Teflon prime minister: Learning to let things slide

Known as the “Teflon president,” Reagan maintained popularity no matter what scandals arose. After what Israeli sources are calling "hell week," perhaps Netanyahu should learn a thing or two from the former US president.

Netanyahu, Reagan (photo credit: Reuters)
Netanyahu, Reagan
(photo credit: Reuters)
When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu served as Israel’s ambassador to the UN in New York in the 1980s, he developed an admiration for the president at the time, Ronald Reagan, according to a former Netanyahu associate who worked with him at the time.
Reagan was known as the “Teflon president,” because he maintained his popularity no matter what scandals arose. Like a Teflon frying pan, nothing stuck to him.
While Netanyahu’s admiration was for Reagan’s capitalist economics and steadfast foreign policy, he obviously learned from his political success as well.
Reagan’s Teflon might have stuck to the future leader, who was about to start his political career.
Fast forward to this week, which a source close to the prime minister called “the week from hell.”
Netanyahu endured abrasive attacks from former prime minister Ehud Olmert, former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin, and anonymous White House and State Department officials.
Olmert mocked his ability to decide on an Iran strike, Diskin called his alleged policy on settlements and prisoner releases “cynical and nauseating,” and the officials in Washington reportedly said “We know how to contain him. He is manageable.”
A visit to Rome and an extremely important meeting with the most activist pope in decades was overshadowed by reports of massive expenses in Netanyahu’s three residences, specifically on scented candles, wine, dry cleaning, mezuzot and the water for his pool in Caesarea.
Nevertheless, even after such a week, Netanyahu is still viewed favorably by the Israeli public, according to a Panels poll sponsored by The Jerusalem Post’s Hebrew sister publication, Sof Hashavua.
The poll asked 505 respondents representing a statistical sample of the population for the most fitting candidate to be prime minister. Thirty-seven percent said Netanyahu, more than four times that of any other potential candidate.
His closest competitor, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, received only 8%, followed by new opposition leader Isaac Herzog (6%), Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (6%), Finance Minister Yair Lapid (3%), and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (2%).
Thirty-one percent said none of the above, and 7% declined to respond.
When asked to grade ministers, Netanyahu scored a positive 53 among respondents in general and 73 among Likud voters. Only five ministers out of 23 scored better.
So much for anonymous White House and State Department officials who were quoted this week calling Netanyahu “weak and desperate,” and saying that “his harsh rhetoric on Iran is evidence of a lack of self-confidence.”
So how does Netanyahu maintain his popularity against all odds? The same way Reagan and other popular leaders have – by uniting his country against enemies.
Reagan was president during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and he ultimately was instrumental in ending it.
Netanyahu has united his people against three perceived enemies: Iran, US President Barack Obama and the media.
As long as preventing the nuclearization of Iran is at the top of the national agenda, Netanyahu will be strong. Polls consistently show that the Israeli public overwhelmingly supports Netanyahu’s policies on Iran, and trusts only him to deal with the threat.
Will the Iran issue be eliminated completely when the six-month timetable for a final deal with Western powers concludes? Polls show Israelis overwhelmingly doubt it.
A State Department spokeswoman revealed this week that the six-month clock has not started ticking, because the technical details of the interim agreement were not actually concluded in Geneva.
Even after those six months are up, Netanyahu will make sure that the final deal’s implementation will be monitored closely, and the Iran issue will remain on both the national and international agenda.
The one argument that persuades Israeli and American skeptics that the interim deal can actually work is what is known as the “kvetch factor.” The skeptics have experience on their side when they question the monitoring ability of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.
But those skeptics respect Israeli intelligence, and they understand that the last thing Obama and other world leaders want is Netanyahu kvetching, proving that they were wrong about the Iran deal, and telling him “I told you so.” That is seen as one reason why the P5+1 world powers may actually ensure that Iran’s nuclear sites are monitored much more effectively than before.
That leads into the second perceived threat (with an emphasis on perceived): Obama. An Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) poll revealed this week that 49% of Israelis believe that the Jewish state must seek other allies, and not rely so much on the US.
The poll was taken amid increasing tension and mutual recriminations between the administrations in Jerusalem and Washington. Officials close to Netanyahu were quoted as saying that Obama’s goal was to just last through the next three years, not to prevent a nuclear Iran. A Foreign Ministry official who normally downplays such tensions told a reporter this week that US-Israel relations are as bad as ever.
In the past, when there were such tensions between an Israeli prime minister and a US president, Israelis sided with the president and questioned what their own leader did wrong. That is what happened in fights between Netanyahu and then-president Bill Clinton, for instance.
But Obama is no Clinton in the eyes of Israelis. Polls show they continue to be extremely skeptical of Obama and his policies in the Middle East.
That helps Netanyahu’s popularity rise whenever there is a perception of a fight with Washington. The anonymous White House and State Department officials who called Netanyahu weak apparently have failed to recognize that releasing such anonymous quotes only makes him stronger.
These perceived tensions with Washington are fanned by enemy No. 3: The media. 
The IDI’s comprehensive annual Democracy Index consistently shows that the media is one of the institutions Israeli Jews respect the least.
All of the mainstream media outlets in Israel highlighted the expenditures at Netanyahu’s residences, which were only revealed when his office lost a court case based on laws guaranteeing freedom of information.
Perhaps had Netanyahu not tried so hard to hide his expenses, they would not have been seen as that big a deal.
Netanyahu’s advisers were so afraid that the prime minister would be embarrassed in front of his Italian counterpart Enrico Letta by queries about scented candles, that they violated traditional protocol by preventing the Israeli press from asking questions at a press conference at Letta’s residence. Channel 2’s Amit Segal, who covered the Rome visit, tweeted that “a press conference without questions is like soapless soap or decaf coffee.”
But the poll apparently indicates that either the press coverage on the issue went too far and boomeranged, or perhaps, the public does not care as much as the media thinks about whether the prime minister serves a good wine to visiting dignitaries.
The “week from hell” is now over. But many challenges remain for the weeks ahead.
Netanyahu will have to deal with tension inside his coalition that was revealed this week in the dispute between Bayit Yehudi and Yesh Atid over benefits for gay couples. Such tension could become a real problem soon, when decisions must be made on the electoral reform, referendum and haredi draft bills.
The prime minister will face a militant Likud convention on December 18, which could make him look very weak in Washington. He has to find a candidate for president to prevent his nemesis, Reuven Rivlin, from succeeding Shimon Peres in a race that will be held in May or June.
And the nine-month deadline the US set for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is looming at the end of April, not far before the deadline for Western powers to reach a final deal on Iran.
With so many difficult challenges ahead, Netanyahu will need plenty of Teflon.