People who have met with Benjamin Netanyahu since he came back into power have been pleasantly surprised. He shook with his right hand rather than his left, he stood up and walked his guests to the door, and later he even called them just to see how they were doing. This is not the Bibi we used to know, they said - the prime minister appears a lot more relaxed and self-confident than in the past.
Perhaps we just became accustomed to him, or maybe it's his age and experience, but there is no doubt that the Netanyahu of 2009 is not the vilified and troubled prime minister of his previous term in office. He enjoys unprecedented public and international legitimacy. His critics and rivals accept his leadership and do not see him as the leader of only half the nation, as they did during his former round at the top. Even though he ran for office on a right-wing platform and came in second after Tzipi Livni, since he took office Netanyahu has been the prime minister of everyone.
The ranks of the cheerleaders are packed. Dan Meridor and Benny Begin were the first to jump on the election bandwagon, but are now silent, leaving Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer to sing Netanyahu's praises. Throughout his political career, Netanyahu has never had such support. There is no doubt that he is enjoying his new status.
Even the media is giving him a break. The "Sara stories," which shattered his public standing in his previous term in office, are being kept at bay for the moment. Once more there were stories about a Passover incident with a waitress from the Prime Minister's Bureau, and about his bodyguards, who made a lot of noise and left trash, disturbing the neighbors in Caesarea, but the criticism has been kept to the back pages. Where has the venom of the past gone?
In the debate over the budget, Netanyahu gave preference to Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini, who has become his political crutch, over his former allies in the treasury. They attacked him for being a pushover who has conceded his fundamental principles, but no one disputed his primacy in matters of the economy.
Netanyahu's critics, who used to make do with cries of "Bibi, go!" are now trying to bring him over to their side. The left is dying for him to undergo an ideological revolution, like Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, and lead the peace camp - before he has altered even a single comma in his positions. A moderate Bibi? His maintenance of the cease-fire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and the Yesha Council settler leaders' criticism of him for "continuing the freeze on settlement activity" only serve to bolster the still unproven belief that he has become more moderate. His disciples from his time at the Finance Ministry are begging for a return of the old Bibi who cut welfare benefits and hounded the unions, feeling that he has lost his way at the top. They ignore the political reality in which the government depends on Eini.
The situation is similar in the rest of the world. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, one of the biggest rivals of the "old" Netanyahu, heads the list of foreign leaders eager to meet with him, followed by Jordan's King Abdullah. The bizarre boycott that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has imposed on Netanyahu bothers no one. Who remembers how much Netanyahu was pressured in 1996 until he agreed to meet with then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat? If the meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama next week passes without a hitch, Netanyahu will emerge as a winner and become more firmly entrenched as a consensus figure.
Netanyahu benefits from his position on the political spectrum, between Barak and Avigdor Lieberman, and uses his foreign minister as a shield to deflect the world's potshots. But until proven otherwise, this seemingly centrist positioning is an illusion. Netanyahu's views are much closer to those of Lieberman than those of Barak, and the extreme right has decisive weight in the coalition - even if one assumes that Lieberman is a pragmatist who is prepared to compromise, since that still leaves Shas, Habayit Hayehudi and most of the Likud MKs.
There should be no illusions that everything is perfect in Netanyahu's backyard. His bureau is still weak and suffers from a religious and right-wing image. His silence on matters pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict suggests seriousness, but also confusion and concern about a confrontation with Obama. His statement that he will not withdraw from the Golan was superfluous. His indecisive behavior on the budget showed that he is still too sensitive about what is said and written about him. The calm along the borders, which is occasionally disturbed by Qassam rockets and mortar shells, has, for the time being, saved him from having to deal with a security crisis.
Nonetheless, Netanyahu looks like he is in control and enjoying his comeback, while keeping any boorish behavior in check. He is going to Washington with the support of the public and the politicians. The trust he will gain in the future will depend on the results of his meeting with Obama.
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