Thursday, May 31, 2007

Waiting for Bibi

In Samuel Beckett's most famous stage play, "Waiting for Godot," two characters, Estragon and Vladimir, spend two days waiting for a Mr. Godot, who never shows up. Godot only sends a boy messenger, who informs Estragon and Vladimir, "Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won't come this evening but surely tomorrow. "

Much of the Israeli public feels that it is waiting for Godot, in the person of former Likud Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu. The current Prime Minister, Kadima's Ehud Olmert, has a rating in the polls so low that it may be within the statistical margin of error from a zero approval rating. Yet, because Olmert refuses to resign, and because the minority party coalition partners of Kadima relentlessly cling to their small shares of power, Likud and the opposition parties have been unable to muster a majority of Knesset members to pass a no-confidence motion.

In the wings waits Benjamin Netanyahu. As Hillel Halkin writes in The New York Sun, in a column entitled "Welcome Back Netanyahu," whoever wins the ongoing election for leadership of Israel's Labor Party, whether it is former Prime Minister Ehud Barak or the former head of the General Security Service, Ami Ayalon, "is likely to have one main goal: To hang on to his own and Labor's place within the present coalition government while doing everything to avoid new elections, which he could not possibly win and in which he would be badly trounced by the Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu." As for the current ruling party, Kadima, it may not even survive the end of the current Olmert-"led" government.

Halkin notes that Netanyahu's renewed popularity is the result of Bibi having been proven correct on two issues, the economy and the Gaza disengagement. In the case of the economy, Israel has prospered and still prospers from the free-market reforms instituted by Netanyahu during his stint as Finance Minister in the government of Ariel Sharon:

"[T]hey have been, if anything, an even more spectacular success than Mr. Netanyahu predicted they would be. With unemployment sharply down, gross national product sharply up, the budget balanced for the first time in Israel's history, the shekel one of the world's stronger currencies, and Israel's growth rate among the highest in the developed world, it is hard for Israelis to deny that Mr. Netanyahu, whatever his faults, was one of the best finance ministers — perhaps the best — that Israel ever had."

Israel benefited from following Netanyahu's course of action on the economy, but has suffered miserably from not heeding his warnings about the Gaza disengagement, which led Bibi to belatedly resign as Finance Minister and leave the Sharon government. On this point, Halkin writes:

At the time he seemed to many Israelis who agreed with him about other things to be wrong both strategically and tactically: Strategically, because the Gaza disengagement was in itself a good thing, and tactically, because splitting the Likud was a bad thing. And indeed, splitting the Likud was a bad thing. But so, it is necessary to say two years later, was disengagement. Those who were for it, like myself, were wrong. Those who were against it, like Mr. Netanyahu, were right.

And not only was he right, he was right for the right reasons — which is to say, not because he was ideologically opposed to any Israeli retreat from any part of "the land of Israel" (he wasn't and isn't), and not because he thought Israel should remain in Gaza forever (he didn't and doesn't), but because he thought the timing and manner of Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan was misconceived.

What sensible person, two years later, can quarrel with that? The facts speak for themselves. At great economic cost and at the price of a deep inner rift in Israeli society that still has not healed, 8,000 Jewish settlers were uprooted from their homes in return for supposed benefits, none of which has materialized.

Gaza has become more, not less, of a military menace to Israel; Palestinian politics and the Palestinian street have become more, not less, radicalized; Israel's public image as an occupying country has not significantly improved in the world; and further unilateral disengagement in the West Bank as a possible way of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has turned out to be a chimera, in large measure because of the failure of what was supposed to be its Gazan first stage.

[Please note that the Kosher Hedgehog does not concur with the rationale that Halkin attributes to Netanyahu for why the Gaza disengagement was wrong. In my view, as a matter of uncompromisable principle, Jews should have the right to live in peace and security in Gaza and anywhere else in the Land of Israel, just as Arabs can and do live peacefully and with civil rights in the State of Israel.]

Perhaps the prospect of strong, competent leadership in the person of Netanyahu is just another illusion to which the long-suffering Israeli public is grasping. If Kadima, Labor, and their coalition allies have their way, it will be a long time before we find out. And so the Israeli voter waits, with the prospects of renewed war with the Palestinians, Hezbollah, and Syria, and the Iranian nuclear threat, looming in the future. "Mr. Netanyahu told me to tell you he won't come this month, but surely next month."

[HT to Jewish Current Issues, for alerting me to the Halkin column. Rick Richman at Jewish Current Issues has high hopes for a new Netanyahu government, and as evidence provides links to two recent video interviews with Bibi, one on the British academic boycott of Israel, and one on Bibi's campaign for divestiture of investments in Iran.]


Anonymous Rick Richman said...

Interesting take, Ralph. But I'd say it is more accurate to say that Godot is the person currently serving as Prime Minister.

Netanyahu supported Olmert throughout the war, and did not jump on him immediately thereafter. He has devoted himself to representing Israel abroad, making speeches in the U.S. about 1938 and supporting the divestment movement in the states. He has waited almost a year to come out against Olmert directly, in part because he has been accused of being overly ambitious in the past.

But as Israel's situation has become more dire, he has become more direct. He has been neither absent nor silent. Addressing Olmert’s statement that the current government should be tasked with fixing the mistakes found by the Winograd report, Netanyahu said this to Olmert in the Knesset earlier this week (as reported in Israel National News):

“You say you can fix it? How can you fix it when you are the malfunction? Now you will use judgment? Now you have acquired the vast knowledge that you lacked? Now you will demonstrate the necessary care? What have you done in the past year? What have you done to stop the massive flow of arms to Hizbullah and Gaza? What have you done to reinforce [homes] in the Galilee? What have you done to provide Sderot with shelters? This was a wasted year. You did not learn any lessons because you are the lesson that must be learned.”

Prime Minister Godot's response was not reported.

Thursday, May 31, 2007 10:29:00 PM  

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