Bibi Finds That Compassion Is Back in Fashion

Benjamin Netanyahu ended the last election campaign all banged up and bruised.

The Likud Party's collapse stemmed from the split caused by Ariel Sharon's founding of Kadima, and from the voters, who punished Netanyahu because they saw him as an economic leader without any compassion.

His strict economic policies that pulled the Israeli economy out of its crisis left many victims, who took their revenge on him on election day.

Now, all of a sudden, only a year and three months after the elections, Netanyahu is leading most of the polls and is viewed as the candidate with the best chance of being elected prime minister.

In the time since the elections Netanyahu has done nothing to rehabilitate his image. He has simply enjoyed the benefits of the failures of his political rivals: Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz.

That's how it is here in Israel. The best way to make people forget about your failures is to wait for other people's failures.

Peretz and Olmert's failures not only revealed their shortcomings, but also highlighted Netanyahu's successes.

He could brag about leaving his succesors an economy so strong that even their failed war in Lebanon, which has already cost about NIS 10 billion - and will cost us many more billions - did not manage to break the economy.

It's hard to deny Netanyahu's economic successes: the reforms, the budget discipline and the precedent-setting - even if minor - reduction in the size of the public sector.

In many ways, Netanyahu was the right finance minister at the right time. The economic crisis created the conditions needed to make difficult and painful decisions, and Netanyahu was on the scene with a clear agenda, even if it was a cruel one. And he succeeded in pulling the economy out of its crisis.

There is a consensus among economists that Netanyahu made a lot of correct moves, but was too hard on the weak, and that he could have done it differently. Netanyahu will not admit it, but in any case he will repent and try to paint himself as socially-correct.

His new vocabulary includes phrases such as compassion, justice and benevolence; words he never used before.

However, he knows to attribute the economic prosperity to his own policies. According to Netanyahu, every single good economic matter that has happened in the country - high growth, decreasing unemployment, the record-setting stock market - all result from his policies.

But we need to put all of these claims into proportion. The current growth has many causes that are not tied to Netanyahu and his policies, including world economic growth, the reforms and liberalization of the early 1990s including import reforms, financial market reforms and the liberalization of restrictions on the flow of capital to and from Israel.

The opening up of the economy to the world was the greatest accomplishment of the financial policies of the last 15 years because it forced the government and the Bank of Israel to keep up budgetary and monetary discipline.

Netanyahu was the minister who understood this better than anyone else, and acted accordingly, and that was his greatest accomplishment.

But try winning an election with a complex, global slogan like that. His rivals will never let him get away from his image as the enemy of the weak, and that is why he is enlisting compassion and benevolence as part of his campaign.