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Netanyahu: Lack of Leadership

 23 March 2010

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Once more Israel finds itself damaged in its relationship with the United States. After all the discussions, apologies and attempts to bridge gaps with the Americans PM Benyamin Netanyahu is still widely distrusted by the Obama Administration. In Israel most citizens find his credibility lacking especially in light of last week's ill timed housing announcement. According to the Yediot Ahronot newspaper 29% of Israelis believe Netanyahu made an honest mistake while 55% suspect him of dishonesty. But the announcement of the additional 1,600 housing units in the orthodox Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in East Jerusalem during VP Joe Biden's visit to Israel is only a symptom of a much greater problem. Biden was compromised and overall the Americans were humiliated. The VP is considered Israel's best friend in the administration, one which demands a full halt in construction anywhere beyond Israel's 1967 borders, including Jerusalem. It is well known that Israel has never adhered to the American (or anyone else's) call for a building freeze in Jerusalem, but it is obvious that there is no need to trample on American interests publicly. Furthermore everyone knows the Obama administration has a definite interest in proving to the Muslim/Arab world that Israel can be forced to give into American demands. Certainly Netanyahu did not plan such an outcome to the announcement. So what's the deal?

As often happens with right wing governments, the tail wags the dog. In particular this time the Sephardi Haredi party Shas (11 seats) needs to prove its strength inside the coalition. This cannot be done directly in foreign policy, defense or economic planning. A center right party like the Likud (or Kadima or Labor – when they still had a party) generally limit the ultra-orthodox to the secondary tier of ministries such as the interior, housing, religious affairs, infrastructure, communications, etc. where they can attain a certain amount of power but not do too much damage. After all it is the price of coalition building. Shas party leader and Interior Minister Eli Yishai was responsible for the Ramat Shlomo fiasco and for sure he knew it would ruffle American feathers. But at American expense he would play to his constituency, and he did. What he miscalculated was the price to be paid by Israel in loss of diplomatic currency with the US and the concessions Netanyahu will be forced to make to the Palestinians even before the "Proximity Talks". But it is a win-win situation as Netanyahu's (and the Likud's) weakness shifts more power to Shas. The Israeli public once again, according to the above survey believes the PM is being led by his coalition partners (47%) as opposed to leading his government (41%).

Likewise with yesterday's idiotic cabinet decision to build a reinforced bunkered emergency room in Ashkelon's Barzilai Hospital hundreds of meters away from where it was originally planned, all of this because ancient graves were discovered on the original construction site. It appears the graves are not Jewish, but even if they were, according to the Chief Rabbinate and other Halachic experts these remains can be moved elsewhere and properly reburied in order to ensure the saving of souls in this world or "pikuah nefesh". However the deputy health minister Ya'akov Litzmann of the Ashkenazi haredi United Torah Judaism was and is steadfast in demanding the new structure be built elsewhere. In the end Litzmann won out (cabinet vote: 11 – 10) and the additional cost of $135 million and the delay will go for several more years as Ashkelon and the surrounding region (500,000 residents) await a pounding from Hamas rockets originating in Gaza. Netanyahu himself voted for the wasteful package and delay, fearing UTJ (6 seats) would leave the coalition if he did not accept their dictates.

Both of these challenges are symptomatic of Netanyahu's (and the Likud's) lack of leadership. No one truly knows where the party or the PM actually stand, accept perhaps firmly in mid-air. There are two basic rules when attempting to lead a small endangered nation like Israel. You do not bite the patron's hand even if there are legitimate disagreements and certainly this is not to be done publicly. Secondly, you do not waste citizen's taxes nor endanger their lives unnecessarily. In the past few days Netanyahu has managed to do both. Most likely he figures it will all blow over.

It is a matter of one's world view. Netanyahu is very aware of the need for American support, in particular because of the Obama administration's world view downgrading Israel's importance. For Netanyahu and the average non-orthodox Israeli, America as a dependable patron is crucial for Israeli survival, especially in the face of the Iranian threat. On the domestic front, the people must believe their government is making rational decisions and not throwing out over 100 million shekels to enforce a defeated Halachic point, one where absurdity is represented by a specific ultra-orthodox perspective.

With the ultra-orthodox factions it is understood that God will save all, for He is the ultimate patron. Logic, diplomacy, tax revenues and rational perspectives are all secondary – after all the truth is known and revealed to the haredi rabbinical authorities who are said to be devoid of all political interests and power plays.

Netanyahu, should he want to become credible and regain the leadership position within his own government, must make it clear to all his coalition partners, most specifically Shas and UTJ, that they are expendable. Policy making must be based on rationale and no one is to tamper with strategic alliances. Unfortunately as everyone knows, the PM has a reputation of zigzagging in search of political survival.

In his second round as prime minister, many believed he would finally become a leader and a statesman. So far it has all been a great disappointment.