Bibi the Third’s failed premiership

Middle Israel: The prime minister has lost the reformist drive that won him praise as finance minister.

Netanyahu addresses Knesset 311 (photo credit: Moshe Milner / GPO)
Netanyahu addresses Knesset 311
(photo credit: Moshe Milner / GPO)
No longer the rash 47-year-old who had reached office prematurely, the 60-year-old Binyamin Netanyahu returned to Israel’s helm as a celebrated reformer who now added Labor to his coalition, struck a truce with the unions, and publicly shed his lifelong opposition to Palestinian statehood. Having previously presented, as finance minister, Bibi the Doer who succeeded Bibi the Talker, he now introduced a third Bibi – the Pragmatist.
Alas, as Bibi the Third’s premiership approaches its last trimester, it increasingly looms as a disappointment, not only to his sworn enemies, but also to Middle Israelis, some of whom voted for him and all of whom wish him nothing but success.
Middle Israelis have no emotional complexes concerning Netanyahu. They find Yediot Aharonot’s war on Sara Netanyahu revolting; they think Tzipi Livni’s blaming the lack of a peace process on Bibi ignores the Palestinians’ refusal to talk with him; and they found merit in his eloquent response to Barack Obama’s broadsides.
And while they respect outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan’s warning not to attack Iran, Middle Israelis take with a pinch of salt attacks on Netanyahu coming from has-beens like former chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and former Mossad head Danny Yatom, recalling that each has a well-known personal history with Netanyahu.
Bibi the Third has also not done, for now, anything unreasonable. He hasn’t launched a military adventure, he retained ties with Turkey despite its leaders’ hostility, he has been cautious vis-à-vis the Arab upheaval, and his economic prudence has kept the shekel solid, the budget balanced, GDP growing, and unemployment at a record low.
And yet there is a major flaw in Bibi the Third’s performance.
It lies in his loss of his own reformist drive, having consciously chosen to tolerate Israel’s political deformities as long as they keep him in power.
ONE GLARING example in this regard is in the realestate market.
The problem on this front – spiraling housing prices – is famous, and Bibi’s remedy for it, land reform, was sound. Prices are high, he explained, because too little land reaches the market, and that, in turn, is because the Israel Lands Authority owns more than 90 percent of the country’s surface, and its bureaucrats get to decide when, where and how fast to release plots under 99-year leases. Bibi therefore said he would lead 70% of Israel’s real estate to private ownership, dismantle the Lands Authority, create a new agency and task it not with managing, but with developing state-owned land.
That was the vision. The reality was that Bibi was manhandled by a coalition of cynics, alarmists and ignoramuses ranging from Labor demagogues like Shelly Yacimovich, who warned the reform would benefit no one but several tycoons, through Orthodox politicians who took the biblical ideal that the Holy Land “shall not be sold forever, for the land is mine” (Leviticus 25:23) as literally as Karaites, to Greens like Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz, who feared overdevelopment, and to generals like Moshe Ya’alon, who feared foreign takeovers.
These strange bedfellows effectively killed what could have been the flagship of a reformist premiership, by reducing Bibi’s planned 70% selloffs to a mere 4% of Israel’s land. Needless to say, the markets responded by further raising housing prices – 12% last year, 12% in this year’s first quarter alone, and 60% since Bibi left the Treasury in 2005.
Obviously Bibi does not come out and say, “I abandoned my convictions and betrayed the public.”
Instead, he celebrates his woefully diluted 4% “reform” as if it had been that 70% revolution. Worse, he has endorsed Shas’s demand to subsidize houseless couples’ apartment purchases in distant towns by NIS 100,000.
It doesn’t take an MIT education to understand that such price interference is voodoo economics, because putting cash in builders’ and buyers’ pockets before they strike a deal will only raise prices.
A similarly funny thing happened on the way to school reform.
The original plan, the one endorsed when Netanyahu was finance minister, was that school principals would be empowered to hire, fire and reward teachers according to their performance. That was the vision. In reality that plan was targeted by the unions, who rightly feared for the jobs of incompetent teachers, and then it was killed by the Olmert government’s education minister, who was from Labor.
Now Bibi the Third has again muddled through: first, with a NIS 15 billion program that will rightly increase teachers’ pay and work hours, but will do so regardless of a teacher’s performance, and then with a program that will have teachers’ performance “reviewed,” but by their colleagues rather than their bosses, the principals, and only in elementary schools, and only in select parts of the country.
In short, that, too, is a gross dilution, not to say perversion, of the original vision, which was to fully empower the principal so he or she could be held personally and solely accountable for his or her school’s success or failure.
NETANYAHU KNOWS that what prevents him from leading according to his convictions is Israel’s unique coalition politics and electoral system whereby small parties keep growing and the big ones keep shrinking, while lawmakers are not held personally accountable for anything, and ministers promote sectarian and personal agendas in disregard of their nominal boss, the prime minister, not to mention the national interest.
That’s why Netanyahu the Third faced absurdities like his foreign minister presenting, in a speech to the UN, plenary views that contradicted the prime minister’s policies; that’s how the interior minister embarrassed the prime minister with a sensitive building plan’s announcement during the American vice president’s visit, of all timings; and that is why the deputy foreign minister could publicly humiliate the Turkish ambassador, evidently without the prime minister’s knowledge, at an exorbitant strategic cost to all of us.
Still, Netanyahu prefers to swim in the cesspool with which he is familiar rather than navigate a political reform.
To this day, Bibi has never publicly presented a vision, let alone a plan, for political reform, and neither has Livni. To them, a system that has led them personally as far they have reached can’t be all that bad. And so, every Sunday morning Bibi the Third stares stoically at his cabinet, a cacophonous debating club of 38 ministers and deputy ministers, nearly a full third of the legislature, a federation of conflicting, narrow and often personal interests, a chorus that cannot properly run anything, let alone a country.
This has to change, and eventually it will, but judging by Israeli precedent, change will arrive only once catastrophe is in the air, like the severe recession that allowed Bibi the Second to slash social spending – a painful move that proved a prerequisite for today’s prosperity. Until then, housing prices will continue rising, thousands of teachers will remain substandard, incompetent ministers and their pompous deputies will continue sending their arms to the prime minister’s wheel and their legs to his brakes, and all that while the world assumes, and the prime minister actually believes, that it is he who is running the Jewish state.