Politics: Two years, minor tremors, ‘Bibitours’

Israel's gov't is looking fairly stable as it passes the two-year mark, with only ‘Bibitours’ newly clouding the prime minister’s horizon.

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
April 1, 2011 14:12
PM Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum

Netanyahu in Knesset alone 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appeared to enjoy taking questions from YouTube viewers around the world on Wednesday, especially the questions asked in English by viewers from Syria to Japan.

Normally when Netanyahu is interviewed, he acts combative and difficult and defiantly changes the subject if he does not like the questions. But he seemed a lot more at ease with “Keith from Washington” asking the questions than he does with Israeli journalists.

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Netanyahu seemed to relish the opportunity to teach the world about Israeli democracy, our 20 percent Arab minority and the significance of an Arab judge sentencing former president Moshe Katsav. But he was most in his element when comparing the chaos spreading throughout the Middle East to the relative quiet at home.

“There is one place in this entire vast part of the globe, there is only one country in the heart of the Middle East that has no tremors, no protests and that’s Israel,” Netanyahu boasted. “It’s because we are the only genuine democracy, the only one that respects human rights and the only one that respects the rights of Arab citizens.”

The reasons why Netanyahu’s government is facing no significant political tremors as its two-year anniversary was marked Thursday night actually go beyond it being democratically elected. It can also be attributed to the weakness of the Likud’s coalition partners, the lack of a viable alternative to Netanyahu and international pressure on Israel.

A coalition is as strong as the weakness of its parts.

This is especially true now, given the questionable political futures of Independence party head Ehud Barak, Shas chairman Eli Yishai and perpetually investigated Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman.

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A Jerusalem Post-sponsored poll this week indicates that only 43 percent of Jewish Israelis are satisfied with Netanyahu’s performance as prime minister. But that number is insignificant as long as there is not clamor for a different Likud politician or opposition leader Tzipi Livni to take over.

After another year in which the opposition did not pass a single bill in the Knesset, the opposition leader’s traditional task of constantly pressuring the prime minister continues to be filled by the leaders of the international community, who have given Netanyahu a hard time since he took office.

But while a confident alternative candidate for prime minister could contribute to the erosion of support for a leader by applying pressure smartly, pressure tactics from international forces tend to boomerang and strengthen a prime minister’s public standing.

Now that Netanyahu has passed the two-year mark and there is no hope in sight for the opposition to overthrow him, he can choose between continuing to avoid taking bold steps that could put his coalition at risk or start taking chances knowing that image-wise, the longer he stays in office, the less he has to lose.

For the third year in a row, we present here a preview of the potential political pitfalls Netanyahu’s coalition could face on five fronts: Diplomatic, legal, religious, economic and political, as well as key dates to look ahead to on each topic.

Diplomatic – Key Dates: May 23 and September 13

The Post poll has disturbing news for Netanyahu in that Israelis believe he shares blame for the lack of a diplomatic process with the Palestinians.

When asked who they hold responsible for the stalemate, 25% said Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas together, 18% said just Abbas, 12% said just Netanyahu and only 6% said US President Barack Obama. Ten percent answered what the prime minister would undoubtedly deem the right choice: Abbas and Obama together but not Netanyahu.

The prime minister has seven weeks before he intends to leave for Washington to address the AIPAC policy conference.

He could decide to outline a new peace plan at the lobby’s May 23 gala dinner or reserve it for a speech to both houses of Congress.

Many trial balloons have been floated about what he might say and chances are it won’t be finalized until the last minute. The goal of the speech is to stop the international community from delivering the Palestinians a state on a silver platter at the UN General Assembly that begins September 13 in New York.

Netanyahu is facing the toughest challenge of his tenure: Finding the right words to appease an impatient international community that has not relented in its pressure on Israel, despite arguably more pressing concerns elsewhere in the Middle East. And he must do it in a way that does not scare off coalition partners on the Right or the right flank of his own party.

Legal – Key Dates: March 30 and February 28

It remarkably took two years for the adversarial Hebrew media to find a story about Netanyahu that could call his character into question. State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss’s decision to investigate the “Bibitours” scandal will provide fodder for the press that will erode Netanyahu’s image even if it turns out he did nothing remotely wrong or problematic.

Casting Netanyahu as a hedonist plays into the hands of the ultra-clean Livni.

Barak has never gotten past his image as a fat-cat penthouse dweller who cannot possibly relate to the workers ostensibly represented by the Labor Party he abandoned.

If it is not overturned, the Knesset State Control Committee’s decision on Wednesday to grant Lindenstrauss’s adviser the powers of a state commission of inquiry could be the most significant date on the legal front. The other date chosen is also in the past.

Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein had said that a decision about recommending an indictment for Lieberman would come by the end of February, but he is taking his time. It is important to note that Lieberman has said he will not quit his cabinet post until after a hearing on any proposed charges against him that might not take place before the end of the year.

Religion and State – Key Dates: May 16

This issue remains the most contentious in a coalition that includes haredim and ultra-secularists. As it currently stands, Netanyahu has blocked efforts by Knesset Law Committee chairman David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu) to solve the dilemma of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union seeking conversions in a manner that troubled Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders in the US.

Rotem did win, however, when Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar reluctantly authorized IDF conversions. Amar’s move temporarily averted legislation by Rotem, but he is determined to pass a bill that could permanently solve the problem with IDF conversions when the Knesset returns from its spring recess in mid-May.

Further clashes are expected between Rotem and haredi MKs on civil unions for Jews who cannot marry according to Jewish law, and the battle over the regular conversions is not over yet either. As written here in the past, the government’s survival could depend on haredi rabbis making compromises, which is never a good risk to take.

Economic – Key Dates: None this year

Netanyahu’s decision to pass a two-year budget makes this year irrelevant on the economic front. The budget passed in December could last legally through the end of March 2013 and if elections are initiated then, there won’t be a new budget until the election is over.

The March 2013 deadline to pass the next budget makes it very unlikely that the next election will be held on time on October 22, 2013, but elections in the first half of that year are becoming increasingly likely.

Politics – Key Dates: None

Labor’s departure from the coalition left it with 66 MKs rather than 74, but it did not harm the coalition’s performance in the Knesset.

Even if Netanyahu surprises by shifting his policies to the right, it is hard to see Barak removing his five MKs from the coalition.

There was a false alarm this week when Livni’s remarks at a convention of Conservative rabbis in Las Vegas were misinterpreted to indicate that she was ready to join the coalition. Her spokesman said she was talking about her willingness to enter Netanyahu’s government when he formed it two years ago.

“This government will not survive, because even though it technically has enough support in the Knesset, it has lost its legitimacy and governments that lack legitimacy do not last,” Livni told The Jerusalem Post recently when asked about how she intends to bring down a government that looks stable on paper.

KADIMA FACTION head Dalia Itzik has predicted that there would be an election in 2011, but no coalition MKs are prepared to say such things. One MK close to Lieberman said that initiating an election now amid the uprisings in the Middle East would be “a crime.”

So it appears that when it comes to politics, Israel will continue to remain tremor-free.

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