Netanyahu Returns

Since my wife began writing screenplays, I get a lesson in the mechanics of a film each time we watch one together. First lesson: Pay rapt attention to the opening moments. Character is being revealed; the entire plot is being laid out, though we may not yet understand how. Take the monologue at the start of Michael Clayton, where in a manic voiceover, a lawyer insists he's not insane but rather, that his firm's work has left him covered in excrement from which he cannot cleanse himself. Yes, we will learn, this madman is the sole compass of sanity in a world where the law is utterly befouled. It's all there, the whole story.

I suggest watching the opening scenes of Benjamin Netanyahu's return to power -- call it Bibi II -- in the same way. It's not just that the Netanyahu Cabinet, which met for the first time this Sunday, is the largest in Israel's history or that key positions are held by politicians manifestly unqualified to deal with the crises that Israel faces. What's revealing is how Netanyahu constructed his coalition, in more of a panic than a process.

We've learned that the Netanyahu character remains the same as it was during his previous three-year episode in power, in the late 1990s: He is, in principle, a hardliner. That said, the principle he holds most strongly is that he should be prime minister. And the public advocate of unbending diplomatic stances is, in fact, a weak negotiator who hands out contradictory concessions to whomever he meets. Barack Obama, take note: Netanyahu speaks loudly and carries a small stick.

To build a coalition, Netanyahu cut deals with five parties besides his own Likud Party. Left out was the centrist Kadima, led by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, which actually won more seats in the Knesset than the Likud did in February's election. Livni's most public conditions for joining the government were that Netanyahu commit himself to a two-state solution and that he continue the negotiations with the Palestinians begun at the 2007 Annapolis conference. Reportedly, she also demanded a rotation agreement, under which she would serve as premier for part of the four-and-a-half-year term. (The precedent was the 1984-1988 agreement between the Likud's Yitzhak Shamir and Labor's Shimon Peres, after an electoral stalemate between the two parties.) Netanyahu was neither willing to share power with Livni in the Israeli government nor to divide the land now under Israeli rule into two states.

But to pull together the other parties he needed for a coalition, he was profligate in dispensing ministerial appointments and promising political pork. To bring in the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Netanyahu agreed to restore a system of state subsidies for large families that he himself had cut as finance minister in 2003-2005. The new coalition deal also boosts the funding of ultra-Orthodox schools, which stress religious studies to the exclusion of skills needed for the workplace. Besides all that, Shas received control of the Housing Ministry, allowing it to channel state resources to build apartments for large ultra-Orthodox families. Many of those homes will be in burgeoning West Bank settlements. Together, the package is a windfall for a community that encourages men to spend years of their adult life in religious study rather than working, at tremendous expense to the country as a whole.

Avigdor Lieberman found Netanyahu just as generous. Not only did the far-rightist Lieberman get the job of foreign minister, he demanded and received control of key judicial and law-enforcement posts. With Lieberman himself under police investigation for corruption, the conflict of interest is blatant.

To bring in Labor, Netanyahu gave more than half the party's 13 Knesset members jobs as ministers or deputy ministers. That helped Labor leader Ehud Barak sell the deal to his own party and keep his job as defense minister. Nonetheless, a rebel contingent of Labor Knesset members abstained rather than vote confidence in the new government. Suggestions that Barak will moderate the Netanyahu government are wishful thinking. As defense chief under Ehud Olmert, Barak resolutely refrained from evacuating settlement outposts in the West Bank and showed minimal interest in peace efforts.

Having given away so much, Netanyahu was short on Cabinet positions for his own Likud, supposedly the ruling party. So he split several ministries in two, appointed ministers without portfolios, and ended up with a 30-member Cabinet. The new education minister, Gideon Saar, has no education experience. The new finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, is innocent of any background in economics. He does, however, come equipped with obsolete conservative clich├ęs. Steinitz has already criticized the United States and Britain for deficit spending in response to the world economic crisis. He and Netanyahu are reportedly planning budget cuts -- but no change in the tax reductions for the wealthy that Netanyahu enacted during his own tenure as finance minister.

At the ceremony last week when Lieberman took over from Livni as foreign minister, he declared that Israel was not obligated to continue the Annapolis talks. That was a direct, public challenge to Washington -- but fit the position that Netanyahu took more privately in coalition talks. Obama responded from Ankara on Monday, declaring that "the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side" is one to which Israel agreed at Annapolis. A press release from Netanyahu's office followed in no time, lauding Obama's "commitment to Israel's security and to the pursuit of peace" and promising cooperation.

Read that as a strong promise from Netanyahu to try to finesse the differences, to satisfy both the Obama administration and his coalition partners. Netanyahu is hoping to visit Washington next month and to meet the president. Expect him to announce minor concessions to the Palestinians and to use words at his joint press conference with Obama that will sound like a commitment to a two-state solution until you examine the text carefully. Expect him to come home, face fire from Lieberman and from within his own party, and to backtrack. Expect the Labor dissidents to threaten to split the party and Bibi to tell them that he meant what he said in Washington. When Obama visits Israel and the West Bank in June, Netanyahu will zig and zag again.

At least two factors will hold the Netanyahu government together long enough to make this film a feature, not a short: Knesset members, especially members of the ruling coalition, do not want to abandon power to face new elections. Livni needs time to let public frustration boil, to show her ability to blast Netanyahu, and to strengthen her control of her own party. There's also the danger that Netanyahu will try to buy popularity with military action -- close to home, or close to Teheran. It would be wise for Obama to make his opposition to that path utterly unambiguous.

The precise arc of the plot is still before us. But we've seen the opening segment. We know the main character. His face is wider than it was in Bibi I, and his hair is now a shade of silver. He is, however, the same Netanyahu: proud, weak, and the vehicle of his own undoing.

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