PM's first year far better than '96

Netanyahu has had no serious problems inside his coalition.

By BY GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
February 10, 2010 04:54
3 minute read.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu

Bibi smiling and pointing 311 ap. (photo credit: Associated Press)

 
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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu enjoyed a much more trouble-free first year in office than in his first term as prime minister, veteran Netanyahu observers said, ahead of Wednesday’s anniversary of the February 10, 2009, election.

A year after the May 29, 1996, election, Netanyahu had already clashed with Likud rivals Ariel Sharon, David Levy and Bennie Begin, signed the divisive Hebron Accord, and opened up an exit to the Western Wall tunnel that led to skirmishes with Palestinians that killed 14 IDF soldiers.

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Begin resigned to protest the Hebron Accord and later left the Likud, while hawks formed the “Force 17” lobby that hounded Netanyahu.

This time around, he has had no serious problems inside his coalition and the party that came closest to splitting up was Kadima.

While the first-term Netanyahu battled against the justice system and the elites, this time around, he has carefully avoided confrontation and formed a national-unity government that prevented the Left from targeting him.

“There is no comparison between the difficult coalition he had last time and the easy one he has now,” said Government Services Minister Michael Eitan, who served as coalition chairman in Netanyahu’s first term. “Labor has proven to be a strategic ally, Netanyahu has shown that he has learned key lessons, and there is no candidate threatening Netanyahu in or out of the party.”

Eitan said that had there been a national-unity government with Labor in the first term, the Western Wall tunnel incident would not have escalated and lives would have been saved. He said that Netanyahu later wanted to form such a government but it was too late.

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Veteran political commentator Shalom Yerushalmi said Netanyahu’s handling of the stories about his wife, Sara, proved that the only important lesson the prime minister had not learned was that it is not smart to spar with the press.

“He is a political Mother Theresa compared to back then,” Yerushalmi said. “Last time, he incited against the Left and picked fights, but now he is the opposite. He castrated the Likud Central Committee that gave him problems. And he learned to appreciate his political base on the Right.”

Polls published in honor of the anniversary found that the Likud is gaining strength. A Smith Research poll published on Ynet predicted that Netanyahu’s party would rise from 27 Knesset seats to 32, at Kadima’s expense. A Dialog poll in Haaretz put the number at 35 seats, but found that Netanyahu had a negative job approval rating for the first time this term.

Labor gained from six seats in the last Dialog poll to nine in the current one. Labor chairman Ehud Barak joked in closed conversations that if his party continued such gains in every poll, Labor would eventually return to power.

Coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin said that in his second year, Netanyahu would face challenges on matters of religion and state, economic reforms and changing the political system.

He said that after a year of not losing a Knesset vote in which the Likud participated, the real challenge was keeping that track record going.

“This coalition is stronger than any there has been in years, so if we continue on this way, we could end up serving four years and maybe even finish out our term and last until November 2013,” Elkin said.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni of Kadima said the reason why Netanyahu’s coalition was stable was that he had not accomplished anything and that he made his political survival his main goal.

“He really has nothing to celebrate,” she said.

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