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Sunday, February 11, 2007

"Not now... I'm on the phone with...

... Prime Minister Netanyahu."

... Former Prime Minister Netanyahu."

... Minister Netanyahu."

... Benjamin Netanyahu."

... Bibi!"

The above serious of whispered mis-steps were all attempted before I could make myself understood to a coworker who had poked her head into my office on Thursday evening.

Clearly I haven't lived in Israel long enough, because I was truly torn over how best to refer to (and address) a former Prime Minister. Whether simply describing the person on the other end of the phone or actually addressing the man, any native born Israeli would have simply started with "I'm on the phone with Bibi".

But having been raised in a culture where former heads of state retain their title up to and including the day they are lying in state on the cold hard catafalque in the Capitol Rotunda, I was stumped.

OK, I'm rambling so perhaps I should back up a bit.

On Thursday evening I was invited by the nice folks at One Jerusalem to participate in a conference call with Former Pri... er, well, you know who it was... never mind that.  I had planned on being home in time to call in to the conference center... but I was at work so late that I simply clocked out and went back to my office to call in.  It was while I was on the call that my coworker poked in her head.

Anyway... while One Jerusalem tends to have extremely compelling/interesting guests on these conference calls, I only accept their invitations when I am deeply interested in the topic... the person... or both. This is because I know there are always many more participants than allocated time for questions... so why not let those with a keen interest have their say?

The last call I joined was with Natan Shcharansky... who, in my humble opinion, is the only person in Israeli politics today with the stature and personal integrity to be elected President.   Unfortunately nobody raised the issue of his potential candidacy on the call [~kicks self~].

Thursday's call was of special interest to me because I have been flip-flopping for years in my feelings about 'Bibi'.

On the one hand I think he is arguably Israel's premier spokesperson to the world. Nobody else seems to be able to state Israel's case to the international media as clearly and unapologetically as he does without sounding either arrogant or belligerent.

It's not just that he speaks English like the American educated career diplomat that he is... but also that he seems to be entirely comfortable with his (and Israel's) position when taking questions and making public remarks.

Other Israeli politicians who have made the rounds of the talk shows seem to be either overly defensive in their posture or aloof to what is being whispered about Israel in the news and diplomatic circles.  Thus, they are easily surprised/tricked into taking too a strong stand where a simple statement would do.

However, it seems a shame to waste such a bright guy in the 'perennial Foreign Minister' slot.

Also, I freely admit to being troubled by Bibi's real and alleged personal foibles. While I don't think he is quite as dirty as most of Israel's current crop of political A-Listers, he certainly has his hands dirty most of the way to the elbows.

Call me naive if you wish... as it may simply be impossible to advance within Israel's political structure without wading into the mud... but my perception is that Bibi hasn't wallowed into the filth quite as deeply as some of the current crop of defendants indicted political leaders.

So, the character issues aside, here are some of the things I liked and disliked about the man before the conference call:

LIKE:

Bibi is tough on Security.  And don't give me any crap about how he 'sold out' on security while he was PM (as one of the people on the conference call did).  He inherited a fatally flawed document in the form of the Oslo Accords.   Those who are now keening over the possibility that the PA unity government may not honor previous diplomatic obligations with Israel need to remember that continuity of legal/diplomatic obligations' is a knife that cuts both ways. 

Bibi is one of the few Israeli politicians who has not waffled on the need for the Palestinians to show some shred of good faith (e.g. unequivocally recognizing Israel, renouncing terror, dismantling the militias, stopping attacks, etc.) before Israel gives away anything else.  This is the important difference between the simple ability to negotiate from a position of strength and the tendency to bend over and clutch one's ankles each and every time a negotiating table comes into view.

I also find Bibi to be reasonably pragmatic.  Few ideologies can survive form outside the rarefied air of party headquarters without some form of compromise.  Where necessary, I like that Bibi has a clear sense of how far he can reasonably 'put out' without becoming the class slut. 

As a religious settler I can honestly say that if someone has to make difficult concessions about the future of the territories, I would rather it be someone who has thought about the ramifications rather than some self-interested hack who is simply courting the liberal electorate.

Another thing I like about Bibi may ring sour to western ears... but I think that until Israel has the luxury of a few decades of peace (or at least relative quiet) under its belt, the head of our government must have some serious military, defense and/or intelligence experience and credibility.  I'm not talking about an African, Asian or South American-style military strong man... just someone who knows a bit more than that it's the pointy end of the M16 that should be aimed at the enemy.  Bibi having served in the Sayeret Matkal (one of the most elite of Israel's commando units) is  - IMHO - a point in his favor.

DONT LIKE:

As I've already mentioned, Bibi isn't exactly squeaky clean on the whole character issue.  I don't know how many qualified candidates for the top slot really are ... but still, it would be nice to have a leader who might have the luxury of spending some of his time actually leading the country instead of doing damage control over the scandal du jour.

