Netanyahu Enters Dangerous Stage of His Career

The prime minister, who also serves as foreign, economy and communications minister, is spreading himself too thin while steamrolling over his party colleagues. The strategy is not working.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears in a video message on his Facebook page.
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It feels like ages ago but it was just last week, as titanic forces clashed over Israel Railways doing infrastructure works on Shabbat, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid down an important rule of management: Ministers are appointed to resolve crises, not to create them.

That sounds like a good rule.

The direct target of his comment was Yisrael Katz, the transportation minister, but Netanyahu was targeting all his ministers. And what he really meant to convey is that he has little patience for awkwardly independent ministers and/or politicians and/or army officers and/or regulators.

Did Netanyahu’s new chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, who just joined the Prime Minister’s Office after years of running the car rental company Avis, get the message too? His appointment is also one meant to resolve crises, though in this case, he played a major role, perhaps a leading one, in creating one. Either way, Netanyahu’s remark about crisis management has given us an opportunity to discuss his management style.

It is hard to argue that Israel is easy to manage – it’s rather surprising that the state is still standing and functioning. It’s no great trick to highlight managerial failures, which are everywhere one looks, though obviously, not every crisis can be blamed on the prime minister.

But this term in power is different from Netanyahu’s other terms, from the perspective of management. If he devoted his first two terms as prime minister to a single strategic issue, Iran, this one seems to be the era of micro-management and concentration. In his previous terms he settled for being premier; now he’s prime minister, foreign minister, economy minister and communications minister too.

Can’t kick Tehran around any more

Netanyahu had been excoriated for obsessing over Iran. He dwelled not only on the big issues but on the minutiae and was up to his neck in building public opinion. At least one has to give him credit for being focused on the mission, and also, it’s the kind of case where one can’t manage the big picture without knowing the piffling little details.

This time around, Netanyahu has no Iran. Tehran still keeps Israeli intelligence on its toes, but it’s pretty much off the agenda following that agreement reached with the Americans. Apparently, Iran’s disappearance freed up a lot of space on Netanyahu’s agenda. How do we know that? Because suddenly the prime minister is getting involved in a lot of things he didn’t touch before, and while about it, is getting sucked into morasses with surprising ease.

Take the phone call Netanyahu made to the father of Elor Azaria, the soldier on trial for shooting a subdued Palestinian terrorist in the head, killing him. Netanyahu managed to escalate what had been an issue for military discipline into a national issue that has jolted the entire army and already cost one defense minister his job. Netanyahu intervened in the decision to convert Shevah Mofet from a school for immigrant children, to a school for the children of migrant workers, which has just exacerbated the ferment in south Tel Aviv. He suddenly ordered Israel Railways to cease infrastructure work five minutes before Shabbat came in, though he didn’t have the authority to do so. He stopped the moves to form a public broadcast company to replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

Should a prime minister be involved in such minutiae? Or are these actually core issues, when it comes to shoring up his power?

One could argue that the case of Elor Azaria is part of the broader issue of the occupation; that the Shevah Mofet school is a facet of the bigger “foreign workers versus immigrants” issue and that Israel Railways working on Shabbat touches the nerve of secular-Haredi relations. One could argue that forming the new broadcast company is a key matter in the telecoms market. So, all could be presented as strategic issues that are highly relevant to the public discourse in Israel, and to preserving Netanyahu’s status and seat.

The way the prime minister manages these issues seems to rely on electoral politics, not on some orderly, practical modus operandi. His conduct begs suspicion about his motives when handling these problems. Not only that: His intervention can turn small local problems into big national ones – to the extent that it isn’t clear whether he actually wants his ministers to resolve crises, or if he wants to create crises himself and puff them up to dimensions that only he, from his lofty position, can overcome.

Molehill alert

If that’s the strategy, it isn’t working. The problem of the shooter soldier will be solved by the military court. The issues of Shevah Mofet will be solved by the education minister and mayor of Tel Aviv. The crisis of the railway works on Shabbat will be solved by the High Court of Justice, and the attempt to delay in creating a public broadcast corporation has been quashed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.

At this stage, it is perfectly clear that Netanyahu gains no political advantage, or admiration, from these crises. He may eliminate or weaken a rival or two, including Yair Lapid who’s busy trotting the globe and hardly ever comes to the Knesset – yet keeps rising in the polls.

Netanyahu’s problem isn’t Lapid, it’s his own conduct. When he gets sucked into issues that his ministers could easily resolve, when he fans the fires – he loses points. He creates the impression that everything is political and personal, not substantive. Then when he does want to be substantive and to really solve a problem, he isn’t believed and his motives are suspected. When he growls that he won’t let anybody carry out a putsch against him, all he achieves is to make us suspect that he sees every molehill as a threat to his rule.

That is a very poor way to manage things. The gap between Netanyahu’s analytical abilities and the manner in which he approaches problems is too wide, and trips him up time and again. Like Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert before him, Netanyahu is relying on talent/brains/charisma/power to overcome all. Thus he did with his comment, on the last voting day, about Arabs flocking to the voting booths; he must have known what a bad remark that was, but losing power would have been even worse. He probably also told himself that if he had to apologize for it later, so be it.

Olmert had much the same attitude toward the police investigations into him: He took the risk of succumbing to his own greed because he figured he could always outsmart his investigators. It did work, until it didn’t work anymore. Barak really thought he could get the Palestinians to sign a peace treaty because he’s that brilliant and analytical. Today Barak is a businessman and talking head.

Netanyahu is at a dangerous stage of his political career. He is steamrolling over his party colleagues more than ever before; he is concentrating power in his own hands more than ever before; he’s spread himself thin more than before, over too many issues. The more he pushes himself brutally into issues that his ministers could handle, the more he loses adulation. He has too much faith in his abilities, and on them alone. Look at his explanation for not giving one of his party colleagues the communications portfolio: “There are Knesset members who just want to find favor in the press’s eyes. That’s why I’m communications minister. I am the only one who can handle the pressure.”