Politics: Making his way to the White House

A budget-bruised Netanyahu goes to Washington.

netanyahu stresses point 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
netanyahu stresses point 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
US President Barack Obama celebrated the milestone of completing 100 days in office by performing a stand-up routine for the 2,500 journalists, politicians and celebrities who came to the Washington Hilton last week for the White House press corps' annual banquet. Referring to perceptions that he is the darling of the American media, he looked at the reporters before him and said: "Most of you covered me. All of you voted for me. My apologies to the table from Fox." Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu can only look on with envy and wish that he had the backing of the media here that Obama enjoys in America. He can also be envious of Obama for governing a nation that is much more patient than Israelis are. Both Obama and Netanyahu are coming into their meeting on Monday at the White House after months of internal political struggles over cabinet appointments, and battles over budgets and economic policies. But, due in part to that difference in support that Obama and Netanyahu receive from the media in their countries - and perhaps from the people as well - the two will come into the meeting from completely different situations. Obama arguably has more power now than any recent American president, after the defection of Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter from Republican to Democrat. If the Democratic candidate is ruled the victor in the legally contested Minnesota Senate race, as is expected soon, the Democrats will have 60 senators, and Obama will be able to easily advance legislation in the first "filibuster-proof Senate" since 1979. Netanyahu, by contrast, will come to the meeting battered and bruised by the process leading up to Wednesday's budget vote. He will still be reeling from headlines about his fierce exchange of words with Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the resignation of Finance Ministry budget director Ram Belinkov and reports about his broken campaign promise to lower taxes. The prime minister's critics charge that he is going to the White House after already losing his luster as a new leader, and the swagger and self-respect that come with momentum from an electoral victory. They warned that this will make it harder for Netanyahu to stand up to Obama when they have inevitable differences of opinion. Netanyahu's defenders respond that, despite the problems on the way, passing the budget gave him a big boost that restored his momentum and his political stature ahead of his key visit to Washington. They say his success in pleasing all the different players in the economic sphere - and every coalition partner except Shas - proved that he has become a consensus-builder, and not the divisive leader of a divided nation that he was in his first term. Most importantly, they say, his decision to start passing budgets every two years, instead of annually, cleared his plate of politics until the next budget vote comes to the cabinet in a year and a half, allowing him to focus on governing the nation and implementing his policies. "I hope people in Washington won't reach mistaken conclusions about Netanyahu after the budget battle," said former ambassador to the US Zalman Shoval, a longtime external diplomatic adviser to the prime minister. "Obama realizes that a new prime minister doesn't start off with a well-oiled machine. A new leader faces problems building his staff, just as Obama did with many of his appointees. But with a coalition government, it's that much harder." Shoval argues that diplomatic issues will be an easier task for Netanyahu than economic issues were, because he does not have to deal with interest groups, like labor unions and employers' associations. He said the cabinet was much more cohesive on diplomatic issues, and that Netanyahu enjoys the support of ministers from Right to Left for whatever his diplomatic initiatives will be. Responding to charges that Obama could be more apt to pounce on a politically wounded Netanyahu, Shoval said the opposite was true. "Obama realizes that a political crisis in Israel would postpone any diplomatic process for at least a year, and he doesn't want to see that happen," he said. A CONSENSUS perception among Netanyahu's critics and defenders is that his already having broken campaign promises on economic issues barely a month after his government's formation will make it harder for him to break promises on diplomatic issues when he meets with Obama. But Netanyahu was so vague about what his diplomatic policies would be during his campaign and since then, that whatever he says to Obama could be interpreted by spin doctors on both sides as either maintaining his principles or selling out. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni has repeatedly promised that Kadima would back Netanyahu if he made moves she considered responsible on either economic or diplomatic issues. But privately, Kadima MKs said they doubted Livni would ever end up praising the prime minister. The Kadima MKs admitted that they felt odd this week attacking Netanyahu on economic issues from the Right, after he adopted many of Labor's policies in his compromises over the budget. They said they would not be surprised if they end up eventually attacking Netanyahu from the Right on diplomatic concessions as well. "We have to attack Bibi from the Left, the Right and especially the Center," Kadima MK Marina Solodkin said. "The synthesis of Likud on the Right and Labor on the Left doesn't work. A shakshouka like that just can't be made. Netanyahu is paying for the original sin of forming a coalition without his natural partner, Kadima." Livni came under fire from MKs in her faction this week for waiting so long to start her battle against the budget. Kadima MKs said she made a mistake by missing the first week of the Knesset session to attend the AIPAC conference in Washington. They also said Livni gave up a key tool to fight the budget when she gave the Likud the chairmanship of the Knesset Economics Committee in return for the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that will continue to be headed by Kadima's Tzahi Hanegbi. The Economics Committee, which is normally headed by an MK from the largest opposition faction, can be used to prolong passing the budget, and without it, Kadima is powerless to stop the budget. The anger against Livni in Kadima barely received media coverage, and Livni, like Obama, enjoys a largely sympathetic press. But Shoval said Netanyahu knows that the impact of the media only goes so far, and that ultimately history judges leaders from a much broader view over the course of time. "I am sure that Netanyahu or any prime minister would love to have the backing that Obama has," Shoval said. "But if I were in Netanyahu's place, I wouldn't put too much credence in the media that want to bring him down. After all the reports, the public still sees Netanyahu as the best person to heal the economy and make key decisions."