Middle Israel: Bibi the Third’s first year

While much better than his first premiership, Netanyahu’s second turn at the helm has yet to match his delivery as treasurer.

Bibi the First seemed doomed to fail. Having landed in the prime minister’s seat against all expectations, including his own, the country’s youngest-ever premier lacked plans, experience and friends. By the end of his first year in office, it was clear that he was muddling through while consistently losing fans, aides and allies. When that stint ended in a landslide defeat to Ehud Barak, no one was surprised.
Bibi the Second was the antithesis of all that. While his installation by Ariel Sharon at the Treasury also came unexpectedly, Netanyahu arrived there mature, sharp and well prepared. The speed, resolve and consistency with which he passed his conservative reforms were philosophically comprehensive, politically impressive and economically priceless.
The third Bibi, whose first year as prime minister has just ended, took a middle course between these two precedents, a course that can only lead that far, and last that long.
NETANYAHU’S MOST impressive feat during his first year was as coalition builder. His unexpected enlistment of Labor was a stroke of brilliance that helped salvage from an inconclusive election a stable government and a flimsy opposition. Not only did he outflank Kadima from the left, in this way he also balanced Avigdor Lieberman’s political overweight on his right. Moreover, adding Labor to his bandwagon has brought Kadima to the brink of breakup, and raised doubts concerning Tzipi Livni’s ability to lead.
Netanyahu’s improbable coalition has proven so durable that it wasn’t even shaken by his embrace of the two-state formula and settlement freeze, gestures that under other circumstances might have sparked resignations, rallies, reshuffles and what not.
Indeed, the new centrist quest sharply contrasted the first Bibi’s government, which had no left wing, and the second Bibi’s policy, whose patience for socialism was as strong as Muammar Gaddafi’s is for Switzerland. Bibi the Second was anathema to the social left, having slashed Israel’s time-honored social safety net and subdued the unions when they tried to challenge him. Bibi the Third, by contrast, allowed Histadrut leader Ofer Eini to craft his deal with Labor and emerge from it a respectable power broker. Who would have thought?
THE POLITICAL balance Netanyahu the Third accomplished has been more than mere mechanics; it was also a mind-set.
The third Bibi, unlike the second, has been a reluctant reformer. One after the other, his campaign’s great promises have been squeezed, clipped and diluted as he maneuvered incessantly between his own convictions and other people’s misgivings, whims and vested interests. Consequently, what began with a brave promise to sharply cut taxes has so far constituted mainly a slight reduction in value-added tax, and what was promised as a sweeping land reform was narrowed and slowed by his own partners, and what was introduced as a transport revolution has lost its much-heralded spearhead, the fast train between Beersheba and Eilat.
Who, then, is the third Bibi?
The third Bibi is first of all an extremely cautious man who had to weather a global economic crisis which Israel did not cause and could not control. With the global economy ablaze and the developed world breaking its own rules concerning budget deficits, market interventions and so-called stimulus plans, it made sense to placate the social left.
Cutting taxes a year ago, when internal revenues were plunging, might have proven overly ambitious at a time when financial dereliction was landing others, from Greece to Iceland, in the doldrums. Netanyahu therefore evidently chose to sit it out until the fog cleared. But now the fog has cleared. Israel emerged from the global crisis with flying colors, having recessed for a mere two quarters, and at the same time maintained a solid currency, strong labor markets and, by the end of 2009, a growth rate of 4.4 percent. Remaining now beset by his economic opponents can no longer be excused by the constraints of the global crisis.
And so, to pick up from where he left off as finance minister, the third Bibi must first of all concede that with all due respect to his improved maneuvers within the existing system, it is nevertheless the system’s structure that is obstructing his delivery.
IN A different system most of Netanyahu’s painstakingly assembled coalition would have been in his own party and therefore in position to grab the wheel from his hands whenever he tried to steer it somewhere.
It would be unthinkable for the foreign minister to openly ridicule the prime minister’s foreign policy, as Avigdor Lieberman does. Factions like Labor and Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), who forced the land-reform retreat with a combined following of just over a 10th of the electorate, would be in no position to do so in the face of a pro-market block representing, between Netanyahu, Livni and Lieberman, 60 percent of the public. The interior minister would not take an issue as prickly as the Falash Mura’s immigration and use it to get more votes for his party. There certainly would not be a finance minister who fights his prime minister’s main domestic plan, to quickly stretch railways between Kiryat Shmona and Eilat.
If the third Bibi wants to pick up from where the second Bibi left off, he must seek a political reform on the scale of 2003’s economic reforms. Only when lawmakers are elected personally and by districts will Israeli governments shrink, focus and function. Only then will ministers really answer to the prime minister and share his views. Criticizing, opposing and even thwarting the prime minister and his plans will of course remain feasible, but only from the opposition.
If he is opposed from within his most immediate executive circle, how can he possibly execute? In such a setting, the third Bibi will not only never match the second, he will soon resemble the first, whose lack of delivery produced a devastating media onslaught.
Judging by Sara Netanyahu’s return to the headlines, the media isalready smelling a repetition of the first Bibi’s combination of hightalk and low delivery. On foreign affairs Bibi can afford a policy ofwait and see. On the domestic front, however, he must act. After all,while even his opponents appreciated the second Bibi, no one misses thefirst Bibi – least of all Netanyahu himself.