Courtesy Reuters

The Politics of Paralysis I: Netanyahu's Safety Belt


Foreign observers have always had trouble understanding Israel's complex politics and following the twists and turns of the Jewish state's foreign policy. But nothing in Israeli political history has raised eyebrows like the ascendancy of Binyamin Netanyahu, who unexpectedly edged past Shimon Peres of Labor in the 1996 elections. Despite Netanyahu's razor-thin margin of victory, repeated diplomatic blunders, and derailment of a peace process that is overwhelmingly supported by Israelis -- nearly 60 percent, according to polls by Tel Aviv University's Tami Steinmatz Institute of Peace, support the Oslo accords -- the young Likud prime minister is poised to win a second term. Netanyahu's continued popularity is the great paradox of Israeli politics today.

The key to the Netanyahu enigma is a new configuration of domestic forces that has allowed him to rule the country comfortably and commit foreign policy mistakes with electoral impunity. Netanyahu relies today on a conservative alliance comprising three major forces: Israel's nationalist right, its radical right, and its soft right. The first two groups have long been part of Israel's political landscape. What is new is the soft right, an odd melange of ultra-Orthodox Jews and secular immigrants from the former Soviet Union, whose newfound influence lets Netanyahu defy political gravity.


Since 1977, when the Labor Party lost an election for the first time ever to the Likud, Israel's political map has been split into two large and roughly equal ideological camps polarized over the future of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. While Labor, under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, advocated moderation and territorial compromise, the Likud of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir pursued a hard-line agenda, urging the settlement and eventual annexation of the occupied territories. In the center has been a smaller ultra-Orthodox camp that cares less about the territories or the Palestinians than about government largesse. Conventional political wisdom has held that the party that comes out on top in the elections will automatically

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