Managing success

Netanyahu is widely regarded as smart and capable, but for many, he does not generate personal affection.

March 23, 2015 22:00
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during his appearance before Congress

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during his appearance before Congress. (photo credit: REUTERS)

If it is true that Benjamin Netanyahu not only executed but also conceived the strategy of the last four days of his election campaign, he deserves immeasurable credit for the remarkable election victory.

But it is important that he not confuse clear and resounding campaign success with personal approval. The voters who rescued his fourth term feared a left-wing government and voted to leave Netanyahu at the helm. But they did not vote approval of his past performance or conduct. They did not dismiss the implications of the Comptroller’s report on the failure to achieve affordable housing, nor did they discard the Comptroller’s report on the tawdry operation of the prime minister’s residences.

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Netanyahu is widely regarded as smart and capable, but for many, he does not generate personal affection, and there is nothing to indicate that the record of his last term won broad public approval. This is a difficult pill for anyone to swallow – much less a powerful head of government surrounded by aides and hangers-on eager to please and tell him all that he wants to hear.

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Netanyahu’s image can change dramatically if he takes his success and uses it to fulfill campaign promises and straighten out his domestic affairs. It would be a tragic error if he were instead to squander his new capital with efforts of retribution or defiance.

If he mobilizes his new government to solve the housing problem, people will soon understand that this is being done, even if the results are years away. If he straightens out his domestic finances by appointing a serious person to oversee them, the improvement of image will come quickly, even though the official confirmation of reform will take time and will not be dramatic.

In foreign affairs, Netanyahu’s room for maneuver is more limited. The deal with Iran must be fought and somehow defeated. The public has confidence in both his objectives and his strategies, though it does not have the tools to critically evaluate them – unless or until it becomes too late.

It may be impossible to reach a personal rapprochement with Obama while at the same time fighting him on Iran. While it will be relatively easy to “clarify” Netanyahu’s intentions on the Palestinian question – under reasonably foreseeable events, there cannot be an independent Palestinian state or any military withdrawal because circumstances in the area have changed – Obama will nevertheless try to create a more immediate downside for Israel’s opposing the Iran deal by threatening us on the Palestinian issue with an American plan or a Security Council resolution or something else.

The people here (and in the US) do not trust President Obama to deliver on his pledge to effectively deny the bomb to Iran.

Israelis do trust Netanyahu to do the right thing. But this will take all the considerable skill and ability of the prime minister, together with some luck or divine providence, depending upon how one understands these things.

Another serious challenge is the widening discontent, bordering on active opposition to Israel’s government, among large circles of American Jews. This month’s congressional speech by Netanyahu deeply offended Jewish liberals and others who saw it as a crude intrusion into American partisan politics. The prime minister of a foreign power came to the Congress to urge that it resist the president’s policies and override his actions.

This was seen by many as an act of incredible arrogance.

While the prime minister would never have made this speech if he did not sincerely believe that the Iran issue is critical to Israel’s physical survival, nevertheless, it was broadly resented among Democrats and many, many Jews.

Also creating deep dissension within the American Jewish community was the statement that Netanyahu would never recognize a Palestinian state on his watch and the video urging his supporters to vote because the Arabs are being bused to the polls. These statements may be explainable in an Israeli context, but they cause great pain and opposition among American Jews. In combination, these events and statements have generated attitudes and convictions that must be assuaged and recast as soon as possible. At stake is the very health of the Israel- American relationship.

Netanyahu will start his fourth term with broad public support and immense challenges. I believe that the key to contending with these challenges – and, in some ways, his biggest challenge – is personal and private. He must internalize why he won and not mistake the Knesset vote for a vote of personal confidence. He won because the vast plurality did not see a viable alternative it could trust. People are understandably concerned and fearful about what awaits us, and they believe that Netanyahu is capable of providing the necessary leadership, if fully focused and committed.

But this requires a new effort and a new honesty on his part that is hard for a sitting politician to generate. It is almost counter-intuitive to draw critical lessons from a dramatic victory.

This is particularly difficult for Netanyahu in light of the emotional stress and personal pressures he and his wife have undergone in the past six months. Nothing would be more natural and human than to bask in the warmth of success – especially when snatched from defeat, or at least uncertainty. How the prime minister manages his electoral success will determine his record and our future.

Netanyahu is immensely capable. I believe he can manage the success. I believe he will. But then again, I’m an optimist.

The author is an attorney in Israel and the US, and the founding president of the Institute for Zionist Strategies. The ideas expressed in this article are his own.

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