Mysteries of Bibi

Judging a prominent politician who is also a skilled show person is like putting on a blindfold and attempting to judge a beauty contest. One can ask for advice, listen to the contestants, and maybe even touch their faces. Yet a lot will be missing. Any decision to be made will be risky in the extreme.
The subject of this note could be Barack Obama, but it will be Binyamin Netanyahu. They are both skilled politicians, and among the most articulate and highly publicized of national leaders. Both their countries are in the spotlight, and the pressures upon them are many and difficult. Both provoke admiration and distrust, as well as questions about what moves them, and where are they going.
Bibi''s pluses and minuses are several, and more or less equal in their weight.
A prominent plus is his capacity to assemble and maintain a government that reflects Israel''s diversity. On the side of moderation is Ehud Barak, who is at the center of his own mystery as the head of a political remnant of what used to be the Labor Party. Barak is not only the Defense Minister, but along with Netanyahu he is more the Foreign Minister than the man who formally holds that title, Avigdor Lieberman. Barak and Netanyahu do the serious work of dealing with the problems and countries most important to Israel. Keeping the right wing Lieberman in his government, while keeping him away from the serious stuff of foreign affairs is on the plus side of Netanyahu''s ledger. Bibi also has his Finance Minister on a short string, but not as short as that used on Lieberman. Bibi poses as the economist in chief, but the formal Finance Minister (Yuval Steinitz) does more in his field than Lieberman does in his.
On Bibi''s right, along with Avigdor Lieberman and his Israel Our Home party is Eli Yishai and the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party SHAS. Lieberman''s people and Yishai''s people do not get along on issues of Judaism or the conversion of Russian immigrants who are not Jewish according to Orthodox law (halacha), but they share a general posture--if not always the details--of dealing with the Palestinians. The Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party Torah Judaism cooperates with SHAS on some religious issues, and differs on others.
Holding this melange together is no small feat, and appears to be the result of Netanyahu''s skills of maneuver.
Bibi is also moderate when appropriate. The most recent indication is the modest response of the IDF to a wave of rocket attacks from Gaza. Despite the number of rockets, and the use of smuggled weaponry that reached farther into Israel than past attacks, the military response has been delayed, pinpointed, and far less than the apocalyptic threats expressed by prominent politicians, including Bibi himself.
This is one of the occasions when our blindfolds keep us from knowing just what is going on at the pinnacle where generals come together with the Prime Minister and Defense Minister. Assessments are that Israel is giving Hamas a chance to reimpose a cease fire on the various factions in Gaza rather than embark on an extensive campaign to destroy infrastructure or assassinate key figures of Hamas and its allies. The Prime Minister may be providing a lesson in politics when he talks tough in the extreme, but acts in moderation. Israelis may wonder about his willingness to absorb rocket attacks that so far have not killed or caused serious injury, but the result may be better than an onslaught that will inevitably kill civilians as well as fighters, and produce another wave of international condemnation.
These same skills of feint and maneuver contribute to Bibi''s reputation as slippery and unreliable. It does not help his standing that he often seems to be smirking. He face, body language, tone, and words give the impression that he is proud of his capacities to fib, stretch the truth, promise something he will not deliver, and otherwise run the country from a position of untouchable superiority.
A smirking maneuverability is not the end of Bibi''s negative traits. Each Israeli--and each outsider who must deal with Netanyahu--may have his or her private ranking of the prime minister''s flaws. Somewhere near the top of numerous lists is his bravado, and the bombast with which he proclaims his proposals and accomplishments. To hear him tell the stories, which he does time and again, he singlehandedly reformed the country''s economy when he was Finance Minister during 2003-05, did what was necessary to put out a disastrous forest fire that swept through the Carmel earlier this year, and has defined the terms that will keep a Palestinian state at bay, or make such a state something that will live at peace with Israel.
Bibi''s personal style has been in the headlines due to a television expose of his travel arrangements. The image, Nothing but the Best, does not go over in a culture that still gives credit to modesty. Reports are that wealthy overseas patrons have financed first class or private plane flights for Netanyahu and his wife, and stays in expensive suites of the plushest hotels.
Among the items that are not clear is who among Bibi or his Sara, demands the classiest treatment, and who is the greatest cause of embarrassment. The Israeli public is periodically treated to reports about Sara''s demands and temper, her ill treatment of household help, and her insistence of vetting the people with whom the prime minister can work closely.
I am not about to blame Netanyahu for the failure of Israel and the Palestinians to move toward an accord. Barack Obama is my choice for prime responsibility. The naiveté with which he has dealt with this and other issues from Libya in the west to Afghanistan in the east challenges my credibility. In our case, he continues to push Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate when it should be clear that the West Bank Palestinians cannot move while their arch enemies control Gaza, and while the Gazans and other extremists in the Palestinian Diaspora are powerful enough to prevent any flexibility. (My blindfold keeps from knowing what I would like about the Palestinian leadership: Are they flexible or not on issues of boundaries, refugees, Jewish settlements, and the kinds of arms and alliances that will be available to an independent Palestine?)
Bibi''s proclamations about a united Jerusalem under Israeli rule do not help the situation. Should a decent accord become available he may concede to the Palestinians the same Arab neighborhoods offered by Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008. It is impossible to know how much of his insistence on this issue is his alone, required by his coalition partners, or is merely a maneuver in hopes of getting Palestinian flexibility on other issues.
What Bibi has not done is to make the case that it is the Palestinians who are at least as responsible as Israelis for a stalemate in negotiations. I would not expect him to climb all over the American president, in public, for beating a horse that is nearly dead. What I read from a wide range of commentators, however, is that Bibi has done no more than assert the wisdom of his own demands, which have been around for a while and are not moving things along.
One of the mysteries in assessing Netanyahu is his relations with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Reports are that a recent meeting between the two featured strong words and a breakdown in communications. Shortly after, Germany joined other members of the United Nations Security Council in voting to condemn as illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Perhaps Germany''s government chose to be on the right side of world opinion in the knowledge that the United States intended to veto the resolution. Or perhaps Bibi had provoked Israel''s staunchest ally in Western Europe to act in a way that was both insulting and threatening.