At about 3:15 P.M. yesterday, the government's 100th day in office, political correspondents' beepers went off. In an unprecedented move, the Prime Minister's Bureau was inviting the correspondents to a press conference at the Knesset that was slated to begin in 15 minutes. This was the start of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's panicked, disproportionate response to the criticism senior Kadima politicians had leveled at him three hours earlier.
Kadima MKs had attacked Netanyahu at a press conference under the banner "100 days, zero gains. It's the same old Bibi." Later, Kadima supporters handed out stickers with anti-Netanyahu slogans in the Knesset cafeteria.
Netanyahu, who - unusually - was in the cafeteria on Wednesday, got one of the stickers from his political adviser, Shalom Shlomo, and summoned ministers Yisrael Katz, Gideon Sa'ar and Gilad Erdan to a meeting. "I want to call a press conference," Netanyahu said. His colleagues tried to dissuade him, but he insisted.
However, instead of appearing at the press conference himself, he stayed in his office and sent his advisers.
An atmosphere of permanent crisis has surrounded Netanyahu's bureau ever since he took office, so it was no surprise that the press conference also had an air of panic. The five advisers - National Security Adviser Uzi Arad, cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser, director general of the Prime Minister's Office Eyal Gabai, political adviser Ron Dermer and Nir Hefetz, who heads the public relations desk - arrived at the meeting without a prearranged, uniform message. Over and over, they cut each other off.
Hauser tried to convince the press that Netanyahu's zigzagging on the issue of value-added tax was a deliberate ploy coordinated with the other coalition parties. Arad once again lambasted U.S. President Barack Obama's refusal to honor understandings reached with his predecessor, George W. Bush, on the issue of the settlements, but argued that coordination with Washington on Iran had actually improved. Dermer emphasized Netanyahu's speech at Bar-Ilan University, which he said won international plaudits. And Hefetz denied that there was any panic in Netanyahu's bureau, attributing the friction there to "work-related pressure."
But despite the unified front they tried to present, it is clear that all of Netanyahu's aides dislike each other: They are constantly badmouthing each other and blaming each other for leaks. Arad, for example, demanded that Hauser undergo a lie-detector test and is now demanding the same of Hefetz. And the latter two say "it is impossible to work with" Arad.
Compounding the problem is an inexperienced bureau chief, Natan Eshel, and a former spokesman, Yossi Levy, who is still clinging to his office and refusing to give it up to his replacement, Hefetz - who, for his part, is kept out of half the discussions.
Netanyahu appears to be suffering from confusion and paranoia. He is convinced that the media are after him, that his aides are leaking information against him and that the American administration wants him out of office. Two months after his visit to Washington, he is still finding it difficult to communication normally with the White House. To appreciate the depth of his paranoia, it is enough to hear how he refers to Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, Obama's senior aides: as "self-hating Jews."
"He thought that his speech at Bar-Ilan would become mandatory reading at schools in the United States, and when he realized that Obama gave no such order, he went back to being frustrated," one of his associates said.
At a recent meeting with with Netanyahu, ostensibly about the understandings with the U.S. on the settlements, former prime minister Ehud Olmert was shocked to see the prime minister focusing mainly on the media. "Is this what he called me in for?" a source close to Olmert quoted him as saying.
Behind closed doors, Netanyahu's coalition partners - including Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman - have also expressed shock at his behavior. One senior minister told an aide that he is finding it very difficult to work with the premier. "He drives us mad," the minister said. "Every minute things change, and I am constantly busy doing maintenance on Netanyahu."