since his offer to share power with centrist leader Tzippi Livni was spurned a year ago, he has relied on religious and right-wing parties to round out his coalition. Yet he appears to have internalized the power of "Yes, but.…" In his oft-cited June speech at Bar Illan University, Netanyahu accepted the idea of a Palestinian state but added enough provisions to make sure it would never be established. In November, he said yes to a settlement freeze but only for 10 months and not in East Jerusalem. To keep the hardliners happy, he also authorized hundreds of new housing starts just before the freeze went into effect.

Israel's hard right-wing parties have also learned their lesson. When they toppled Netanyahu in 1999, new elections brought to power the left-leaning Labor Party chief Ehud Barak. His willingness to cede most of the West Bank and the Golan Heights left some of the hawks feeling they'd acted recklessly. Netanyahu's cabinet includes some of the most uncompromising figures in Israeli politics, among them Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon. But even these hardliners have demonstrated a willingness to bend, especially when Netanyahu can show that compromises he's making with the United States are largely symbolic and won't lead to real concessions.

Finally, American pressure on Netanyahu is bound to ebb. Few administrations in Washington have had the political stomach for sustained feuding with Israel, and though Obama has shown more steel than many of his predecessors, his ambitious legislative agenda and the specter of losing the Democratic majority in Congress in midterm elections this November are both serious counterweights. Netanyahu's aides are already discussing compromises with American officials. According to one, detailed to NEWSWEEK by an Israeli official who did not want to be identified discussing matters still under negotiation, Israel will avoid provocative measures in East Jerusalem but won't actually halt building projects. Another proposal would have Israel freeze construction for a more limited period—four months, for example—in exchange for direct talks with the Palestinians. Sooner or later the two sides will settle on a formula that mollifies Washington and keeps Netanyahu's coalition intact. Whether it will actually advance peace with the Palestinians is another question altogether.

Will U.S. Feud Unravel Netanyahu's Coalition? | World