Critical Currents: Procrastination is not policy

Critical Currents Procr

The trajectory of the second Netanyahu government remains shrouded in mystery, eight months after its inauguration on March 31. Its two defining features - the maintenance of coalition stability as its binding strategy and the postponement of decision-making as its key policy - reveal little about its substantive direction. In Israel's volatile internal and global environment, such an approach has a lulling effect, which breeds inaction and ultimately invites crisis and loss of control. The role of governments is to make and implement policy. Failure to do so leads to much deeper problems of governance that no renewed call for governmental reform can adequately address. Few Israeli prime ministers enjoyed the powers that Binyamin Netanyahu now possesses; rarely have these been so blithely squandered. Now that he is firmly ensconced in office, it is high time that he declare what he intends to do, if anything, to secure the wellbeing of Israel at home and abroad. If he doesn't, the prevailing paralysis will become the be-all and end-all of his tenure. A pattern of foot-dragging accompanied by periodic capitulation to coalition-partner pressure has become the mark of the second Netanyahu incumbency. Domestically, just recently it has been manifested not only in the decision to delay the vote on the biometric law and to defer the expulsion of the children of foreign workers, but also in the about-face on the imposition of VAT on fruits and vegetables and on the collection of the drought tax (leading to a substantial rise in other levies, as well as in the overall price of water). The handling of the debate on the future powers of the attorney-general is typical of this syndrome: the prime minister chose to postpone any decision for the time being to mollify his strategic ally Ehud Barak at the expense of Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman (who probably will be compensated when the government appoints his choice as the new holder of this pivotal office, now that the search committee returned its mandate). Three intertwining assumptions inform these moves: (1) that when in doubt, the status quo is preferable; (2) that time is a distinct advantage, regardless of the issue; and (3) that the need for intra-coalition harmony today is greater than any price exacted tomorrow. This thinking is, to say the least, unsettling. More often than not, the upshot is that the cost of stabilization rises exponentially. This is perhaps most apparent in the case of the haredi riots that continue to erupt almost weekly for a variety of different reasons. The unwillingness to offend the coalition's religious flank is setting the stage for the creation of a haredi state beyond the reach of any duly elected government. THIS DOMESTIC dynamic is also symptomatic of the prime minister's wait-and-see approach to external affairs. The handling of the release of Gilad Schalit is one example. The terms of a prisoner exchange have been known for over three years. They are unlikely to change substantially. Yet every day that passes without a courageous decision fosters more ill will and complicates Schalit's eventual release. Netanyahu's approach to the Goldstone Commission is another case in point. Ignoring the investigative body put Israel at a distinct disadvantage. The attempt to delay a vote on its findings in the UN Human Rights Council enfeebled the Palestinian Authority. The rejection of its key recommendation - to set up an independent commission of inquiry on Israel's comportment during the recent Gaza war - led to its adoption by the General Assembly. And the ongoing attempts to denounce its author and thus dismiss its contents will hardly prevent a further airing in the UN Security Council. The same tactics have been evident in Netanyahu's stance on a settlement freeze and the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians. The relationship between the two is not an Obama administration whim designed to curry favor in the Arab world. It dates back to 1967 and, formally, to the road map, in which Israel, as a signatory, explicitly committed itself to a complete halt in settlement activity (including natural growth), as well as to the dismantling of all unauthorized outposts. Once again, the strategy of coalition survival dictates the purposeful reluctance to take any steps to stop construction beyond the Green Line, especially in Jerusalem and its environs. This position not only heaps additional opprobrium on Israel (as we see from the reactions to the Gilo tender), but also contributes enormously to prolonging the hiatus in talks. The current diplomatic stalemate may sustain the present government for the time being, although it is wrong to presume that it will ensure its durability for its entire term. It has significantly altered the parameters in which Israel can operate and harmed its international credibility. It might bring about a Palestinian state by international fiat rather than by agreement. This kind of boomerang highlights the fallacies inherent in enshrining inaction in the name of preserving what, by all accounts, is an untenable situation. A similar standoff has become the norm vis-à-vis negotiations with Syria, not to speak of Israel's relations with the broader Arab world. Doing nothing in the hope that present conditions will continue unabated may make Netanyahu's coalition partners happy. But such a presumption is not only foolhardy; it contributes nothing to securing Israel's regional standing in the future. The main message of Netanyahu's tenure to date, therefore, is as discouraging as it is clear: what exists, at best, is what will be. The persistent deadlock on all levels is heralded as a resounding success; avoidance is viewed as a victory; paralysis as a sign of stability. The illusion of familiarity may buy time and, by stymieing dissent, further enfeeble the opposition. But it is not - by any stretch of the imagination - a substitute for true safety. This short-sighted survival strategy and all it entails not only lacks focus or direction, it also offers no hope. True leadership, as Netanyahu knows well, requires the delineation of precise goals and of specific steps for their attainment. If, as he proclaims so often, he is indeed deeply committed to the peaceful resolution of the conflict and to the betterment of Israeli society, then it is high time that he begin to take the measures necessary to pursue these objectives. He, more than many of his cohorts, is fully aware of the fact that politics is all about results. History judges leaders by what they produce, not by what they say.