The problem with Benjamin Netanyahu

Posted: December 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: elections, In the News, The Right | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Why the PM’s brilliant political moves this week won’t help him


This was one of the strangest weeks I can remember in Israeli politics. It started with everybody waiting for a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas that could change the diplomatic reality in the entire region – just to forget it immediately as PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s move against Kadima was reveled. Gilad Shalit was back in his cave in a split of a second, and all attention was turned to the seven backbenchers who supposedly agreed to deflect from Kadima to Likud, thus making Netanyahu’s coalition – which is fairly strong as is – significantly more stable.

Even as it turned out that Netanyahu wasn’t able to split Kadima (only one Knesset Member, the unimportant Eli Aflalo – known mostly for his impressive mustache – announced his departure from the opposition party), it seems that he handed his political opponent the blow of her career. Now Tzipi Livni has to chose between abandoning her entire political strategy and accepting Netanyahu’s offer to join his coalition, to trying to keep her party together in the opposition – a task which seems much more daunting by the day, if no entirely impossible.

In the last couple of days, many pundits were praising the PM for his brilliant move. Here is for example Amir Mizroch, news editor at The Jerusalem Post, on his blog:

If he had managed to pull it off, Netanyahu would have stepped up a level as a political operator. This was a Sharon-like move. In fact, this was the move designed to counter Sharon’s establishment of Kadima. Sharon undone. Disengagement from Kadima. If he had managed to pull it off…

But to what end?

When Yitzhak Rabin was split Tzomet party in 1995 he did it to pass the Oslo agreement in the Knesset, once it was clear that the Orthodox Shas would vote against it; and when Ariel Sharon split the Likud he did it to carry out his plan of unilateral withdrawal from the Palestinian territories. Netanayhu, it seems, is trying to break Kadima for little more than getting even at his political opponents. The only reason that would really require Netanyahu to strengthen the left flank of his coalition is some sort of diplomatic progress with the Palestinians or with Syria. With regards to Iran, the Goldstone report, the Hamas and Gilad Shalit, the Knesset and the public are more than likely to support whatever decision the PM would take.

Right now there are no negotiations with the Palestinians or the Syrians, and in any case, all indications are that Netanyahu wouldn’t go one step further than where the White House forces him. He accepted the two state solution because of president Obama’s speech in Cairo, and he agreed to a partial settlement freeze only after tremendous pressure from Washington. As even some of Netanyahu’s supporters recognized, in both cases, his move came too late to hand him real political gains, and the world remained suspicious of the Israeli PM’s agenda.


This is something that characterized Netanyahu’s approach to politics throughout his career: he (almost) never initiates moves. He always reacts. This has nothing to do with ideology, Left or Right. There are leaders on the right who try to shape reality themselves (Ariel Sharon and George W Bush come to mind, and maybe that’s part of the reason they had such good personal relations), as there are some leaders on the Left who tend to react to events. It’s a matter of personality.

There are some positives sides to Netanyahu’s dislike of ambitious plans and groundbreaking decisions. He is much less likely to initiate military operations than his two predecessors. Ariel Sharon was known for his fondness for using the IDF to change the political reality in the region, and Ehud Olmert, while talking endlessly on peace, started two wars. Netanyahu doesn’t receive enough credit from the Left on how careful he is with the use of force: even when he was caught on his first term by surprise by the Palestinian violent response to the jerusalem tunnel affaire, he did all he could – including hugging Yasser Arafat – to end the hostilities. Given the current Iran paranoia, I actually find comfort in the fact that the final word on a military strike would be Netanyahu’s (or Obama’s).

On the other hand, Netanyahu is unable – or simply doesn’t want – to address the reasons for instability and violence in the region. He didn’t follow through with the Oslo accord on his first term, he avoided the Syrians’ offers, and he left the withdrawal from Lebanon to Ehud Barak, who replaced him in 1999.

Ten years have past, and not much is changed. As I’ve written here in the past, even before the 2009 elections, there wasn’t any indication that Netanyahu has some sort of image of a settlement with the Palestinians, and since he formed his government, the PM is even more careful with his words. Sometimes I wonder if he even sees the occupation and the Palestinians fight against it as a problem. In his speech at the Knesset this week, Netanyahu mentioned three issues on his agenda: Iran, the Hamas, and the aftermath of the Goldstone report. Not a word on the West Bank. And beside his lip service to the two state solution, Netanyahu never explained what, in his mind, such settlement would look like, or how are we supposed to get there. He is the first Israeli PM since Yitzhak Shamir without any plan or idea.

Since he reentered the PM office, Netanyahu was doing everything he can to avoid decisions, and not just diplomatic ones. He postponed the implication of the national biometric database; he postponed the expulsion of illegal immigrants’ children (two decisions which made me very happy), and just this week, he decided not to decide on the prisoners exchange deal. As with other cases, Netanyahu will probably end up approving the deal, but with each passing day, he is losing public support for it. By the time he makes up his mind and mounts the courage to follow through, there will be no political gain for him, just damage.


In Benjamin Netanyahu’s unique political career, there is only one moment when he was willing to take the lead on a national issue: it was when, as Finance Minister under Ariel Sharon, he initiates and carried out a new neo-Liberal agenda: Netanyahu took hard measures to limit government’s spending by limiting social programs; he further opened the Israeli market to foreign investments; and he launched some rapid privatizations moves.

While I certainly don’t support Netanyahu’s radical free-market ideology, it is nevertheless interesting to examine the way he carried it out. His great political rival, PM Sharon, was incredibly popular at the time, and many believed that the Ministry of Finance will be Netanyahu’s last senior post, given the fact that it was his political base – the lower Jewish classes – which was hurt the most by his moves.

Netanyahu did suffer a tremendous blow in the following elections, but he was able to prevail. Looking back, it was his term as Finance Minister which brought him the support of the business elite and some of the media, without them he couldn’t have won the last elections. Taking the lead and suffering the political backlash ultimately paid off for him.

But this all had to do with the economy, and Netanyahu was fulfilling his ideology, rather then breaking away with it, as he is supposed to do now. More importantly, it all happened when Netanyahu’s career was at his lowest point, with him having almost nothing to lose. At the height of his political power as Netanyahu is now, I believe it is very unlikely we will see him showing the same leadership skills.

And this is where we get back to this week’s evens – the indecision on Gilad Shalit and the ‘brilliant move’ against Kadima. Netanyahu’s current problems are not with the opposition or with the media, as it was on his first term. His problems are with reality. The current statues quo in the West bank can’t go on. The world won’t accept it, and we can’t maintain it much longer. Something needs to be done, and unfortunately, it’s Netanyahu that has to do it.


Here is what Ami Kaufman had to say about Netanyahu’s move against kadima and our PM’s personality. And for once, I agree with the Jpost editorial (though not with the bottom line).

One Comment on “The problem with Benjamin Netanyahu”

  1. 1 Alice said at 8:54 am on December 26th, 2009:

    Hello Mr/Ms Blog-Owner
    While not usually one who is inclined to join clubs or form associations, I do please wish to be permitted entry into these pages.
    Thank you.
    ps It’s OK and I’ll understand if you decide to reserve your judgement until I update my blog : )