Bibi's Looking for Love

Contrary to all the predictions, it was not Shas chairman Eli Yishai who swayed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and caused his about-face on charging VAT for produce.

Contrary to all the predictions, it was not Shas chairman Eli Yishai who swayed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and caused his about-face on charging VAT for produce. Shas allegedly was willing to compromise with the prime minister - applying VAT gradually, over several years - and Netanyahu knew this. Even though he had a political majority for a compromise, he chose to back down altogether - not for fear of the politicians, but for fear of the people.

It was not Yishai who changed the prime minister's mind, but rather the fruit and vegetable sellers - because Netanyahu saw their protest as indicative of the nation's mood. And going against the nation, it seems, is something Netanyahu cannot do.

Netanyahu remembers two terrible traumas from his past terms as prime minister and finance minister. One is of the nation being split, and him considered an extreme right-winger, hated by the center-left and academia, during his first term as prime minister. He learned it was important that the government represent unity. This is why he insisted on bringing Labor into his current government, and why he presented his economic plan as part of a package deal with employers and the Histadrut labor federation.

The second trauma was being labeled an enemy of the poor, which happened when he was finance minister. Although Netanyahu was a more successful finance minister than anticipated, and managed to implement all his economic plans, he discovered there is life after legislation, for both a former finance minister and for welfare recipients.

In that life, his success as finance minister turned against him and he became the symbol of socioeconomic oppression. Netanyahu believes he is still paying for that.

Thus Netanyahu now refrains from taking steps that could be portrayed as "anti-poor," at almost any cost. This is the source of his flip-flop over the produce VAT - Netanyahu was afraid it would be perceived as a move against the weaker sectors, so he backed down.

His need for the people's love is now so great that he is prepared to risk public ridicule for rescinding the planned tax - even though he had the political clout to push it through.

Bibi, then, is looking for love - the people's love. He is looking for that love at almost any price - including harm to his public image and being called a "pressurable prime minister." This is very problematic in terms of his government's ability to rule. In the Knesset and the cabinet, in Bethlehem and Washington, people can smell weakness and exploit it.

If Netanyahu does not strengthen his image soon, and regain his deterrence, both domestically (against MKs and ministers) and externally (the Palestinians and the Americans), his government could meet a quick demise.

Netanyahu will therefore have to reassume his determined image soon. His next test will probably be the Israel Lands Administration reform. Unlike VAT on fruits and vegetables, which was presented as a necessary evil due to a shortfall in state revenues, the ILA reforms are an important part of Netanyahu's economic worldview.

This is reform he truly believes in, and does not put him in confrontation with "the people's love." Netanyahu could "fight to the death" over this reform, even at the cost of his government's downfall. If he fails this test, he might discover that although he is a loved prime minister, he lacks a government to lead.