Bibiology 101

Netanyahu, Third-Term Incompetent

Is Netanyahu's third-term bungling a cover for secret stratagems—or is he just a remarkably incompetent manager? Gershom Gorenberg on why we shouldn't attribute too much cunning to those in power.

People like to find patterns. We draw lines between random stars and see constellations. We look at chaotic politics and find hidden intentions, strategies and collusions. If Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a finance minister whose record is unstained by any qualifications, he's plotting ahead: Yair Lapid will implement Bibi's pro-rich policies, and in the next elections the public will punish Lapid. If Netanyahu entered peace negotiations while announcing new settlement building, it's really a stratagem to get Barack Obama to bomb Iran. And so forth.

To be fair, politicians do have plans; some even achieve results they want. On occasion, they weave plots. But Netanyahu shows why we should be careful not to attribute too much cunning to those in power. True, Bibi did once approve a complex Mossad plot to assassinate Hamas's Khaled Meshaal by having an agent puff poison into his ear from a fake camera on an Amman street. But approving a poorly planned assassination in an Arab country at peace with Israel wasn't Machiavellian. It was foolhardy.

To understand Netanyahu, start with a lovely Hebrew word, lahitz, which when used for a person means "you can pressure him." That meaning was apparently invented for Netanyahu. (One Hebrew dictionary gives as an example, "the head of the opposition called the prime minister weak and lahitz….") Lapid pressured Netanyahu to make him foreign minister, but Avigdor Lieberman pressed even harder to leave the job open for him in case he's acquitted in his corruption trial. So the prime minister gave Lapid an equally senior post. Obama pressured Netanyahu to join peace talks. The hard right in his coalition exerted enough pressure that he rejected a settlement freeze. Netanyahu is like a man driving a car with poor wheel alignment in a gusty cross wind. When it blows, he drifts one way. When it doesn't, he drifts the other.

In his third term, Netanyahu is still a remarkably incompetent manager. Infighting and turnover continues to plague his staff. National Security Council chair Yaakov Amidror quit in June, reportedly sick of power struggles. The head of the prime minister's bureau, Gil Sheffer, quit soon after. Sheffer denied the usual reports that he'd clashed with Bibi's wife, Sara Netanyahu. Naftali Bennett, who spent 16 months as Netanyahu's chief of staff when he was in the opposition, quipped in January that he and Sara Netanyahu "were in a terrorism course together." Bennett went on to lead a rival right-wing party. So did Avigdor Lieberman, director-general of the Prime Minister's Office during part of Netanyahu's first term. Working closely with Netanyahu does not seem to produce lasting respect. But one ex-staffer who does remain close with the prime minister is Natan Eshel, who quit as chief of staff last year after admitting "inappropriate" behavior toward a female staffer. Netanyahu asked him afterward to handle coalition talks this year.

Of late, Netanyahu and whoever's working for him seem particularly careless. In January, for instance, the Armenian Church chose a new patriarch for Jerusalem—pending approval from the secular power ruling the Old City, as per tradition. To avoid controversy, the church now asks approval from Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel. The first two gave their okay; the Prime Minister's Office never got around to answering, and the patriarch was consecrated anyway in June. Normally no one accepts Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem. When someone did, even partially, it would have been a good idea to answer the mail.

Then there's the Bank of Israel fiasco. Bank Governor Stanley Fisher gave five months’ notice in January. A week before Fisher left, Netanyahu finally nominated Fisher's predecessor, Jacob Frenkel, for a return engagement. After Frenkel's last term, the State Comptroller found that he'd arranged to be paid considerably more than he should have received. If Bibi's staff checked on Frenkel's past, they ignored that affair, and never discovered his shoplifting arrest in the Honk Kong airport—but the media did, scuttling his appointment. Netanyahu's next choice bowed out two days after he was picked. The central bank still has an acting governor, Karnit Flug—whom Fisher recommended as his successor. As a woman, she didn't make Bibi's shortlist. Sexism, let's note, is also a form of incompetence.

Netanyahu does, however, pay careful attention to his perks. When French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius moved up a planned visit because of the Syria crisis, Haaretz reports, Bibi didn't want to interrupt his vacation. The French Foreign Ministry contacted a French-Israeli Likud insider, who convinced Netanyahu to meet Fabius.

Last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas complained that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators aren't meeting enough. The talks with Ehud Olmert's government in 2008 were much more intensive, he said. Naturally you think: Netanyahu is deliberately delaying. But perhaps he just can't fit Tzipi Livni, Israel's chief negotiator, into his calendar to discuss strategy. It's August. Netanyahu will have time after the holidays. After Sukkot, or Passover. Perhaps this isn't a cunning strategy, but the failure to form one.