The First 100 Days of Netanyahu's Fourth Term: Behind Very Thick Smoke, No Fire

Analysis | In a few years, many will find it difficult to believe that Netanyahu, a man with no motivation for change, remained in power for so long.

Reuters

In many respects, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current government, his fourth, which has now been in office for 100 days, is similar to the third Netanyahu government. True, in this government the ultra-Orthodox parties are in and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party is out. True, instead of Tzipi Livni as justice minister we have Ayelet Shaked. (Netanyahu started getting on Livni’s case only after he fired her, but he has barely spoken about Shaked since she was appointed). Nonetheless, from the standpoint of the Israeli public, both governments, like identical twins, have provided the same bad service, along with a murky horizon for the future and a lack of leadership.

These two most recent Netanyahu governments have been characterized by two-headed conduct of sorts. On one hand, with Moshe Kahlon the current government has a finance minister from a new frenetic party, Kulanu, which is pushing an agenda for change. On the other hand, it has a conservative prime minister who has halted everything in its tracks. In both governments, the faulty approach to cooperation and lack of trust between the two main figures in the cabinet have been there for all to see.

In saying that the two governments are similar, there’s a caveat. This time around, Netanyahu isn’t even maintaining the appearance of transparency or of an attempt at sound management practices. The prior government had still been influenced by the social justice protests of the summer of 2011, and that cabinet included some gatekeepers – but that is gone in the current government. Netanyahu is acting like a dictator, disregarding everyone and forcing decisions on his coalition partners.

It sometimes seems that only rulings by the High Court of Justice stand between his concealed interests and those of the public, and his associates even plan on soon weakening the court’s authority. The fourth Netanyahu government has wrapped up 100 days, from Netanyahu’s perspective of intoxication of the senses (and not from the wine that they buy at the prime minister’s residence) and 100 days of outrageous backtracking, nearly undemocratic conduct and a flight to nowhere from the perspective of the public.

This is a government with several ministers who clearly have good intentions, but like its predecessor, there is no teamwork, no mutual appreciation and no strategy. It’s a government, established after the longest coalition negotiations ever, that has been addressing burning issues by happenstance and sporadic action while neglecting everything else. It’s a government working through arm-twisting, where everything is political, personal and crooked.

Undocumented meetings

Netanyahu certainly has security-related and diplomatic issues on his mind – the agreement with Iran, terrorism that is returning in dribs and drabs, the situation in Syria, etc. But that doesn’t absolve him of the responsibility that he is neglecting to address the cost of living, the education system and public health and dealing with other huge problems: The public sector is large and inefficient, there are failures of market forces in nearly every sector and major socioeconomic disparities. But when it comes to these issues, Netanyahu barely even exists.

In truth, Netanyahu is not corrupt as was his predecessor Ehud Olmert, who is waiting to go to jail, but it’s almost impossible to understand the faulty way in which he has chosen to run the country. Beyond the procrastination, petty politics (for example, dispatching Danny Danon as United Nations ambassador not because of his talents but so he doesn’t get in the way politically), infighting over claiming credit for accomplishments and the practice of not allowing anyone to grow in the job and make a success, there is also the suspicion that Netanyahu has several unseen outside interests. But everything with him is concealed – nothing is as it appears.

People generally think that the handful of business tycoons with whom Netanyahu has ties have no interests in Israel, but one can no longer be so sure. He has met with Delek Group controlling shareholder Yitzhak Tshuva regarding natural gas, with the former controlling shareholder of the IDB group Nochi Dankner on concentration of economic control of the economy, and with businessman Udi Angel regarding Channel 2 television. All the meetings were held either at his private home or at the homes of wealthy associates, but without staff present and without any minutes being taken.

When interior designer Moshe Galamin was invited to the prime minister’s residence, it was just to demonstrate on camera that the Netanyahus were not living opulently, that the rugs at the residence were threadbare – but not to reveal the who’s who of who else had come through the door. We don’t know who is pressuring Netanyahu and which emissary of the Ofer family he met with when he recently decided that the most pressing matter he was facing was scuttling implementation of the Sheshinski 2 committee report on government royalties for the exploitation of natural resources.

At the end of his last term, Netanyahu was the moving force behind the elimination of the (not such major) changes being led by his ministers – fundamental reform of private medical care and medical tourism from abroad, attention to socioeconomic disparities and corruption at the Jewish National Fund.

And now in his new term of office he is moving in the same direction, not only scuttling what’s left of Sheshinski 2, but also in his handling of funding for the ultra-Orthodox sector. And his handling of coalition funding nearly bordered on bribery. Instead of fixing what needed to be repaired at the Israel Broadcasting Authority, he chose to make everything murky again and deepen the lack of trust of the agency’s staff.

No interviews

When it comes to the communications sector, he took the job of communications minister for himself and immediately sacked the ministry’s director general – through a phone call. And while in the run-up to the March 17 election this year he was willing to appear on the most remote local radio show, since then he has not been granting interviews to the Israeli media, hasn’t held news conferences and has made all his statements over the heads of journalists, most of whom he views as traitorous. He can’t be asked, for example, why he isn’t letting Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan appoint a new police commissioner. He acts as if it’s none of his business, despite that fact that under Netanyahu’s leadership the Israel Police has experienced the greatest crisis in its history.

One could have thought that after the hard-hitting and racist election campaign that he led, Netanyahu would have switched course, overcome immediate pressures and embrace political rivals and minorities. But he hasn’t. And in an effort to highlight that nothing has changed, the prime minister gave backing to racist comments by Deputy Interior Minister Yaron Mazuz and by Amir Benayoun, perhaps the country’s most racist singer.

Netanyahu knows that the last four to eight of his Likud party’s 30 seats were won precisely due to his confrontational conduct, so he is having trouble changing it. His disregard for anything smacking of good practices and transparency can also be found in the little things, for example how he has pushed for the appointment of his aide from recent years, Perach Lerner, as director general of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, despite knowing the conflicts of interest involved. He also never uttered a word over reports of the allegedly sordid recent past of Oren Hazan, a member of his own Likud Knesset faction, who instead of resigning became a media star.

But of course the two major events that Netanyahu mishandled during the first 100 days were the issues of government policy on offshore natural gas regulation and defense spending. When it comes to natural gas, he tried to rush through major changes that will affect the future of the country, without public debate or the procedures that any democratic country should require, instead bypassing all the rules of good governance.

Via Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, he conducted negotiations with the energy companies developing Israel’s major offshore gas reserves without hearing out any expert who might think differently from himself. He caused the antitrust commissioner, David Gilo, to resign and dismissed the chairperson of the Electricity Authority for simply expressing positions that were different from his as they attempted to do their jobs. On the issue of military spending, Netanyahu convened a panel and appointed his former military secretary, Yohanan Locker, to head it – but as soon as the panel’s report was released, the prime minister decided to bury it, without explanation and without any public debate. Anyone who disagrees with Netanyahu is immediately labeled either a populist or a left-winger.

And what about the new finance minister, Moshe Kahlon? The leader of the new Kulanu party committed a misstep in singling out the two issues that he wanted to tackle in this term – the cost of housing and reforming the financial sector. They are both fitting and important subjects, but there is no escaping the fact that the two major issues currently on the public agenda are natural gas policy and the defense budget. Kahlon has been mum on the issues and in the process lost a large measure of his prestige and political clout.

In another few years, when a retired Netanyahu is enjoying himself by the swimming pool at his Caesarea home, there will be many who will have a hard time believing that such an idle prime minister, with such negligible drive for change, a prime minister of such low stature, had managed to rule the roost here for such a long time.