Hussein Ibish

Netanyahu governs like Arafat did

An often overlooked irony of contemporary Middle East politics is how deeply reminiscent the governing style of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to that of the late Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat. The mechanics of holding together a fractious national liberation movement bear uncanny similarities to those of cobbling together a diverse coalition within a flawed parliamentary democracy.

For most of its history under Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization was not simply synonymous with Fatah. It was, rather, a contentious coalition of diverse groups from the far left to the moderate right.

Arafat was a master at operating a quota system in which everybody got enough of the action to keep them on board. In more recent years under President Mahmoud Abbas, and particularly Prime Minister Salam Fayyad—who is not a member of either Fatah or the PLO—Palestinians have been moving away from a quota system toward one with elements of meritocracy and the selection of officials based on their ability to perform rather than what faction they represent.

Coalition building in parliamentary democracies frequently involves jockeying for positions between party leaders based on the number of votes they can produce in the legislature. But Netanyahu has managed to create an ideologically crazy-quilt coalition that is nonetheless one of the most stable in Israel's history precisely because all of its members get exactly what they need.

Netanyahu's governing style, therefore, has a great deal more in common with Arafat's than either would have been comfortable admitting.

Netanyahu himself gets to be prime minister even though his Likud Party has one less seat than the largest group in the Knesset, Kadima.

And this, after all, is ultimately the whole point of the exercise.

Avigdor Lieberman, head of the third-largest party in the Knesset, the largely Russian-immigrant Yisrael Beiteinu group, gets the number-two spot, foreign minister. He has been waging a relentless war of attrition against Netanyahu for leadership of the Israeli right, although Netanyahu has thus far prevailed.

Eli Yishai, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, also gets exactly what he wants. Shas broke the traditional taboo of ultra-Orthodox groups by getting involved directly in Israeli politics largely in order to secure state funding for its religiously-oriented social and educational programs. His post as interior minister is ideal for such purposes.

Finally, Ehud Barak continues in his personal fiefdom as defense minister, even though he had to abandon the Labor Party. In spite of terrible personal relations with outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and some other leading generals, the military generally regards Barak as someone who understands their perspective.

There are still bitter memories of unbridgeable gaps in communication when former unionist and Labor Party leader Amir Peretz served as defense minister during the last Lebanon war. So both Barak personally and the military also get the minimum they require, as he is one of the few current prominent politicians who essentially “speaks their language.”

This quota system has not only allowed Netanyahu to become prime minister without having the largest party in the Knesset, but to develop one of the most stable coalitions in Israel's history and place him on the path of being one of the longest-serving prime ministers the country has ever had. Mastery of such quota politics is exactly what allowed Arafat to remain the unquestioned leader of the Palestinian national movement for most of his life as well.

Well-managed quota systems make for very good politics, particularly when the goal is staying in power by making sure everybody has a “taste.” But it makes bold decision-making almost impossible.

Netanyahu, even if he were inclined to make concessions on peace, is a self-condemned hostage to this structure. It took Arafat almost 15 years, from the early 70s to the late 80s, to maneuver the PLO into accepting the principle of a two-state solution precisely because he had to manage his own fractious coalition.

The distortions in policy are all too obvious. The only real reason why Israel has not apologized to Turkey over the deadly flotilla incident is that both Netanyahu and Lieberman are perfectly ready to condemn each other for any such move, although refusing to do so makes absolutely no sense. And Lieberman's vote against the recent prisoner swap with Hamas is ammunition in his pocket should there be another confrontation with that organization, a trump card he's holding against his own prime minister.

So far, these machinations are working for Netanyahu's political career. But they are leading Israel into a set of self-defeating policies of subservience to the settler movement, paralysis in the face of regional upheaval, and an utter inability to make any serious moves toward peace with the Palestinians. As they so often do everywhere, in Israel today, good politics are producing bad, and possibly disastrous, policies.

Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.