Netanyahu's maid may prove more influential than Obama
The scandal surrounding Netanyahu's former help gives him a chance to reboot his second term in office.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a significant brouhaha over the housekeeper his wife employed. First, there's the image issue: The suit filed by Lillian Peretz and the furious response from the Prime Minister's Bureau have destroyed the "New Bibi" brand that Netanyahu built up so carefully on the road to his political comeback. The media's preoccupation with Sara Netanyahu's behavior, and her husband's countercharges about media persecution, marked the epitome of the "Old Bibi" - from his last term as premier.
And indeed, the negative stereotypes are returning: mistreatment of employees, attempted cover-ups, stinginess, hurting the poor. Regardless of whether such allegations are accurate or exaggerated, they tend to stick, even if the courts later throw out the lawsuits.
It doesn't matter whether Peretz called her employer "Mrs. Netanyahu" or "darling" or whatever else. Nor does it matter whether the story was played up by Yedioth Ahronoth as a result of its battle with rival daily Israel Hayom. The problem is the content. This is not a story about the Iranian threat, a complex diplomatic formula or the 90 articles in the intended reform of the Planning and Building Law. This is about the relationship between the master of the house and his housekeeper. And it's a situation that is familiar to and easily understood by everyone.
The preoccupation with Peretz signifies the end of the calm Netanyahu has enjoyed since returning to power. Nine months went by pleasantly without him having to make a single fateful decision that would have an effect on reality or lead the state in a new direction, but also naturally entail political conflict. Cabinet meetings have been confined to lengthy announcements about reforms and legislative amendments, but when and if they will ever be passed remains unclear. The public is also apathetic to the prime minister's vision of Israel becoming an economic superpower and developing an alternative to oil.
Netanyahu's adoption of the "two states for two peoples" slogan was an act of political genius that precisely met the public's expectations, positioned him in the political center and neutralized opposition leader Tzipi Livni. But since then, nothing has happened. The freeze on settlement construction changed nothing for most Israelis, while the foot-dragging in securing the release of Gilad Shalit has simply continued.
Netanyahu is simply waiting. Waiting for Barack Obama, waiting for Mahmoud Abbas, waiting for "the fateful decision on Iran." The overdose of anticipation is blurring his message to the point where it's unclear why he worked so hard to return to power.
American author Daniel Pink proposes summarizing every leader in a single sentence. Were we to reproduce this model in Israel, we could describe David Ben-Gurion as "the father of his country." Menachem Begin would be the man of contradictions: He returned the Sinai to Egypt for peace, yet also built 100 settlements in the West Bank, bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor and invaded Lebanon. Yitzhak Rabin would be "the warrior for peace who was murdered in office." Ehud Olmert became embroiled in a failed war, drafted a peace proposal that was rejected and had to resign due to allegations of corruption. That is not exactly how he wanted to be remembered. Ehud Barak began as "the warrior hero, the genius who would save the country," then became "the sucker who offered everything to Yasser Arafat and got the intifada in exchange," and is now "the essential expert heading the Defense Ministry, with problematic personal behavior."
And Netanyahu? He has also developed over time - from the "public relations star of American television" to "leader of the struggle against the Oslo Accords" to "the divisive prime minister who fought the elites and lost." As finance minister, he was seen as a determined reformer who fought the strong unions and banks, but also destroyed the welfare state and hurt the poor.
But what does Benjamin Netanyahu represent in 2010? The polls say he is admired as a "strong leader," and he markets himself as a Jewish patriot trying to advance peace while preserving national assets. But with his lack of action, he could be summed up in this way: "A hesitant politician trying to please everyone in order to survive."
In the absence of any initiative or significant action, Netanyahu's agenda has been devoted to trivialities. Israel's foreign relations have shrunk to an idiotic rebuke of the Turkish ambassador, while management of the country has shrunk to the management of Bibi and Sara's household. This is precisely what happened to Ariel Sharon, who was drowning in scandals and investigations - that is, until he announced the disengagement from Gaza and once again took command. Netanyahu is becoming mired in similar distress: The headlines about his state visit to Germany dealt with his housekeeper.
Only a display of leadership, of seizing initiative, can extricate the prime minister from this corner. If he continues sitting on the fence, the minor incidents will accumulate and the big decisions will slip away. The "housekeeper scandal" gives him an opportunity to reboot his second chance in office. Peretz may yet wind up being more effective than Obama in finally getting Netanyahu to move.