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.]