Reality check: Buckling under pressure

Prime ministers have zigzagged before, but the better ones did so for reasons of belief and not political expediency.

jeff barak 88 (photo credit: )
jeff barak 88
(photo credit: )
At last week's cabinet meeting which marked this government's first 100 days in office, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu moaned: "I cannot say that they were 100 days of grace. I am not sure that we had even one day of grace." Self-pity is an unattractive quality, and it is especially unappealing in a leader. Netanyahu was not elected so that he could put his feet up on his desk, enjoy a Cuban cigar and simply bask in the adulation of his voters. In fact, those who voted for him must be pretty disappointed in Netanyahu's second stint in office. For starters, the prime minister has consistently broken all his campaign promises. Although he repeatedly stated he wanted a national unity government, he refused to share power with Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and form a true Likud-Kadima-Labor-Shas national unity government. Having broken that promise, Netanyahu then failed to carry out his pledge to revert to his standby option of forming a right-wing coalition, instead preferring to entice the Labor Party to sell its soul by offering it cabinet posts it did not deserve. The great exponent of small government ended up with the largest administration in the country's history - and at a time when the message he should have sent out was one of the need to tighten one's belt. This failure to rein in costs became a familiar motif in the budget discussions. As finance minister under Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu proved he knew how to slash budgets and stand up to Shas over child allotments. As prime minister, he meekly crumbled, paying off Shas and giving in to Histadrut chief Ofer Eini's every demand. Last week's farce and zigzag over exempting fruit and vegetables from VAT was simply further proof that this is a prime minister who buckles under pressure. And when under pressure, Netanyahu panics. Spooked by unflattering profiles of his first 100 days and Kadima's assault on his record, Netanyahu ordered his top advisers - his ministers were too sensible to play along - to face the media in a hastily convened press conference in the Knesset to sing the government's praises. If not a case of life imitating art, this was certainly a case of Bibi imitating Polishuk. Like the TV character Polishuk, Netanyahu is not in charge of his office. His failure to prevent damaging leaks, such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy's undiplomatic (if understandable) comments about Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and the general atmosphere of chaos, are reminiscent of Netanyahu's first term in office. BUT FOR Netanyahu's ideological supporters, it gets worse. At last week's cabinet meeting, Netanyahu also said: "We have brought a national agreement on the idea of 'two states for two peoples.'" My memory might fail me at times, but I don't think this was the slogan Netanyahu campaigned on. Indeed, there are those in the Likud looking to convene the party's central committee to reject this dramatic policy turnaround. On the one hand, one has to rejoice in Netanyahu's official acceptance, a decade or so too late it must be said, of the idea of territorial compromise to reach a peace agreement with Palestinians. The prime minister's speech at Bar-Ilan University now binds him to the principle of partitioning the Land of Israel. At the same time, the preconditions Netanyahu has laid down for recognizing Palestinian statehood are such that there is more than a question mark hovering over the sincerity of his conversion to the idea of "two states for two peoples." To insist, as he told the cabinet, that "first of all" the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which "means that the problem of the refugees will be resolved outside the State of Israel," is a case of putting the cart before the horse. No one can expect the Palestinians to give up one of their central demands before negotiations begin. LOOKING BACK over Netanyahu's first 100 days, it is hard to avoid the impression that what interests the prime minister is solely his survival in office and not ideology. Prime ministers have zigzagged before, but the better ones did so for reasons of belief and not political expediency. Ariel Sharon's conversion from "the fate of Netzarim is the fate of Tel Aviv" to dismantling Netzarim and the rest of the Jewish settlements in Gaza stemmed from his eventual understanding that the settlers' presence there was untenable. Menachem Begin's decision to return Sinai to Egypt was based on his realization that peace with Egypt was more important than the Israeli flag flying in Sharm e-Sheikh. What does Netanyahu believe in? Before the elections one could have comfortably ticked off the following items: a free market, lower taxes, small government and no to a Palestinian state. Within 100 days he has restored the Histadrut to a position of power it has not held in decades, raised taxes, introduced a bloated government and signed up to Palestinian statehood. And he has accomplished all this by undermining his senior ministers such as Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, once his closest ally, and Foreign Minister Lieberman, his senior coalition partner, who to all intents and purposes has been replaced by Ehud Barak. Meanwhile, the two major problems facing Israel - Iran and Israel's relations with Washington - are no nearer being solved than they were when Netanyahu took office. It will take more than the government's planned PR campaign to persuade a skeptical public that, to borrow an old election slogan, "Bibi is good for the Jews." The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.