Security at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem has been tightened up, with visitors being asked to remove their shoes, as if they were entering a mosque or an American airport. The stricter examinations suit the zeitgeist: Benjamin Netanyahu holed up inside his office, on the defensive against the outside world, as his hold on the government steadily slackens. It must be how Hosni Mubarak felt during the two weeks between the start of the demonstrations in Cairo and his resignation. The symbols of government remain in place - the expansive palace, the limousine motorcade, the battalions of bodyguards and the telephone calls from world leaders - but the power of influence is gone.
Netanyahu, unlike Mubarak, does not face hundreds of thousands of demonstrators demanding his departure, but his situation is, nevertheless, beginning to resemble that of his deposed friend. Instead of leading, he allows decisions to be imposed on him. The appointments of Benny Gantz and Ron Prosor, as chief of staff and UN ambassador, respectively, as well as the rollback of the gasoline excise tax, were carried out despite his initial opposition. He was dragged into them.
The political atmosphere is oppressive. The disintegration of the Labor Party did not "contribute to governability and stability," as Netanyahu promised; it impeded them. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman continues to bully him publicly, making him look like a doormat who cannot even deliver an ambassadorial posting for a close adviser. Likud MKs, led by Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, warned Netanyahu that the rising prices of basic goods and utilities would cost their party the next election. Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni's popularity is climbing, and Lieberman is consolidating his position as the leader of the right, while Likud is ruptured from within by disagreements over the oppression of left-wing organizations and the Arab community. In today's Israel, it is difficult to live up to the Likud campaign slogan, "both nationalist and liberal." You have to choose one.
World leaders are turning their backs on the prime minister. German Chancellor Angela Merkel came to Israel in order to scold Netanyahu over the stasis in the peace process. No invitations from his counterparts abroad are forthcoming. Netanyahu managed to drive his great rival, U.S. President Barack Obama, out of the region by refusing to extend the construction moratorium in the settlements. Obama folded, backing down from his own peace initiative, only to return in force as the great prophet of change and democracy. His early zigzagging over the Egyptian crisis has been forgotten: His heart was always on the popular, victorious side, with the protesters. A similar thing happened with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who sent President George H.W. Bush packing when he rejected an international peace summit only to face him later, riding high after the 1991 Gulf War and the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Egyptian revolution provided Netanyahu with a Churchillian moment. It's the reason he was elected. The voters trusted in his ability to make the right decision, in contrast to Livni the tyro. And he failed. His expectation that Mubarak would defeat the demonstrators went unmet. His support for the Egyptian president demonstrated that he looks after his friends - all well and good, but in politics there are no rewards for fans of the losing team. Mubarak went, leaving Netanyahu with his fears of a "second Iran" in Egypt and with calls to expand Israel's military budget, to build "Fortress Negev" and to create alternatives to the Suez Canal. Even if his predictions turn out to have been correct, they are not shared by the public; the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange did not fall and the depreciation of the shekel was minuscule. The "world" views Netanyahu as a fossil of an era that is disappearing before our very eyes.
Before the election Netanya promised that he could rule the country. The state is in pretty good shape: There are no wars or terror attacks and the economy is growing nicely. But the public feels that things are working out on their own, that there is no chief executive up above who can take the reins and make decisions. In Netanyahu's eyes, that's his tragedy: Even when everything seems fine, he doesn't get the credit and no one praises him.
Alone in his discordant office, without a clear message or direction, Netanyahu is hoping for a miracle to save him from Lieberman's political liquidation campaign against him. The head of Yisrael Beiteinu put Netanyahu into power and is now threatening to remove him from it. A criminal indictment against Lieberman won't help: Aryeh Deri controlled a political machine and led Shas to election victory even after he was prosecuted. There's no reason for Lieberman to do any differently, if Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein decides to prosecute. Netanyahu will need a much bigger miracle in order to be seen as politically relevant and to regain his influence. For now he is marking time with meaningless decisions, such as appointing the "governance committee" to renovate the regime. There could be no clearer sign of the prime minister's political wane.
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