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Netanyahu and Rajapaksa: A tale of two

leaders, two elections and two polities

by Rajan Philips-March 21, 2015, 7:01 pm


I was ready to rock and write to celebrate the defeat of Benjamin
Netanyahu in last Tuesdays elections in Israel. I was joking with my
friends that Netanyahus defeat in Israel would make me even happier
than I was after the opposition victory in Sri Lanka more than two months
ago. All of this was not to be. Bibi, as he is known in Israel, managed to
pull victory from the jaws of defeat, different from Mahinda Rajapaksa who
pulled defeat from the jaws of victory. Both men went for elections two
years too early one dictated by astrology and the other driven by hubris;
both hallucinated about foreign conspiracy against them; and they blamed
the minorities for their downturns. Most pundits in Israel expected
Netanyahu to come up short, while no one in Sri Lanka would openly say
that Mahinda Rajapaksa could lose the election.
Netanyahu belied pre polls and exit polls that had predicted his defeat and
pulled off a stunning victory when the real votes were finally counted.
Mahinda Rajapaksa conceded defeat even before all the votes were
counted, at the end of a campaign that never caught fire. In fact, there
seems to be more fire in the rallies for the return of Mahinda than there
was during the campaign for his three-peat re-election. Netanyahu, on the
other hand, may have won a pyrrhic victory: swinging too far to the

extreme right, he has divided Israel internally and isolated it


internationally. He has won the election but has fatally wounded his new
term in office. The really tragic victim is of course the prospect for peace in
the Middle East.
Not a comparison
This is not a comparison of the two men who are like chalk and cheese;
even though in the last years of his second term, President Rajapaksa
taking the most lame-brained advice anyone could have given, wanted to
emulate Netanyahu in getting US backing for his government and rebuffing
UNHRC resolutions. Of course, neither Rajapaksa nor the leader of any
other country would have emulated Netanyahus brazen chutzpah of
bypassing the President of the United States and getting himself invited by
the Republicans to address a joint session of the US Congress. That was to
lecture to the Americans and the Europeans that the Obama
Administration and the European Union did not know what they were doing
in trying to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. He went to Washington to
repeat his baseless assertion that Iran was close to devising a nuclear
bomb after even Israeli intelligence had, in contradiction with its own
Prime Minister, concluded that Iran was nowhere near to making anything.
The visit to Washington was only a week before the Israeli election and
caused embarrassment among a majority of Israelis who do not want the
world to think that all Israelis are stark, raving right-wing nuts. Worse for
Netanyahu, the extreme right-wingers whom he wanted to awe with his
American performance were not at all impressed. They were abandoning
him and he was in trouble. So the day before the election, he dropped the
political nuclear bomb that he will not permit the creation of a Palestinian
state in Israel during his term as Prime Minister. On the day of the election
he exhorted the Jewish extremists that the Arab and Palestinian citizens of
Israel were being bused by Leftists in droves to polling stations, and urged
his supporters to hurry to vote and stem the new electoral threat within
Israel. And they did heed him and voted to keep him in power for one
more term.
Even though the comeback was stunning, Netanyahus victory is not a
broad endorsement by the Israeli people. In an Israeli election the entire
country votes at large to elect the Knessets 120 members from political
parties in proportion to the votes polled by them. With about 10 parties
contesting, no single party is able to secure a majority of Knesset seats to

form a government. So governments are formed invariably through


coalitions, and the established convention is for the party with the largest
number of seats to take the lead in forging a coalition of at least 61
members to govern. The President does not have to invite a party leader
but any Knesset Member, who in his opinion can form a coalition of the
majority. On a few occasions the coalition has included both the right-wing
Likud Party and the left-wing Labour Party to form national governments.
In Tuesdays election, Netanyahus Likud Party and the opposition Zionist
Union (with the Labour Party as the main constituent) were expected to
win about 27 seats each. But the Likud Party ended up winning 30 seats,
or 25% of the national vote, pushing the Zionist Union to second place
with 24 seats. Netanyahu caused the upset by pulling away votes from the
more extreme right-wing and religious parties, and now gets to form the
new coalition government for a record fourth term as Prime Minister. A new
development on Tuesday was the election of 13 Arab/Palestinian members
to Knesset, as the third largest political group after Likud and the Zionist
Union. This was the outcome of four different Arab/Palestinian groups
from Islamists to Communists contesting on a "Joint List" to overcome
the increase in electoral cut-off point from 2% to 3.25%.
The leader of the Labour Party and the Zionist Union, Isaac Herzog, has
rejected the idea of a national government and has to wait four more years
to make another bid for premiership. Mr. Herzog has an impressive political
pedigree his grandfather was the first chief rabbi of Israel; his father was
the countrys sixth president; and Israels most celebrated foreign minister,
the articulate Abba Eban, was his uncle. But Mr. Herzog is seen as a
technocrat lacking in combativeness and militancy, two favoured leadership
attributes among Israeli traditionalists. But Herzogs views on the
economy, which Netanyahu habitually neglects; his opposition to
Netanyahus settlement policies; and his approach to making peace with
the Palestinians by pursuing the two-state solution, are resonating well
with an increasing number of Israelis. Had Herzog won, he would have
included Arab/Palestinian members in his governing coalition, and he
would also have had a much easier time engaging the Palestinians in joint
peace efforts and strengthening Israels ties with the US Administration.
But his time is yet to come.
Israels missed opportunity and Sri Lankas opportunity
It was Abba Eban who famously said of Palestinian leaders that they never

miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. This could now be said of the


