Middle Israel: The new Netanyahu's new mistakes

Ehud Barak's charge that Bibi deprived the public of its pensions is a libel, and Bibi should sue him for it

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
It's been half-a-decade since Binyamin Netanyahu proved that beside being the able speaker that even his rivals admitted he was, he could also be the doer that even his admirers had doubted he could be. Having accomplished this transfiguration as a finance minister with plans, convictions and resolve, Netanyahu then proceeded, this time as leader of the opposition, to prove he could also possess the caution, calculation and self-control that many felt he had failed to display as prime minister. Now, judging by his response to the economic drama and legal farce to which we are witness, Netanyahu has gone overboard in his eagerness to abandon his former self, even at the expense of both the national and his own interest. ON THE legal front, Netanyahu has apparently decided to acquiesce in Ehud Olmert's clinging to the throne, even after Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz's announcement last week that he will indict Olmert pending a hearing. To serve his country following such an earth-shattering development, Bibi had to demand Olmert's immediate departure from the business of government, let alone as prime minister, even a caretaker. That a man in Olmert's legal situation would dare insist on leading his country - to military campaigns, peace negotiations and budgetary extravaganzas - is astonishing enough, but then again it merely means that the problem we had anyhow faced was even larger than we had realized. Fair enough. But why are so many of the rest of this psychodrama's protagonists allowing this suspect to continue occupying David Ben-Gurion's seat? Never mind right now those on the left who, like Spanish inquisitors, will always be there to forgive an erstwhile Greater Israelite's sins provided he declares, "I believe that peace can be obtained this month, this evening and also this second, with these, with them and even with those, if only we forgo this, that and also that." Such political missionaries have sadly forgotten nothing and learned nothing since falling for Ariel Sharon's impersonation of a lefty as his own corruption came to light. But Netanyahu? Why should he avoid demanding that Olmert vanish at once? Not only does Netanyahu tolerate Olmert's presence at the heart of the system, he has even tried to concoct jointly with him an economic stimulus plan. Under the current circumstances all candidates should have joined in a demand that Olmert declare himself immediately incapacitated, and leave the scene. Instead, Olmert remains with us, like a corrupt-software's icon that no "delete," rebooting or dragging to the recycling bin will remove from a computer's home page where it arrived in the wake of an accidental download. Our allegedly double-billing leader is all over the place, as if he had been the Jewish state's Ataturk: One moment he reprimands police following a hit on a mobster; another he insults the finance minister and the entire Treasury's senior executives by producing a stimulus plan of his own; one morning he is off to talks with Vladimir Putin and the next he arrives at the White House for just one more brush with George W. Bush as he and Laura pack; and throughout it all he preaches peace, as if descending to us from a misty summit clutching divine tablets, conveniently forgetting that most of us can actually teach him a thing or two about the Ten Commandments, just like he knows more about the Golden Calf. All this seems agreeable to Netanyahu because his advisers reportedly care most about his prospective departure resulting in Tzipi Livni's emergence as caretaker prime minister. How sad. For one thing, when Yitzhak Rabin resigned in 1977 following Labor's corruption scandals, none of that party's loss of altitude was offset by the caretaker prime minister, Shimon Peres, coming from the same party. More importantly, even if Livni's nominal arrival in the prime minister's seat would improve her electoral chances, how does that sit with tolerating the Theater of the Absurd into which Olmert has turned Israeli politics? EVEN MORE perplexing is Netanyahu's tolerance of the attacks on him in the wake of the economic crisis, crowned by Ehud Barak's charge that he, Netanyahu, deprived the people of their pensions. First, some facts. Unlike what people tell you these days, Netanyahu was not the one who allowed the pension funds to invest in the financial markets. This had already been done in the 1980s. What Netanyahu did was to bail out and wrest from the unions the assorted pension funds they had grossly mismanaged and brought to the brink of bankruptcy. Had he not done that, thousands of elderly people would now be penniless. Moreover, since Netanyahu's reforms the Israeli pension industry has performed well, averaging annually for five consecutive years nearly 11 percent yields. This year, admittedly, the funds have lost some 10% of their combined values. However, that is handsomely offset by the previous years' returns, and far better than the 30 developed economies' average loss of 22% in comparable funds. In other words, Netanyahu is being flatly slandered; nobody lost his pension, and if anything the industry has taken better care of its beneficiaries in the aftermath of his reforms. And yet Netanyahu not only refrains from defending himself, he is joining his own attackers' demand that the state ensure a fixed minimum yield for retirees, a mechanism that will cost at least an annual NIS 10 billion, depending on the formula by which this handout would be calculated. Of the many counter-depression packages unveiled in recent weeks by dozens of governments, none has contained anything like this. Why then does Netanyahu cooperate with this damage to his own reforms? Apparently, in his obsession to offset practically any vestige of his previous images, and having already convinced people he can be a doer no less than a talker and that he can be calculating just like he can be rash, Netanyahu now wants to show he can be a compassionate tax-and-spender just like he could be what his detractors portrayed as a heartless capitalist. Well, Bibi, the reason people were impressed with your reformism was not because it was the opposite of anything, but because it showed you actually believed in something and were prepared to pursue it even at a personal cost. Such resolve and consistency are also what you should display now. Instead of collaborating with Olmert, demand his departure; and instead of apologizing for your market reforms, you should sue Ehud Barak for slander.