Netanyahu Needs to Channel His Inner Bibi

The Prime Minister's political partners are thriving in his weakness and stripping him bare.

No conclusion is more appropriate for the first year of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's second term in office than the decision to relocate the bomb-proof emergency ward at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon. They're doing it at an exorbitant cost, only to keep United Torah Judaism in the coalition.

But this odd decision is not surprising: Netanyahu's political partners are thriving in his weakness and stripping him bare. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman kicks the international community, Interior Minister Eli Yishai angers U.S. President Barack Obama, and now there's Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and the skeletons in Ashkelon. Each one has his own provocation, and Netanyahu cleans up after everyone, wipes the spit off his face and goes on.

After a year in power it seems Netanyahu has lost his Bibi. The politician who was at his best when he stood up for his views against the big and powerful is now crouched and frightened in the corner. His message is lost, and it's unclear what and whom he represents. Settlement freeze or construction? War against Iran or come to terms with an Iranian bomb? Two states for two peoples or annex the West Bank? Bold economic reforms or pour money to grease the coalition?

The focused and determined Bibi has been taken over by the Netanyahu of this but also that, whose rule is characterized by indecision. You don't need to be rash like Ehud Olmert in the Second Lebanon War, and it's good for a prime minister to consult and carefully weigh things. But Netanyahu, in his second time around, has transformed hesitation into the essence of leadership. In the rare cases when he made a decision he was quick to set up a committee to evaluate claims that there were exceptions or to deal with appeals against the decision. Perhaps this would allow him to please yet one more person.

The crisis in relations with Obama made us forget all this momentarily; here was the Bibi of the past confronting a world leader. But it was a hopeless fight. Obama is much more powerful, and Netanyahu is aware of the heavy odds. When he declared at this week's cabinet meeting that "construction in Jerusalem is like construction in Tel Aviv," he sounded like a child who was slapped by a neighborhood bully on his way home, yelping and promising to get him back.

When there is no agenda or message, you deal with little things and present them as "making decisions for the future of the State of Israel." Last week the government decided to send to the Knesset legislation that would alter the law on planning and construction, put up a fence on the border with Egypt and encourage scientists to return to Israel. Netanyahu went as far to say that "this is a historic day." Come on! Is this how Netanyahu wants history to remember him? As an architect whose life's work was a reform that allowed someone to enclose a balcony?

Netanyahu was elected for one purpose: to foil the Iranian nuclear threat. That's why he opted for a coalition with right-wing parties, who are likely to support a military operation. That's why he stepped up military preparations. That's why he became more vocal about a second Holocaust and Amalek. But the results in the meantime are meager. Iran is racing toward a bomb, the sanctions are barely advancing and the Americans are demanding that Israel not attack. Netanyahu has still not decided whether to obey Obama and sit it out or dispatch the air force to Natanz.

There's no movement on the Palestinian track, either. It may be that this is what Likud's supporters had hoped for, Netanyahu among them. But the prime minister promised progress on that front and went against his heritage and ideology by announcing his support for a Palestinian state; he also has contained settlement expansion. He then did the opposite in an effort to calm the settlers down. He has gained nothing, just moved the ping pong ball between the right and Obama. This same hesitation was also evident during the negotiations to release captured soldier Gilad Shalit.

Netanyahu is not alone responsible for his condition: The Israeli public failed to produce a clear mandate in the elections, Obama is out to get him, and Mahmoud Abbas is a refusenik negotiator. But the prime minister's role is to lead, not blame others. A leader needs a clear message that everyone will understand and identify with, or oppose. Netanyahu doesn't have such a message. It's not enough to for the country to have calm on the security front (which is tense and deteriorating), or economic growth (with real estate and stock bubbles).

Netanyahu is lucky because he can still correct the situation. Like him, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and Barack Obama failed to make any gains during their first year in power. They achieved their breakthrough during the second year. Netanyahu can also, but for this he must stop being passive, emerge from the embarrassing surrender to Lieberman, Yishai and Litzman, and get back to being Bibi.