Another liability which isn't widely acknowledged is that while his economic policies as Finance Minister were extremely effective (and are largely responsible for our current economic stability), he was aptly seen as not having been sensitive enough to the needs of Israel's under-classes.

I admit it, I'm a fiscal lefty and proud of it.   I'm not entirely comfortable with Israel's socialist roots but I feel strongly that it is a government's duty to maintain a safety net for certain groups such as single parents, large poor families, the disabled and the unemployed. 

The difficult part is creating economic policy that is just enough to protect the most vulnerable elements of society while defending against those who might find life in the safety net more attractive then the prospect of climbing back up onto the trapeze.

So... back to the conference call.

The lion's share of the discussion was, predictably, dominated by the Iran issue... a hot-button topic that Bibi is currently flogging discussing with groups and leaders abroad.

On the one hand, I was pleased to hear Bibi compare the world's current complacency with Iran to the policy of appeasement Germany enjoyed in the years before WWII.  I was also interested to hear him suggest some interesting measures that might be employed against Iran such as economic isolation/sanctions. 

However, I was disappointed that nobody thought to test his WWII analogy and suggestion of economic isolation with the obvious complication that it was partly the policy of economic isolation that contributed to, if not Germany's, then at least Japan's decision to lash out.

But barring that, I liked that Bibi wasn't simply tossing around empty rhetoric about how the world should fear a nuclear Iran.  He was at least exploring theories of how best to prevent that specter from becoming a reality.

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge a couple of other bloggers:

Oceanguy, who (thanks to my self-introduction on the call) now knows how to pronounce my name... and  Soccer Dad who emailed me immediately after the call ended to compliment me on the direction my question led Bibi's train of thought.

You can hear the whole (albeit brief) conference call here.

220_82

Posted by David Bogner on February 11, 2007 | Permalink

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» Two conference calls from Soccer Dad
Last week and this week I was invited by the good people of One Jerusalem to join blogging conference calls. Last week's call was with Dr. Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the UN and author of the new book The Fight for Jerusalem. Among the othe... [Read More]

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Treppenwitz describes a blogger conference call with former Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu and provides an audio link so you can listen. I like Netanyahu's politics and view. He is extremely convincing about the dangers posed by a nuclear Iran, and [Read More]

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Comments

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Allow me to butt in with a few remarks:

1. The Foreign Mimister post could be exactly the spot where Bibi could reach his peak (if appointed). I am afraid that the move up for him was proved not feasible (Peter principle). Some of the cons you have already listed.

2. The problem is not only that Bibi got the Oslo paper to cope with, but that he frequently has done exactly the opposite of that announced by his own self. Usually after a visit in the White House, where he was told what to do. Unlike Arik, he gave up on his principles too easily.

3. Re his career in finance ministry: we tend to forget that it so happened that the US (and most of the world) economy became bullyish soon after Bibi's appointement. I shall never tire of quoting (imprecisely) Thomas Mann: "The agriculture minister that serves during rainy years is a good agriculture minister".

4. Agreeing with your remark on social issues (not that I liked that "underclasses" term) - I would like to strengthen it. There was a Israeli minister (for the life of me I cannot remember the name) who said that Israeli is not an economic business. He really meant that treated like a profit a loss center, Israel will lose half of its citizens quite soon. Ain't it the truth?

Generally on Bibi - our common self-consolation is that his rivals are worse. Ehehe...

Posted by: SnoopyTheGoon | Feb 11, 2007 3:16:03 PM

STG...

1. Some of the cons You attribute to Bibi are clearly not the same as those I mentioned. Please give specifics.

2. As to Bibi having proved the 'Peter Principle', that is exactly the opposite of my contention. I think Oslo was an albatross around his neck that would have doomed any PM who won that particular election. Oh, and are you seriously suggesting that Arik stood by his principles??? The disengagement from Gaza might suggest otherwise.

3. Yeah, and Joe Dimaggio just happened to always be in just the right place so he wouldn't have to run for fly balls. The guy deserves credit for much of Israel's current prosperity and anyone who says otherwise is (IMHO) just selling sour grapes.

4. I agree that a compassionate government can't make economic policy while looking exclusively at a P & L ledger. But it can't ignore the books either.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Feb 11, 2007 3:32:16 PM

I worked in Malcha, in the same building where Bibi's post PM office was. He still had on the door "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu". At the time, I remember hearing that he was trying to institute the American practice of continuing to call an ex-leader by his title.

I've been recently reading a biography of Ariel Sharon. One thing I've learned from there is that there's a significant difference between the PM and any other minister. It's hard to describe exactly, but the PM sets the mood for the country. Bibi was an excellent foreign minister and finance minister. I imagine he'd do a great job at probably any other ministerial post. But as PM he just didn't put out the right feeling - always on the defensive, always dealing with another scandal (not necessarily corruption, but some "issue".)

