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
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
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
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
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.