Israelis who by repeatedly electing Netanyahu have missed the opportunity
to have a new Prime Minister in Ebans nephew. As I said at the outset,
Netanyahu has earned a pyrrhic victory. He knows that and the day after
the election, he started backtracking on his rejection of the two-state
formula and tried to pacify Arab Israelis after scorning them on polling day.
But the Obama Administration is not impressed. Hardly concealing the
disgust at Netanyahus re-election, the Obama Administration has let it be
known that the US will be reassessing its options in light of Netanyahus
new positions and comments, and that it might lift its veto at the UN
Security Council against the resolution calling for the establishment of a
sovereign Palestinian state along the pre-1967 lines that divided Israel
from the West Bank and Gaza. On Friday, the New York Times reported
that many American Jews are increasingly becoming disenchanted by
Netanyahus antics and are worried about Israels growing isolation in the
world because of him.
The Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas have given up all
hope for a new peace initiative with Netanyahu back in power. They are
now determined to pursue their unilateral strategy of seeking full UN
recognition for a Palestinian State. They have also indicated that they
would be going to the International Criminal Court to press war crimes
charges against the Netanyahu government. The Palestinians might be
able to obtain a full UN recognition for a Palestinian state, but proving war
crimes at ICC would be a tough sell. The more likely punishment of
Netanyahu would be the Americans lifting the veto at the Security Council
and the Europeans imposing sanctions against Israel. The Arab League due
to meet later this month is expected to reiterate the Arab Peace Initiative
that calls for the Arab worlds recognition of Israel in return for Israel
withdrawing to pre-1967 borders and negotiating a solution for Palestinian
refugees. But the Arab League will not be expecting any favourable
response from Netanyahu. But "there will be enough pressure on Israel",
the League Secretary, Nabil Elaraby, observed after the election, and
"Israel is going to be a pariah."
Sri Lankans can thank themselves for defeating the Rajapaksa government
and avoiding a mess similar to, or worse than, that of Netanyahus Israel.
Just as well they should look to Israel and the Palestinians not for
examples to follow but practices to avoid. Although there are hardly any
historical or socio political ties between Sri Lanka and the Jewish state,
politically minded Sri Lankans have always been drawn to Israel in multiple
ways ranging from fascination about Israel among early Tamil

separatists, understandable Muslim opposition, pro-Arab and nonalignment foreign policy against Israel before 1977, intelligence and
defence co-operation after 1977, and attempts to emulate Israeli practices
including settlements in dealing with the Tamils and Muslims at home after
2009. Ironically, despite their early fascination with Israel, many Tamil
insurgents received their military training from Arab and Palestinian
organization even as the Sri Lankan governments shifted from a nonaligned, pro-Arab foreign policy to establishing ties with Israel.
The point now is to realize that while there are surface similarities between
Sri Lankas situation and Israeli-Palestinian circumstances, there are
fundamental differences between the two in regard to their genealogies,
geo-political contexts and future possibilities. It would be more prudent for
Sri Lanka to look for what to avoid rather than what to emulate from
Israeli-Palestinian experiences. For example, Sri Lanka could not have
successfully followed and should not have even tried to follow the example
of Israel in dealing with the UNHRC and its resolutions. That was the
mistake of the Rajapaksa government and the present government has
wisely abandoned that approach. It would be equally untenable for Sri
Lanka to follow the example of Israel and undertake militarization and
settlements in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
Even though Netanyahu forced himself to discount the Palestinian state,
there can be no permanent solution in the Middle East except on the basis
of two states with Israel recognizing and co-existing with the Palestinian
state in return for the Arab world accepting the state of Israel in their
midst and assuring its survival without having to resort to force. The Sri
Lankan situation is totally different. Postwar Sri Lanka can reconcile and
move forward not by counting the number of nations that may or may not
exist on this small island, but by making the state of Sri Lanka inclusive of
all of the islands inhabitants. And the process of inclusion need not wait
for constitutional changes on paper, but should and could be started ahead
of them on the ground with existing institutions.
Whether any or all of this will happen in Sri Lanka under the good
governance promises of the present government is increasingly becoming
doubtful. Jayadeva Uyangodas article in yesterdays Island brilliantly
captures the process of unravelling of the reform movement that was
directly launched by the people on January 8. A sad manifestation of that
unravelling was the Prime Ministers statement in parliament last Tuesday
on the Central Banks bondgate scandal. The statement was stubbornly

and combatively defensive and may have been intended to cheer up the
UNP MPs, but it was disappointingly unbecoming of one of the principal
leaders of the current reform movement for good governance. The SLFP
MPs, with Namal Rajapaksa prominent among them, kept to their expected
clownish level by marching to the Central Bank asking for the Governors
expulsion. One can only sympathize with the more than six million voters
who voted for change expecting things will really start changing in Sri
Lanka.
Posted by Thavam