The ‘Sort of’ Leader

Last week Tzipi Livni proved of one of my pet theories of Middle Eastern politics— the more attractive and familiar a public figure is to foreign elites, the thinner their support back home. One of Newsweek’s 150 most powerful women in the world was just trounced in Kadima’s primaries by Shaul Mofaz, a gray, inarticulate, lifelong soldier (whose media advisors are now working to reshape him into a smiling crusader for social justice). Now it's his turn to try and snag the crucial centrist bloc, one quarter of the Israeli electorate, that wanders from one party to another, looking for a home.

In three years as chair of the opposition, Livni, aside from issuing blistering rhetorical attacks on Netanyahu, accomplished next to nothing. And as for the left more generally, last summer’s protests breathed new life into its socio-economic issues (even if Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich talks like an unreconstructed Scandinavian Social Democrat of the 1960s), but it has yet to recover the credibility it lost in the Second Intifada. Inexorably driven to hard internal and external choices it would rather not have to make, Israel finds itself led, unchallenged, by a man with a gift for weaving around hard choices: Benjamin Netanyahu.

In the third year of his premiership, astride the most stable Israeli government in memory, without a single truly credible challenger on the horizon, stands Israel’s sort-of leader. Given the crazy quilt of Netanyahu’s coalition, his erratic and deeply reactive governing style (careening from one position to the other and back, collecting and shedding staff along the way), much of the commentariat’s general loathing of him and his uneven popularity, this is quite something.

What’s going on?

To be sure, Bibi makes use of familiar levers of power. One major newspaper—Israel Hayom—is utterly paid for by an unabashed fan, who has managed also to cow the country’s leading investigative TV station, and Netanyahu has placed his people in other media organs. He has, in Ehud Barak, a highly capable Defense Minister with nowhere else to go (according to the polls, his party will vanish in the coming elections). He projects genuine commitment to Judaism and Jewish culture. But there’s more to it than that.

The standard measure of governance is peace and prosperity. Netanyahu has delivered, not exactly either, but a livable simulacrum of both. Bibi’s disinclination to negotiate with the Palestinians has been aided and abetted by Abu Mazen’s fecklessness and his flirtation with Hamas. The south of the country is still subject to rocket fire from Gaza, but not at the unbearable rate that preceded Operation Cast Lead, and he has steered clear of military adventurism. Elsewhere, thanks in part to the IDF’s cooperative work with PA security forces, it’s largely quiet (though here, quiet, like in an old horror movie, always seems a little too quiet).

On Iran, Netanyahu has successfully set an international agenda, in no small part because the prospect of a nuclear Iran scares the daylights out of lots of people. The polls on the public’s willingness to go to war for Iran are all over the place, but there is no groundswell of opposition to the Barak-Netanyahu line on Iran, in part because nobody can be sure just where it’s headed and because none of the going options are good.

On the economic front, Israel has weathered the storms of recent years remarkably well. Who could have imagined that Israel, of all countries, has a sound banking system? Bibi justly deserves credit for having convinced Stanley Fischer to make aliyah and head the Bank of Israel. At the same time, last summer’s social protests were very much a reaction to the erosion of solidarity encouraged by the Gilded Age capitalism Bibi has championed for years. After first baldly and cynically attempting to divide the protestors, he managed, by appointing the Trajtenberg Commission, to start addressing some of the protestors’ demands, sort of.

That “sort of” is the key to Netanyahu’s governing style. Writing last weekend in Makor Rishon, Ariel Cahane put it well: “Netanyahu favors a Palestinian state, but doesn’t give a centimeter of the Land of Israel; he fought with Obama over the ‘67 borders but in practice accepts them; he was ready to apologize to Turkey, but changed his mind at the last minute; he presents himself as the great defender of the Supreme Court, but for months allowed MKs to raise proposals to rein it in; he’s convinced that European support for Left NGOs is illegitimate and problematic, but buried the legislative initiatives to repair the situation, and so on.”

Bibi manages almost always to give everyone who matters just enough of what they need to get by until next time. He is an unexpectedly good fit for a country-in-waiting, leery of the truly difficult choices, and likely struggles—on Iran, territories, the place of Haredim in society, the basic character of the country as a Jewish and democratic state—hovering just over the horizon.

Any potential alternative, personal and ideological, to Bibi’s government, will have to offer a credible way through those choices. And for that, “sort of” just won’t do.