Benjamin Netanyahu has in effect concluded his term as prime minister. It's all downhill until the next elections, without any achievements and without an agenda, passing the time buying political calm and deflecting diplomatic pressure. Instead of initiating and leading, Netanyahu will engage in fruitless holding actions until he falls from power.
The bewilderment and paralysis were apparent in Netanyahu's interview Monday with Channel 10 on the patio of his official residence in Jerusalem. He violated the first rule of political life: When you don't have anything to say, it's better to keep quiet. The prime minister came to the interview without any new message, without a way forward, and he wasted his airtime trying to dispel the contention that he's the dishrag of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his own wife, Sara.
When the prime minister gives an interview just like that in the middle of the week, it's a clear sign he's fairing poorly and no one is willing to stand up for him on the air. The announcement of the resignation of his communications adviser, Nir Hefetz, two hours after the embarrassing interview, only reinforced the impression that Netanyahu is isolated and there is no one to speak for him publicly.
Over the past two weeks, in the run-up to the vote on the last budget of his current government, Netanyahu has been kicked around by his coalition partners. As is his habit, he tried to satisfy them all. He gave Yisrael Beiteinu's Lieberman the army conversion law. Shas' Eli Yishai got stipends for yeshiva students and Labor's Ehud Barak got more money for the defense budget.
Each defeat reinforced the impression that Netanyahu was being led by the nose. Twice he was forced to announce that diplomatic statements by Lieberman and Defense Minister Barak "do not represent the government's position," after Barak divided Jerusalem and Lieberman said any final peace agreement would lead immediately to a breakup of the coalition.
Netanyahu has only himself to blame for his sorry state. The breaking point where his collapse began came last summer when he rejected Kadima leader Tzipi Livni's offer to join the government instead of Lieberman. Netanyahu preferred Livni as the head of a groggy opposition over the threat of Lieberman, who might be able to steal the right-wing electorate from the prime minister's Likud party.
If he had marshaled the courage to reconfigure his coalition and engage in an intensive peace process with the Palestinians, international pressure on Israel would have ebbed and the prime minister would have been portrayed as a leader and trailblazer. But Netanyahu took refuge behind his "natural partners," Lieberman and Yishai, and behind his Republican friends in the U.S. Congress, rejecting President Barack Obama's initiative for expedited negotiations on the future border between Israel and the Palestinian state. Netanyahu defeated Obama but suffered a double loss himself. He was not only left without an agenda, he also projected weakness and encouraged Lieberman to abuse him publicly.
Netanyahu attributed his failure during his first term as prime minister to his reticence to form a national unity government. It's a shame he hasn't learned the lesson and has repeated the same mistake in his current term. The ridiculous contention that the political alliance with Barak is a kind of national unity government has not convinced a soul. The shattered Labor Party is not a counterweight to the coalition parties on the right. Netanyahu pretended for a moment to represent the political center when he embraced the concept of two states for two peoples and froze construction in the West Bank settlements. But at the moment of truth, he remained in his natural home with the extreme right.
In a moment of candor in his interview on Monday, Netanyahu complained that he was being judged over the diplomatic stalemate and that his economic achievements were being ignored. "The Palestinians," he said, "are not ready to move forward to peace, so the whole country is 'stuck.'" If that's so, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has succeeded in his plot to do nothing until international pressure undermines Netanyahu. What can be done? Israeli prime ministers are evaluated based on their success in settling the conflict with the Arabs rather than their devotion to the status quo.
From now on, the agenda is changing. Instead of cultivating false hopes for a peace agreement, the international effort should be geared toward heading off a war. Netanyahu is cautious in using military force, but election years have always been prone to military escalation. Obama will have to redouble his supervision of the prime minister to head off an Operation Cast Lead II or Israeli action in Iran.
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