Israeli prime ministers, like all leaders, come in various types. There are those who talk a lot and do a lot (Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres); those who seem to act more than they talk (Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin), and those who say little and don’t do much, either (Yitzhak Shamir).
And then there is Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Netanyahu is so wellrehearsed at the talking part of his job that it seems to distract him from the actual doing. Last week, when he announced his decision to dismantle his own government, he made another fine speech in which he ably defended another bad result.
On Monday, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, confirmed that in three months voters will either grant (according to current polls) or deny Mr. Netanyahu (as opposition leaders vow to do) a fourth term as prime minister. Mr. Netanyahu is already the second-longest serving prime minister, trailing only Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion.
When Mr. Netanyahu explained why Israel needs new elections, the opposition rushed to claim that he was “whining.” In fact, he made a number of valid points about the misbehavior of his coalition partners, who have made life difficult for him as a leader. But his early election speech was heavy on blame-sharing and short on soul-searching.
Mr. Netanyahu had trouble counting his government’s achievements — there weren’t many — so he spoke about those of his previous term in government. After six consecutive years at the helm, he has little visible success to be talked about. Even many of his supporters would admit that Israel today does not feel in better shape than it was when Mr. Netanyahu ascended to power.
Being a smooth communicator, Mr. Netanyahu does a wonderful job of making the argument that this lack of improvement is not his fault. Indeed, he has a strong case.
He can’t be blamed for the world economic crisis. In fact, Israel did reasonably well in handling the downturn under his leadership. He is not to blame for Hamas’s behavior or its rule in Gaza. He did his utmost to resist Iran’s rush to a nuclear bomb, and cannot be blamed for President Obama’s lack of resolve on that front. He didn’t ignite the Arab Spring, nor could he have influenced trends that have made the Middle East even more chaotic than it used to be.
And although he wasn’t the most enthusiastic negotiator with the Palestinian leadership, claiming that the collapse of the talks with the Palestinians is mainly his fault would be a stretch. Mr. Netanyahu is rarely responsible for the kookier legislative initiatives emanating from his coalition, such as the bill unilaterally annexing the Jordan Valley to Israel, or the one proposing to allow settlers to return to the homes that they were forced to evacuate as part of Israel’s “disengagement” operation of 2005. In many cases, he was the one blocking or moderating them.
Ask what Israel’s next election is all about and here is your answer: It is about the voters having to decide whether Netanyahu’s rousing defense of his policies and leadership trumps his not-so-spectacular accomplishments.
Mr. Netanyahu was elected under certain circumstances. It is not absurd to argue that he had to focus his energies on prevention and containment of negative developments, and that he did reasonably well under tough conditions.
And yet doubt lingers. If a leader cannot bring about positive change, can he at least find a way to improve the atmosphere? If he cannot alter greater outside forces, can he still find a way to positively impact internal trends?
Even Israelis like me, who tend to accept Mr. Netanyahu’s caution and skepticism on peace talks, and his unapologetic insistence on proud nationalism, should wonder about missed opportunities. Chief among these was the missed opportunity of the now-defunct coalition to reshape Israeli society and make it less polarized and more civil.
It wasn’t long ago that this coalition of sour feelings and mudslinging had promise. It brought together Israelis from right and left, secular and religious backgrounds, experienced politicians and new faces. Instead of a rigid coalition of the same old politicians, and the same old formulation of right and ultra-Orthodox parties, Israel got, for a brief moment, a Knesset that felt fresh. A third of the members were new legislators — eager, energized, idealistic and well-intentioned (and, yes, they were sometimes naïve, too).
They spoke about a “new politics” and, as childish as it sounded, they meant it. They planned to give Israelis with opposing views the chance to advance a common good where they could agree or compromise. It looked like a sunny, centrist, mainstream coalition. It presented the prime minister with an opportunity to be “perhaps even a better Bibi, now that he has new partners,” as I wrote in these pages shortly after the last election.
Surely, Mr. Netanyahu could again pull out of his bag of rationalizations a fine defense of his decision to dismantle this coalition. After all, he can’t be held responsible for having to work with a group of novices, saboteurs, incompetents and juveniles. After all, the voters put those people in office.
But Israelis haven’t seen the prime minister try very hard to keep the coalition together. The coalition was “forced on me” — he complained last week — and it showed. He never warmed to it. He never grasped its potential. Mr. Netanyahu chose not to be the “better Bibi.” He chose to stay the same.
The same is not terrible. The same is not undeserving. But it’s also not very exciting. And for voters, it’s never exciting to have to decide if the same is still our best option.