Before he went into government service, Benjamin Netanyahu was a furniture marketing executive. His first public-sector job was as an Israeli diplomat posted in the United States, for which he spent much of his time promoting Israel's image. His approach to politics was shaped by his experience as a salesman: You can sell people the product that you want to sell as long as the packaging is what the customer wants to buy. And when sales slip, boost advertising.
Judging from the Israeli prime minister's sudden burst of marketing in recent days, Netanyahu believes his political product is deeply in trouble, both at home and overseas. He has launched a drive to rebrand himself as a successful -- if underappreciated -- moderate. To that, he has added a negative campaign against the Palestinian Authority leadership. The effort testifies that Netanyahu sees a recent drop in his polling figures as an omen, not a momentary dip, and that he is scared about deteriorating relations with Western governments. It also underlines his attitude toward the Palestinian government in Ramallah -- as a competitor for Western sympathy, not as a strategic partner for making peace.
Netanyahu's distress began showing at last week's Cabinet meeting, where he chastised his ministers for not talking enough about the government's achievements. "There are governments that talk and don't act. This one acts and doesn't talk," one Hebrew press report quoted him as saying. The ministers, unfortunately, didn't know what achievements he had in mind and asked for talking points. Netanyahu then asked Information Minister Yuli Edelstein to put together a list, according to leaks from unnamed Cabinet members. The same Cabinet scuttlebutt described Netanyahu as "frustrated" and "irritable and grumpy."
Not by coincidence, that meeting came a couple of days after the country's largest-circulation paper, Yediot Aharonot, published a poll on how Israelis would vote if elections were held today. The poll showed Netanyahu's Likud losing four of its current 27 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and the chief opposition party, Tzipi Livni's Kadimah, growing to 30 seats. Netanyahu's right-wing coalition, which now has a majority of 66 in Parliament, would drop to 58 -- not enough to put Netanyahu back in power.
The next step in salesmanship came at a meeting of the Likud's parliamentary caucus. In what looked like a staged confrontation, a backbencher asked about construction in settlements, echoing claims from settler leaders that the prime minister isn't allowing new building projects for Israelis in the West Bank. Netanyahu answered that in the current international climate, the most he could do was to continue with projects already underway. For proof, he cited the Security Council resolution that would have condemned settlements, and which failed only because of a U.S. veto. "The U.S. veto ... was achieved with great effort," he said. "We could ignore everything and say 'no problem'" about new building, but "as prime minister with responsibility for this country," he refused to do that.
The prime minister did not mention his phone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in which he complained about the German vote in favor of the resolution -- and in which she angrily told him, "You are the one who disappointed us. You haven't made a single step to advance peace." Merkel is a conservative, and Germany usually avoids criticizing Israel. Netanyahu had succeeded in overcoming those historical inhibitions. It was a German official who leaked the conversation to an Israeli paper.
Netanyahu did not have to repeat this embarrassing story to his party's members of Parliament, because everyone in the caucus room knew it. His purpose in the confrontation was to get a different message into the media: See, I am standing up against the hard-liners in my party and preventing new construction. I am not a disappointment. That message was somewhat undercut a few days later by a press release on construction activity from the government's Central Bureau of Statistics: It said that West Bank settlements reported over 400 legally approved housing starts in the last quarter of 2010, after the end of the government's short-lived, partial freeze on settlement-building. According to the Peace Now movement's Settlement Watch project, which uses aerial photos to track building, the number of housing starts from last October to this February was actually over 1,700.
In the meantime, Netanyahu has escalated his marketing campaign with two elements. In the past few days, unidentified officials close to Netanyahu have been telling the media that the prime minister is about to announce a new peace plan, possibly in a speech to the U.S. Congress. The as-yet-theoretical accord would sidestep the tough issues on the negotiating table by allowing the Palestinians to declare a state with temporary borders. Final borders and other irritating details would be negotiated later.
Netanyahu didn't need the quick response from Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas' office to know that the Palestinians wouldn't like the plan. "Temporary borders" translates as settlements staying in place and growing, making a final-status agreement later even more difficult to achieve. The point of these leaks is to market Netanyahu as the man with ideas for peace, and Abbas as the rejectionist. To underline that message, the Government Press Office e-mailed a Foreign Ministry memo to journalists on Israel's "concessions to the Palestinian Authority" and the PA's "political offensive" against Israel. The memo's list of concessions consists of steps taken to allow more economic development in the West Bank while it remains under Israeli control. The Palestinians' offenses are diplomatic actions taken toward achieving independence. Strip away the bright packaging, and it's the same product Netanyahu has been trying to sell since the last election campaign: Improved living standards for Palestinians in return for permanent Israeli rule.
Let's go back to Netanyahu's résumé for a moment: After Netanyahu got his MBA in America, he returned to Israel in the late 1970s and became a marketing manager for Rim, a company that produced low-cost furniture for the emerging middle class. In 1982, he leapt into a diplomatic career as the No. 2 at the Israeli Embassy in Washington and then as ambassador to the United Nations, appearing regularly on U.S. talk shows to sell Israeli policy in his polished English. As a politician, he has been the classic example of the skilled campaigner who cannot govern. In 1996, he successfully hawked the product called "Benjamin Netanyahu" to the Israeli public and won an upset victory over Shimon Peres to become prime minister.
When the public opened the box, there was nothing inside. Netanyahu's government collapsed within three years. By getting re-elected in 2006, he proved that customers can forget their disappointment.
Now Netanyahu knows he's in trouble, and he's trying again to market himself and his policies. It's a shame that the shiny package is still empty.