Bibi is proving his worth this time

By David Hazony, July 9, 2009
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Mr Netanyahu visits his brother Yoni’s grave last month. He has had to battle a reputation for being slippery

Mr Netanyahu visits his brother Yoni’s grave last month. He has had to battle a reputation for being slippery

During Israel’s intense 2009 election, Binyamin Netanyahu embarked on a campaign to fix his reputation of being fickle and slippery.

His first term as PM had ended in failure, with his party routed in 1999, and Mr Netanyahu himself hurled into the political wilderness. This time he was promising Israelis that he had changed.

“Strong on security, strong on the economy” was his blunt slogan.
This was, we were told, a new Bibi.

One hundred days into his second stint as premier, how is he doing?
The answer may surprise. He is, in fact, doing far better than anyone, including his voters, imagined.

As a politician, Mr Netanyahu has been nothing short of masterful. Although leader of the Knesset’s second-largest party, with the direct support of fewer than a quarter of voters, he put together a stable and broad coalition.

For the hawkish majority, his coalition embraces all but the most extreme of pro-settlement parties, ensuring that he will not easily cave on territorial concessions. For the dovish minority, Labour’s prominent role promises a government dedicated to peace through negotiations.

In the process, he has crushed his opposition. Through his alliance with Labour, he has outflanked Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party on the left, so Ms Livni cannot present herself as a significant alternative. She has been forced to fend off insurrection from within her own party, with at least seven of her 28 MKs pushing to join the coalition.

On the economic front, Israel’s economy is contracting but at a rate far lower than those of major Western economies. While unemployment in the US and Europe is on the rise, in Israel the jobless rate actually fell in May.

Perhaps this is not all to Mr Netanyahu’s credit, but much of the success stems from reforms he introduced as finance minister under Ariel Sharon.

But his greatest success has been as a leader. In his June 14 speech at Bar Ilan, Mr Netanyahu effectively rebutted Barack Obama’s Middle East vision outlined in his Cairo speech. But he also managed to articulate an Israeli consensus, hitherto unspoken, about peace, history and the Jewish state’s approach to the world.

As polls taken after the speech show, the great majority of Israelis support Mr Netanyahu’s vision. Israel is a Jewish state first, built on a history of thousands of years of attachment to the land of Israel; Israel seeks peace with its neighbours, and has no desire to rule over the Palestinians; Israel will go to great lengths for peace, but will not agree to a formula that undermines its security; and Jerusalem will forever remain Israel’s unified capital.

In a single evening, it was as though decades of Israeli infighting had suddenly melted away.

It is far too early to tell how Mr Netanyahu will meet the acute challenges around the corner.

Settlement outposts will come down; will he remove them with the grace of Mr Sharon or the violence of Mr Olmert? As Western economies continue to sink, will he keep Israel afloat?

And what happens when he faces increasing pressure to prevent, by force of arms, the nuclearisation of one the most oppressive, terror-supporting regimes on earth?

Bibi has done sparklingly well so far, but his mettle has yet to be tested.

David Hazony is a Jerusalem-based writer

    Last updated: 3:06pm, July 16 2009