The Way the Wind Blows

We have received a very different Netanyahu than the one who was finance minister in 2003. Back then he had principles.

There are many kinds of leadership. There's visionary leadership. There's leadership by personal example. There's leadership characterized by change and courage. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has developed his own unique style - leadership by the licked finger.

It seems that every morning he opens the window in his office, licks his finger and sticks it outside. That's how he checks which way the wind is blowing. From the moment the direction is clear, he acts accordingly. It doesn't matter what he himself had decided the day before or what the reasons were. Today is a new day and the direction of the wind is always changing.

And in addition to his finger, Netanyahu has a more sophisticated way of gauging the prevailing winds: opinion polls, which he constantly commissions on every possible subject, and based on which he then makes his decisions. That's how his decision to freeze the drought tax came about, despite the fact that he supported it just four months ago when the bill passed the Knesset as part of the Economic Arrangements Bill, which supplements the budget. New polls show the prime minister that the public doesn't like the tax (because who likes taxes?) - but he wants so much for the public to like him, right this very minute.

Netanyahu is not capable of withstanding the pressure and Knesset members know that. Over the past two weeks they initiated a well-orchestrated campaign against the drought tax. Some called for outright defiance of the provision, while others proposed rescinding it. All of them reveled in the broad populist campaign - yet there was not a single Knesset member who would say that the emperor has no clothes.

Of course it is known that the Water Authority didn't impose the tax on a whim. And the forlorn state of the coastal and mountain aquifers is well known, while the level of Lake Kinneret approaches the critical "black line." We are in the midst of a five-year drought without an end in sight. True, there were several rainy days recently, but they in no way alter the general shortfall of water.

Netanyahu knows the drought tax works; it saved 80 million cubic meters of water. But facts make no impression on him. Only populism speaks to him. The same thing happened regarding the proposal to impose value-added tax on fruits and vegetables. Netanyahu correctly decided to broaden VAT provisions to include fruits and vegetables, because there is no difference between a tomato (on which VAT is not paid) and bread and milk and a computer for a child (on which it is paid). But there was an outcry from Knesset members, special interests fomented a rebellion, the public didn't like the tax and Netanyahu commissioned a poll. The prime minister then responded to "the public's murmurings" and canceled the VAT provision.

When swine flu became a major focus of public attention, Netanyahu wouldn't permit the Health Ministry to solve the problem alone. Instead, he contacted the media with the dramatic declaration that he'd personally decided to buy enough vaccinations for the entire population - whatever the expense - because he is the father of us all, who is taking care of us, so we should like him.

We have received a very different Netanyahu than the one who was finance minister in 2003. Back then he had principles. He was ready to confront public opinion and to do battle with his cabinet colleagues. Back then he showed real leadership. Now, however, he has betrayed all of his principles and shown an impressive ability to capitulate. He gave in to Shas and agreed to raise the child allowances that he himself had cut. He formed a bloated cabinet with 30 ministers and nine deputy ministers, because he understood that this was how he could win the hearts of the politicians. (During his first term as prime minister, by contrast, he formed a lean cabinet with 18 ministers.) This time around he also added funding for yeshivas and yeshiva students to the basic state budget, a move that every previous prime minister had opposed. In addition, he has no intention to cut the yeshiva budget by NIS 314 million, despite a cabinet decision to that effect.

Netanyahu caved in to Ehud Barak and increased the defense budget by NIS 1.5 billion, despite knowing that the fat must be trimmed from the budget. He also gave veto power to Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini, which will make it impossible to enact important reforms regarding electricity and water production as well as port administration. This is how he has broken the tablets of the commandments that he himself had written.

Leadership involves the ability to make difficult and unpopular decisions that will lead the people forward over the long term. A leader is not supposed to look for the median point of public sentiment. He should instead pave a new path forward and convince the public to take his route toward a better future. That, however, is the opposite of Netanyahu's licked-finger method.