Politics: Not just a great orator

In averting a political crisis over Ulpana outpost, PM showed he has added new skills to his repertoire.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
There tend to be two kinds of politicians.
Some are great orators who know how to persuade people with grand speeches that sweep them off their feet.
Others do their best work in personal meetings with individuals and small groups, knowing how to win them over by making them feel special.
Politicians who can do both are rare in any country.
The best examples in this era of the first category are presidents Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan in the US and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu here. They all delivered speeches with an air of confidence and catchy lines that immediately became part of history.
It can be debated which president falls into the second category in the US. In Israel, we have former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who hated speaking in public. When he was finally persuaded to deliver a live address to the nation, he was caught on camera saying at the end: “Nu. Is it over yet?” But in closed-door meetings, foreign dignitaries and people who worked with Sharon described him as having the magic touch. They said people would come in to his office ready to fight him and would leave persuaded by his charm.
Sharon kept a reporter’s notebook in his back pocket and would write down ideas he heard from people he met with, no matter who they were, which made them feel honored. Because his views changed so much over the course of his political career, everyone strongly disagreed with him at some point, yet even his fiercest opponents liked him personally.
Netanyahu, by contrast, has the reputation of a politician who does not come across as well in personal meetings as he does in speeches to Congress or to the United Nations. At least that was his reputation in his first term in office, from 1996 to 1999.
During that term, Netanyahu had trouble getting along with his ministers, many of whom were fired or quit due to disputes that were more personal than political. In three years, he had three finance ministers, two foreign ministers and two defense ministers.
In this term, the only three ministers who left quit when Defense Minister Ehud Barak split the Labor Party. No faction as a whole has left the coalition, and Netanyahu has not had to fire anyone.
In his three years and three months in office, the closest Netanyahu has come to that was in this week’s crisis over Beit El’s Ulpana outpost.
Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz (Habayit Hayehudi), Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein (Likud), and three Likud deputy ministers were ready to be fired over their vote on a controversial outpost bill at the Knesset on Wednesday that could have saved the five buildings of the Ulpana neighborhood. Had Hershkowitz resigned, he would have taken his faction with him out of the coalition.
In the end, all five politicians folded, none of them participated in the vote, and they all kept their jobs.
When asked how Netanyahu emerged unscathed from yet another potential political crisis, a close adviser compared him to the Road Runner cartoon character, who always managed to avoid the clutches and the anvils of his nemesis, Wile E. Coyote.
The adviser noted that the only words the Road Runner ever uttered were “Beep-beep,” which sounds a lot like “Bibi.”
But when asked for a more serious answer, the adviser noted that Netanyahu learned from his troubled first administration the importance of investing time in developing relationships with people, especially his ministers. He learned that such investments pay off in times of crisis.
That’s what happened this week.
Netanyahu knew that the issue of the Ulpana outpost was a political minefield. He knew that if he played his cards wrong, key Likud ministers could quit, as could multiple factions.
So Netanyahu defused the situation step by step. First he met with Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Environment Minister Gilad Erdan, who are both lawyers. They helped him figure out what his legal options were with regard to the outpost and what alternatives could be offered to compensate the settlers for losing the battle over the Ulpana.
Sa’ar and Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon came to Netanyahu’s side in Monday’s Likud faction meeting in which the prime minister came out strongly against the outpost bill and warned of its consequences for Israel internationally. Their political backing gave Netanyahu the support he needed to persuade wavering Likud ministers not to join the rebellion.
All along, Netanyahu was in contact with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Shas chairman Eli Yishai to make sure their factions stayed out of the fight. In a situation that would have sounded absurd in the past, Netanyahu thanked Liberman for having a moderating presence on his government.
The hardest nuts to crack were Edelstein, the only Likud minister who lives in Judea and Samaria, and Herschkowitz, who is facing a leadership primary in Habayit Hayehudi.
Netanyahu met with Herschkowitz at the Prime Minister’s Office for two hours on Monday and another two hours on Tuesday.
He met with Edelstein Tuesday afternoon for an hour and a half.
Edelstein was determined to vote for the bill even if it meant getting fired. He earned a reputation for being stubborn when he stayed an extra year in a Siberian prison for refusing to admit to false charges of drug possession.
To persuade Edelstein and Herschkowitz to end their rebellion, Netanyahu agreed to remove Barak from the ministerial committee on settlements, something the settlers had been requesting for three years.
Netanyahu will head the committee in Barak’s stead, and Herschkowitz will be Netanyahu’s deputy chairman.
Netanyahu also asked Edelstein to mediate between him and the Ulpana settlers in order to avoid a violent evacuation. He made Edelstein and Herschkowitz feel that they were needed in the government and could have a real impact by remaining ministers.
Meanwhile, Edelstein and Herschkowitz tried to persuade settler leaders to get MKs Ya’acov Katz (National Union) and Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi) to put off the vote on the bill that they were certain to lose. Katz agreed to put it off by a week but Orlev would not.
Had the bills been delayed, Edelstein and Herschkowitz would have looked like brave knights who fought for their constituency without getting fired. But Orlev, who is running against Herschkowitz in the Habayit Hayehudi race, refused to give him that pleasure.
Much of the crisis over the Ulpana was manufactured by Orlev in order to force Herschkowitz to quit. That way, the race would be MK vs MK instead of MK vs minister.
Even after Orlev lost the vote in a landslide, he said he would push for his party to leave the coalition. The problem is that because Habayit Hayehudi lacks institutions, only its Knesset faction has the authority to decide to leave the coalition.
Habayit Hayehudi has three MKs. Orlev is on one side, Herschkowitz on the other.
The third MK who would cast the deciding vote is Uri Orbach, who is hospitalized with a severe illness and is not expected to be able to function politically any time soon.
Habayit Hayehudi’s primary got delayed last week from September to November.
That will give Orlev more time to flex his political muscles and try to cause problems for Herschkowitz and Netanyahu.
The Netanyahu of his first term knew how to give great speeches but he would have had difficulty dealing with political troublemakers like Orlev. The Netanyahu of today has learned how to handle much bigger problems.