This year's anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's murder provides the first opportunity to compare Binyamin Netanyahu's second time around as prime minister with that of Rabin's second term, and the present premier clearly comes off second-best.
Both men had to wait a long time for their second chance and both were anxious to make up for a first term which ended with their being ingloriously booted out of office. The two leaders matured during their spells in opposition, returning to the Prime Minister's Office as elder statesmen, temperamentally better suited to the challenges of leading the country after having first become prime minister at a relatively young age with little real experience of government. But there the comparison ends.
On the night of Rabin's ouster of Shimon Peres from the Labor Party leadership, he famously declared: "I will lead." In strict terms, this proved not to be the case, with Peres and his deputy Yossi Beilin working behind his back to start the Oslo process. However once Rabin gave his approval for the talks with the Palestinians, he took charge.
On assuming office, Rabin faced two major challenges: a poorly performing
economy which had to cope with the mass influx of Russian Jews and the
possibility of a new world order following the collapse of the Soviet Union and, nearer to home, the defeat of Iraq in the First Gulf War. Rabin seized his opportunities. Appointing a finance minister in whom he had complete confidence, his government launched a massive program of infrastructure investment to provide both work for the growing number of unemployed and to prepare the country for the 21st century. Driving around Israel in the mid-1990s, it seemed as if the whole country was one large construction site.
IN TERMS of diplomacy, Rabin also wasted no time. Deciding on a "Syria first" approach, he attempted to see whether a deal with Damascus was attainable, believing that if a peace deal with Syria could be signed, then agreements with Lebanon and Jordan would follow, thus ultimately strengthening Israel's position in terms of the Palestinians. To break the stalemate in Israel-Syrian ties, Rabin made his famous "deposit" with US secretary of state Warren Christopher, under which Israel would return the whole of the Golan Heights to Syria in return for a peace agreement and a comprehensive security package to ensure its safety post-withdrawal.
Regrettably, the Syrians failed to respond in kind to Rabin's move and
the talks with Damascus petered out, ceding precedence to the Oslo track and the negotiations with the Palestinians. Although Christopher formally returned the deposit to Netanyahu after the latter took office in 1996, Rabin's formula remains the foundation stone of any Israeli-Syrian diplomatic process.
The Oslo process, too, ultimately failed to bring about a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, although one can't help but wonder what would have happened had Rabin not been murdered by Yigal Amir during that terrible period of frenzied right-wing, religious incitement against Rabin personally and his government. Oslo, despite its failures, did beget the peace treaty with Jordan, which even stood the test of the reckless 1997 assassination attempt on Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Amman, authorized by Netanyahu.
SEVEN MONTHS into his second administration, Netanyahu on the other hand has little to show. His sole economic accomplishment has been the passing of a two-year budget which reflected the exact opposite of his own stated economic beliefs. On the diplomatic front, not only has he no achievements to boast of, but Israel's international position is slowly but surely worsening, hampered by Netanyahu's appointment of a foreign minister who is boycotted by the Arab world and regarded with suspicion by the Western powers.
The single hallmark of Netanyahu's return to power is procrastination, on all matters great and small. His motto seems to be: Why make a decision today if you can postpone it until tomorrow. The children of foreign workers who are candidates for deportation, for example, still don't know whether they will be able to stay in Israel, the only country in which they feel at home, beyond the end of the current school year.
The candidates to replace Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz, meanwhile, have no idea whether they are competing for a job that combines, as at present, the roles of government legal adviser and head of the country's prosecution, or a more circumscribed position as demanded by Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman , one of Netanyahu's closest allies. Neeman has been lobbying hard for a decision, but the prime minister sees no urgency in making one, despite the fact that Mazuz's term is almost over.
The lack of any movement in the peace process is not solely Netanyahu's fault; the Palestinians also have their leadership problems, and the possibility of January elections for the Palestinian Authority is a further hindrance to negotiations, but Israel has made heavy weather in making what US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this weekend called its "unprecedented" concessions on settlement building. Imagine how much stronger Israel's standing would be had this offer been communicated in Netanyahu's first month in office.
In his lame apology for his Paris hotel excesses, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said last week that while he accepted that he had made a mistake, only people who actually did something faced the risk of erring. That, as Netanyahu will find out, is actually not the case. Prime ministers who do nothing during their term are also making a huge mistake; simply treading water is not an option for a country facing Israel's challenges.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.