What Happened to Bibi's Greatness?
When Binyamin Netanyahu endorsed the two-state idea, Middle Israelis were heartened. Greatness may be emerging, they hoped.
Alas, that optimism, such as it was, lasted but a few days. With Ramallah dubbing Netanyahu's epiphany a hoax while Gaza imposes Islamist dress codes, and with Riyadh refusing to allow us even aerial passage and Cairo muttering that "even Egypt" will never recognize Israel as the state of the Jews - all, except Barack Obama, realize that peace is not around the corner.
Yes, peace might still break out after all during the Obama-Netanyahu shift, who knows; and if it does, Middle Israelis will happily tip their hats, even eat them, and concede that greatness had finally met its bearers, and we our place in the sun. Yet as The Economist put it the other day, the Arab revolution "will not be complete until the last failed dictatorship is voted out." It follows, that if Bibi is to display greatness in his second premiership it will not be in foreign affairs, but in the domestic arena. However, what Bibi has so far shown on that front has been pretty much the antithesis of greatness.
The suggestion in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night - that some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them - is incomplete. For our own leader, who has been busy of late sliding to the kind of political smallness that he will live to regret, and we to lament, is right now proving that some can achieve greatness, and squander it, too.
BIBI'S DEFIANCE of greatness emerged even before he assumed the premiership. What began with extravagant concessions to the unions and then morphed to farcical acrobatics on taxation policy, last week mutated to the Knesset's defeat of Bibi's much-heralded land reform, and this week culminated in a cowardly attempt to further twist our already crooked political system.
The fiscal orgy was bad enough. Leaving a famously bloated defense budget intact, allowing a 6% budget deficit and abandoning promises to immediately and sharply cut income taxes, were not mere local or momentary compromises with a pivotal ally; for the man who had earned fame challenging unionism and enshrining budgetary discipline, these constituted ideological surrender.
Similarly, the cancellation of the VAT on fruits and vegetables marked not the promised tax-cut's delivery, but its betrayal, as the rest of the VAT was actually raised, along with sales taxes on gasoline and cigarettes; and that's besides all this arriving along with a humiliation to Treasurer Yuval Steinitz, Netanyahu's closest loyalist.
All this paled compared with the land reform saga.
Here, too, as in the original tax vision, the idea was economically sound. The government's universal ownership of land here, which means we lease rather than purchase our real estate, results in bureaucratic logjams that squeeze supply of property and therefore inflate prices.
And on this matter Netanyahu was fortunately resolute. The problem was he took his partners for granted only to learn, the hard way, that he had business with a rainbow coalition of socialists, populists, nationalists and environmentalists who include some of his most loyal allies, from Modern Orthodoxy to Deputy Premier Moshe Ya'alon. Evidently, Netanyahu was unaware that Orthodoxy takes at face value the Bible's prohibition on selling in perpetuity even one grain of the Promised Land. And so the land-reform bill, the prime minister's personal baby, was defeated in its first-reading vote.
IT TAKES no great psychoanalyst to imagine Bibi finally loosening his tie and opening his collar well after midnight, considering another frustrating day's dose of disobedience, unruliness and non-delivery, and asking himself: Why don't they do as I say? What has changed since '03, when all my reforms, painful as they were, became law, decree and reality so quickly that before long we had social activists under the Treasury's windows in Jerusalem vocally decrying my insensitivity while Wall Street's brokers, Tel Aviv's captains of industry and Davos's economists celebrated my vision, resolve and greatness?
The answer is simple: Back when he was Treasurer, Ariel Sharon was prime minister, and he had made sure to assemble a coalition that would support his policies. That's why he had Shinui, the NRP and Lieberman on board, and that's why he left Shas and UTJ in the Opposition, he explained to us at the time. Bibi created a coalition of opposites who can agree on pretty much nothing other than increased spending.
Bibi's coalition, in contrast, failed from the onset to follow his lead, and before long began to lead him - by the nose. That is how Netanyahu ended up backing two scandalous "governance" laws, one that makes it easier to split a Knesset faction, and another that allows one minister from every coalition faction to resign from the Knesset while serving in the cabinet, and then return to the Knesset if his faction bolts the coalition. One law would, in Bibi's hopes, help split Kadima, while the other would treat the personal needs of one Nissan Slomianski, a hack from the marginal Jewish Home faction.
THAT THESE laws are scandalous is not only what the Opposition and the media insist, but also Likud's most universally respected and impartial figures: Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and Ministers Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Mickey Eitan. They say, and rightly, that any treatment of the rules of the political games should come regardless of momentary circumstances.
Yet even more sadly, these initiatives represent the loss of belief in, if not sheer disdain for, real political reform, whereby the legislature would break loose from the parties' stranglehold, lawmakers would be held accountable to constituencies, and cabinets would be disciplined and durable, so governments can rule and prime ministers can lead.
Had he displayed greatness, Bibi would have avoided this government's original sin and founded his coalition not on Labor but on Kadima. Yes, it would have meant swallowing his pride and extending a hand to Tzipi Livni, a woman who is intellectually inferior to him, and possesses but a fraction of his broad horizons and analytical capacity, but also a woman who won 28 Knesset seats and has no deep disagreements with him on anything.
That way Bibi could have progressed on foreign affairs, and he could have kept his economic promises, and he could have introduced real, rather than escapist, political reforms.
He still can.