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(photo credit: )
Binyamin Netanyahu was clearing a lunch tray in his office in the old Foreign Ministry compound when the transport minister called. As he hung up, the deputy foreign minister called an aide and said: "Eitan, Moshe Katsav is going to the States and wants a meeting with Dan Quayle. Please take care of that."
The aristocratic Quayle and the self-made Katsav hailed from very different backgrounds, yet both personified party systems that prized loyalty and disparaged merit. If their meeting ever took place, it surely wasn't noticed. The young Netanyahu, at the same time, was seen already then, in winter 1989, as Mr. Merit.
Still, when he arrived at the premiership seven years on, he proved unprepared, having failed to realize that people would be looking not only at his views, but also at his execution and conduct. Since then Netanyahu learned a thing or two about humility, calculation and preparation, as he produced an impressive performance at the Treasury in which he showed a hitherto unknown ability to control his media appearances and at the same time manage, reform and inspire.
Understandably, then, when Likud emerged clobbered from last year's elections - its Knesset faction is now less than a quarter its size when Menachem Begin left it - Netanyahu had all the reason in the world to feel frustrated. It really wasn't his fault; he did not create the Likud central committee that Middle Israelis grew to resent, and his resignation from the Sharon government had yet to impress the public, as it would in the aftermath of the renewed violence in Lebanon and Gaza.
And so, a newly vindicated Netanyahu's policy now, as he leads the polls handsomely and prepares to storm Ehud Olmert's political remains, is to keep a low profile, speak in understatements, focus on foreign affairs and patiently await power to fall into his lap by itself, like Newton's apple.
THE NEXT general election, unlike Netanyahu's assumption, will not be about Iran, though that menace is obviously on everyone's minds, nor will it be about Lebanon, though the recent war's scars will not be forgotten anytime soon. Rather, the next election will be about the Jewish state's political foundations.
Come the next election, voters will want less lecturing about the merits of a ground attack on Hizbullah's strongholds or an aerial attack on the Bushehr nuclear reactor. Instead, people will want to know how a union hack like Amir Peretz arrived at the Defense Ministry, and how candidates plan to prevent such coalition politics in the future. People will want to know how the Likud explains its installation of Moshe Katsav as president. People will want to know how the Likud central committee became a repository for public-sector jobs, and how its spirit came to contaminate the Tax Authority. People will want to know how come the political appointments for which Tzahi Hanegbi faces trial were all made for Likud hacks.
Telling the people that all this is Kadima, and that Bibi's Likud is different won't work. The Likud central committee which became notorious for manufacturing corruption has not been dismantled. Instead, Netanyahu tried to impress the centrist public by sidelining the controversial Moshe Feiglin and distancing people associated with organized crime. This hardly passes even for symptomatic treatment.
The public will believe that the Likud has been transformed when its central committee shrinks from 3,000 to maybe 200 members - thus ceasing to be an employment agency - and returns to being the ideological compass that Begin originally designed.
Similarly, Netanyahu must present a clear vision about political reform.
FOR NOW, reform-minded Likud Knesset members are each doing his own thing. Faction whip Gideon Sa'ar, for instance, presented a bill for the regional election of half the Knesset in 60 districts, while Dan Naveh presented a bill of his own for the regional election of 30 Knesset members in six districts, and Silvan Shalom has a third plan.
Now all this is nice in itself - most lawmakers abhor the thought of reform, particularly when it comes to their own election - yet the question remains: Where in all this is the Likud as a party and Netanyahu as its leader?
Natan Sharansky had a clear vision on this front (as on so many others), that locally elected lawmakers would introduce the accountability standards that Israeli government so clearly lacks, and a built-in dialogue with constituents that our situation so clearly begs.
Indeed, in this Knesset there is a great deal of positive, if chaotic, commotion surrounding political reform. Law Committee chairman Menahem Ben-Sasson is promoting the adoption of a constitution, while bills are being processed to ban simultaneous membership in parliament and the cabinet, introduce parliamentary hearings for ministerial appointments and require periodic testimony by ministers about their ministries' work.
The constitutional debate takes place away from the public limelight, involving think tanks like the Israel Democracy Institute and the Institute for Zionist Strategy, and dealing with fundamental dilemmas ranging from Israel's commitment to distressed Jewish communities abroad to the status of the Arabic language here.
Having emerged from the traumas of a poorly led war, a disgraced presidency and a slew of corruption scandals, the public will demand by the next election a new political vision, one that will introduce clean people with fresh thinking, out to ensure that in the future we don't go to war with under-qualified ministers, that we don't install substandard presidents, that voters have lawmakers they actually know and can access, that our heritage is enshrined in a constitution, that our legislature is empowered and our government becomes compact, professional, focused, checked and balanced.
The people will want this because there is a pervasive odor of political decadence in Israel today, and all other problems, from the diplomatic to the military, are perceived as mere symptoms of this decay.
ALL THIS seems lost on Netanyahu, whose quest to appear statesmanlike makes him not only avoid bickering with Olmert, which is wise, but avoid the debate on restructuring Israeli politics, which is absurd.
The big question for Netanyahu is who will face him in the next election. If it is Ehud Barak and Olmert, then he really doesn't need to do much; I have yet to meet someone who will vote for either of them. However, Labor may elect Ami Ayalon as its leader, and he is spending his time doing what seems to be beneath Bibi - dialoguing with the public, particularly his adversaries from the ultra-Orthodox, with whom he is exploring new formulas for the Tal Law that would put them to work, and with the settlers, whose idealism he openly admires.
Couple this with the alliance that the former commander of the IDF Navy has struck with former World Bank economist Avishay Braverman, and you get the kind of clean, collegial, professional and reformist ticket Middle Israelis tend to embrace, and Netanyahu for some reason neglects to build.
Should they take over Labor next spring, Ayalon and Braverman can be counted on to immediately embark on a campaign that will make cleanliness, dialogue and reform dominate the next election.
In this context, portraying the Likud as part of the problem will not be difficult. Just the thought of Netanyahu dueling this pair while flanked by his own No. 2, Silvan Shalom, whose name Netanyahu can hardly bring himself to mention in public, makes one suspect that the Likud leader is reading next summer's political map about as insightfully as Olmert and Peretz read last summer's strategic map.
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