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Bibi Can’t Help Being Bibi

Benjamin Netanyahu said he won’t repeat the same mistakes in his second term as prime minister that torpedoed his first stint. Since winning the big seat again in February, most of the commentary on his chances of success have centered on whether or not he will be able to avoid alienating Israel’s American allies, as his relationship with the Clinton administration was terrible.

Netanyahu deserved some of the blame for the acrimonious relationship with the Clinton administration, but not all of it. Clinton had done everything in his power to try helping Shimon Peres beat Bibi in the 1996 election, and was more than disappointed when his candidate lost. For all of Netanyahu’s inability to bond with the man from Hope, Clinton never gave him much of a chance.

The same thing may be happening with Barack Obama, who has gone out of his way to gin up a phony dispute with Israel over settlement growth. The controversy is a contrivance because Obama and his people know very well that no Israeli concession could manufacture a serious Palestinian peace partner where none exists. Obama’s breaching of previous U.S. commitments for which Israel paid dearly (in terms of acceptance of the road map peace formula and the withdrawal from Gaza) illustrates his bad will.

But those negative vibes with Washington were not the only Netanyahu blunders in the 1990s. Almost as important was the way the prime minister spent his initial three-year stay in office alienating friends and allies. Netanyahu’s reported arrogance and high-handed manner was widely resented in his own party and among his coalition partners. By the time he was ousted in 1999 by Ehud Barak (whose own time as prime minister was such a disaster that, by comparison, Netanyahu didn’t look so bad), it seemed as if he had few friends left in Israeli politics.

Circumstances (the collapse of the Oslo process due to Arafat’s unwillingness to accept a Palestinian state on a silver platter from Barak) and hard work (such as his willingness to serve under Ariel Sharon and do a tough job well at the Finance Ministry) gave him another chance at glory. But, if a report in today’s Jerusalem Post is to be believed, it appears that Bibi just can’t help being Bibi.

Apparently Netanyahu met with his Likud faction in the Knesset yesterday, but refused to discuss the speech he is planning to give on Sunday at Bar Illan University, in which it is believed he will outline a new peace plan. It was understandable that Netanyahu didn’t want to scoop himself by divulging the details of an address that he hopes will help defuse the tensions between him and Obama, so he didn’t tell the MKs what he would say. But in typical Bibi fashion the story says, “Netanyahu belittled them by telling them to leave their advice with cabinet secretary Tzvi Hauser. The prime minister mockingly told Likud MK Miri Regev that she could write the speech for him if she wanted.”

Ironically, some of those present told the Post that even if, as expected, Netanyahu tilted a bit to the left in his speech, he wouldn’t face a rebellion. That’s important, since Obama and Jewish leftists appear to be hoping that such moderation would cause Netanyahu’s government to fall. The Likud Knesset caucus needs to understand that the alternative to the current coalition is one that will be even worse for their party’s principles and that the smart thing for them to do is to stand with Netanyahu and enable him to weather the storm.

But if Netanyahu is going to repeat his previous conduct, and treat his supporters like fools who deserve nothing but scorn, then he will wind up as isolated as he was in 1999. Publicly abusing the people whose votes he needs to stay in office is not smart—no matter what he thinks of those people. It turns out the “new Bibi” may be very much like the old Bibi.



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