Thirteen years after he was sent packing by Bill Clinton's political consultants and a phony third party, Bibi Netanyahu has become a political survivor. The awkward politician constantly under siege by the media and at the mercy of domestic political squabbling, has become a veteran of Israel's turbulent politics.
Netanyahu's electability allows him to exploit the less electable, flipping through ministers and coalition partners like a game of cards. A deeply divided and thoroughly corrupt Knesset has no shortage of partners willing to dance with him for a ministry and the perks of power. With no one positioned to take down Netanyahu, his is the only game in town and everyone knows it.
Before Sharon, two conservative Israeli Prime Ministers were forced out by American pressure over the peace process. One of those men was Netanyahu. Since Begin met Carter, there has never been a relationship as bad as the one between Netanyahu and Obama. If Clinton wanted Netanyahu gone, Obama wants him gone on a rail. And that makes Netanyahu's position dangerously precarious because in any election or coalition deal, Washington D.C. is the shadow player.
But Livni's appeals to Obama suggesting that she would make all the deals that Netanyahu would not, did not help. Instead she was shouldered aside by Shaul Mofaz who has brought Kadima, with its sizable Knesset presence, into the coalition with Netanyahu. There is little doubt that Mofaz, like anyone who jumped ship for the trumped up Kadima Party, would sell out the country and his own mother at a signal from Obama.
This brand of insanity makes Israeli politics a high-wire act where there is no stability and no future, and Bibi has learned to walk the tightrope. Whether he has learned to enjoy it is another story.
Outsiders may imagine that Israeli politics involves long discussions about terrorism, and depending on their political views, extended sessions on how to make Palestinian Arab children cry or how to win a stunning victory over terror. Neither is really true. Like most countries, Israeli politics are domestic. They involve things that hardly anyone on the outside cares about, even when poison pen correspondents like Karl Vick and Jodi Rudoren try to explain to Time Magazine and New York Times readers how this development once again reaffirms Israel's status as the liberal devil.
Israeli politics, like everyone's politics, is mainly about dividing the government pie among all the interest groups who want a piece; it is about politicians advocating programs that won't pass in order to score points with a constituency; and it is about interest groups denouncing each other for taking too much of the pie and using it the wrong way. And, most of all, it's about people who have few skills and many contacts, who have managed to get themselves into the Knesset and will make any deal and do any dirty deed to stay there.
Unlike the American and European left which oppose an Israeli strike on the Iranian nuclear program because they oppose Israel's continued existence, the majority of the Israeli political establishment knows that Iran's nuclear program needs to be stopped. What they are opposed to is Netanyahu getting the credit for stopping it. Bringing Mofaz into the tent will allow him to share in the credit, but will redouble the opposition from outside the coalition and from rivals inside it as well.
It will also give Netanyahu a little breathing room in the latest round of the secular-religious conflict by bringing in a partner which cannot afford to alienate either side if it wants to one day run the country, while making his government less dependent on the quarreling parties. It's a formula for gridlock on a partisan issue that has no possible resolution anyway.
But all that leaves one question unanswered. What is Netanyahu really planning to do? To Americans he may seem like a natural leader, but to the Israeli right, he's Mitt Romney, a smooth-talker with few principles and many concessions. And yet Netanyahu is not an empty vessel filled with careerism and corruption, like Ehud Olmert or Shaul Mofaz. There is the appearance of a decent man inside all the politics, but his policies for the most part have been defined by the politics.
The Bibi who allowed himself to be bullied by Clinton at Wye appeared to stand up to Obama in D.C., but policy-wise, he does not seem to have fundamentally changed from that man. American foreign policy hands are banking on Netanyahu playing the "Nixon goes to China" role and making the concessions on Jerusalem that no left-wing politician would. And that is an impression that he needs to cultivate to keep from being forced out of office. But what is the truth behind all the games?
That's a question which unfortunately cannot be answered. Admiring Netanyahu's political maneuvers is a dangerous game. His predecessor in the Likud Party, who played it better than he did, was a war hero and tough-talker from the right who proved to be one of the worst disasters after the other war hero and tough-talker from the left. Sharon and Rabin rammed through disastrous policies at the expense of the country. It would not be unprecedented for Netanyahu to do the same thing.
Netanyahu is a different breed of political animal. His only policy in two governments has been the waiting game. Last time around he was forced out before the waiting game expired. It's an open question of whether this time the waiting game is leading up to something or whether he's still playing just to stay in the game.
In a different country, Netanyahu would be admired as the man who led Israel through economic turmoil and privatization to prosperity. But Israel's most pressing problems are not economic and thanks to Rabin and Peres, it does not have the leisure to turn itself into Hong Kong or Singapore at its own pace.
Netanyahu was ahead of the curve, ahead of Prime Minister Cameron in the UK or Mitt Romney in the US, as the template for this type of politician.It's no wonder that Netanyahu gets along well with Romney, they are somewhat similar, the pragmatic sons of strong-willed fathers trying to find their own place in the world. They are instinctively moderate and good managers; but lacking in passion.
In a conflict they take the path of least resistance. In Israel the path of least resistance means bowing to international pressure, making more concessions, handing over Jerusalem and ignoring Iran. If Netanyahu does this, then he will likely seal Israel's fate and will become one of the last prime ministers of the State of Israel.
Netanyahu's political maneuverings show that he is a political survivor, the great unknown is whether his principles have also survived. And whether Israel will survive him.