(photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his political opponents in Kadima spent much of the past week trying to influence public opinion on the question of whether his first 100 days in office were successful.
The obsession with grading a leader's first 100 days is something picked up from the United States, where the starts of presidencies have been assessed since Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the revolutionary changes of his New Deal over the first 100 days of his first term.
From there developed a theory, proven incorrect by history, that most leaders' accomplishments come in their first 100 days and that heads of state who don't start achieving their goals immediately are doomed to failure. Netanyahu encouraged the preoccupation with analyzing the beginning of his tenure by forming a task force to plan for his first 100 days in office, just like US President Barack Obama.
Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, never recovered from the Second Lebanon War that broke out during his first 100 days. But because there has not been such a monumental event at the start of Netanyahu's term, his success or failure remains in the eye of the beholder.
Kadima took Netanyahu's milestone very seriously, unveiling a sticker campaign under the slogan "Bibi 100 days, 0 accomplishments" and compiling a folder full of the prime minister's failures and broken promises.
Netanyahu himself listed his accomplishments at the start of Sunday's cabinet meeting, but made the mistake of not calling a press conference to deliver the message until a hastily-organized Knesset briefing from his aides on Wednesday for which political reporters were given 15 minutes notice on their beepers.
The press bought a story from Kadima that the press conference came about because the spokesman of the party showed the sticker to Netanyahu's political adviser and the prime minister panicked.
Netanyahu's version of the events was a lot more innocent. He made an unexpected visit to the Knesset cafeteria, and the press congregated around him as they have with previous prime ministers who entered their hangout. When he asked reporters why he was receiving bad press, they told him that they were not being told his side of the story. He immediately called his advisers and organized the press conference.
As usual, there are two sides to every story and the truth lies somewhere in between. Here is the political spin from Netanyahu, Kadima and an educated guess as to where the truth lies on the key issues of the prime minister's first 100 days.
Netanyahu's spin: In his speech at Bar-Ilan University, he succeeded in expressing the views of a consensus of Israelis, which put him in a position of strength in the eyes of world leaders. By accepting a demilitarized Palestinian state and focusing on the conditions the Palestinians must fulfill to achieve a state, he put the onus on them and not on Israel. Netanyahu is facing an Obama administration that broke its predecessor's promises and yet is insisting that he completely abide by its interpretation of his predecessor's pledges. Talks are ongoing to settle the dispute.
Kadima's spin: Much of the tension between Jerusalem and Washington could have been avoided had Netanyahu said the words "Palestinian state" when he met with Obama. Instead, he waited for the Bar-Ilan speech while relations with the US deteriorated. When he did say the magic words, he only did so to get America off Israel's back and he never believed the Palestinians would accept his conditions. Due to Netanyahu's mishandling, the Palestinians look like pursuers of peace and Israelis as rejectionists, when in reality the opposite is true, and the dialogue with America has been focused on settlements and not Iran.
Reality: They are both absolutely right, even though they contradict each other. With an administration in Washington determined to reach out to Arabs and Muslims and no longer give Israel the benefit of the doubt, there will inevitably be tension with the US no matter what Netanyahu does or says. The Palestinian leadership has rejected any talks, introduced new preconditions and stymied cooperation on projects intended to help its own people. Netanyahu must succeed better at persuading the world of these realities if he hopes to have a better next 100 days.
Netanyahu: Accomplishments include the expected passage of a two-year budget, reaching an economic package deal with the Histadrut and the Manufacturers Association, reforming the Israel Lands Administration and passing the Bank of Israel Law. Most of these were included in the booklet drafted by the 100-day task force led by Yuval Steinitz, who Netanyahu already knew then would be his finance minister. Netanyahu succeeded in forging cooperation on economic issues between parties in his coalition that have very different worldviews.
Kadima: The prime minister flip-flopped on several key elements of the 2009-10 state budget, due to pressure from Shas and Labor. The final version of the budget looks nothing like it did at the start and breaks promises he made during the campaign. Appointing Steinitz as finance minister was a mistake comparable to making Amir Peretz minister of defense. Steinitz should have quit when Netanyahu undermined him the first time.
Reality: Kadima is correct about the zigzagging. Netanyahu has not properly explained why he changed his mind. But having a two-year budget will inevitably make the economy and the political system more stable, because there will not be an annual threat to not pass a budget that could bring down the government.
Netanyahu: Forming a stable national-unity government was his top achievement. As cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser said at Wednesday's press conference: "Prime minister of Israel is undoubtedly the hardest job in the world. One of our goals was to unite the parties in the coalition. Some of this coordination was interpreted as not standing up [to threats] or changing opinions, but the fact is that we are moving together at a time of economic crisis, security threats and diplomatic challenges, and that is a great accomplishment."
Kadima: Netanyahu formed the largest cabinet in history and among the largest governments currently in the world. Each minister's office costs the public NIS 9 million a year, which could purchase 750,000 meals for a homeless shelter or 2,250 computers for school children.
Netanyahu paid too much to each coalition partner and should not have let Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman become foreign minister or control law enforcement posts in the cabinet.
Reality: If Netanyahu succeeds in passing legislation that makes it harder to topple the prime minister, he will be in power for a lot longer than people expect. He learned from his predecessors that it is worth paying a price for stability. The gaps between Labor and Lieberman on diplomatic issues have proven negligible. But if he continues to cave into Obama, the Right that has been relatively silent so far will eventually rise up and threaten to topple him as it did in his first term as prime minister.