However, I don't see anyone else on the horizon who could do a better job now. And he seems to be doing a good job of getting the right people to support him - Bogey, Yossi Peled, etc.

Posted by: Dave (Balashon) | Feb 11, 2007 4:57:39 PM

David, what you seem to have left out of your review is BibI's previous record as PM. Yes, he talked very big before he got elected, but it was under his watch that Israel went through a particularly bad slew of terror attacks, and he seemed to have achieved little in fighting them. By contrast, Sharon's achievements in fighting the second intifada were arguably greater.

I think his best contribution was in being an effective Finance minister. I don't see him coming out with any substantive policies just now (or at the time of the last election) that would suggest he could make a better job of it than the present incumbents.

Despite your contempt for the current Kadmia government (widely shared across Israel), I don't think you've demonstrated that he offers a better way forward. All politicians are venal opportunists (sorry, pragmatists); there was good reason that so many of Kadima were people who had walked out of Likud and Labour. The tragedy was perhaps that they were over dependent on Sharon's combination of political and military astuteness.

Whatever was wrong with the way the Gaza disengagement and its aftermath were handled, it did yield more political capital for Israel in terms of leverage with the international community.

And the Lebanon war could perhaps have yielded decisive results for Israel if it had been better run (as you've suggested yourself).

Bibi does not seem to me to have had much to say about how his military background would have led him to make different decisions from those of Peretz, Olmert and Livni. It's not so much the Sayeret Maktal spirit that was absent as mastery of logistics, and the basics of strategy when fighting deeply entrenched terrorist groups armed with small scale and larger missiles supplied by a country with the financial and political clout of Iran.

Speaking as an outside observer, I think Bibi's current role in building up an international front against Iran looks too much like solo grandstanding--and, incidentally, getting him off the hook of demonstrating what he would do better than the present government.

By focusing so much on the threat of Iran's nuclear bomb, he also seems to me to divert from what he used to do so well, which is to bring home the importance of stopping the cash flow for the current terror infrastructure.

It's so revealing that on his website, there are no entries in English for this year, and as far as I can see, even those in Hebrew are focused on yesterday's issues.

Posted by: Judy | Feb 11, 2007 5:47:29 PM

Interesting. A voice to go with the words.

Posted by: Jack | Feb 11, 2007 6:23:04 PM

After following the Israeli politics closely for the last few years, I have to admit I'm suspicious and have my reservations just about anyone in the current political arena. Having said that, I have to say that Bibi is one of those people I would prefer seeing over everyone else. Given the limitations of choice, unfortunately. I do agree with Snoopy on one of the things, in that he did *appear* to give up on his principles too easily - but he definitely did a more convincing job than the last few PMs.

Posted by: Irina | Feb 11, 2007 10:52:21 PM

I was impressed with the way, on the call, that he handled the "all talk, no action" accusation from one questioner.

For really the first time, at least for me, he made it perfectly clear how that albatross was put around his neck and how he was forced to deal with it. Another thing... it is awfully easy for an American to be seduced by his American accent.
I'm glad you offered your thoughts on the call... I was much too lazy to deal with it properly, thanks for taking the time.

Posted by: Oceanguy | Feb 12, 2007 3:32:26 AM

I'd argue that Oslo wasn't his only albatross. Netanyahu, like his successor, Ehud Barak benefitted from an unusually quick ascent to PM. (In fact one thing that allowed his rise was voting against the Likud for the direct election of PM in the early 90's.) But when one rises like that, one will step on many toes. And the feet attached to those toes are all too happy to kick the stepper when he's down (or headed there.)

Netanyahu wasn't only contending with Oslo. He was contending with the Clinton adminstration that gave a free pass to Arafat. He was contending with a vindictive AG who managed to prevent three of his cabinet appointments.

But I also think that he was contending with his inflated confidence in his own eloquence and presence. Once he became the issue, it didn't take long for Israelis to latch onto the next, next best thing and boot him from office.

Posted by: soccerdad | Feb 12, 2007 5:50:42 AM

Heard him talk to our small group of (largely) Americans last early summer -- I was extremely impressed with his intellect and grasp of history, and most of all - his ability to express himself (OHHH how we miss that in a leader...) He was not the single most arrogant man I've heard, but smug, yes.

I really agree that he presents Israel's position completely unapologetically, clearly, and sounds like a moderate doing it (I think Dan Gillerman does that, too).

And although I'm a domestic liberal, his explanation of some of the bass-ackwards incentives built into the Israeli economy, which he only began to revamp, convinced me. He really sounded self-admiring discussing this, but he made a good case for his stringent decisions, and why he stuck out the job.

But bottom line -- he's another retread -- don't you have ANYONE newer and cleaner with a military or intel background?

Posted by: Pam | Feb 12, 2007 8:04:21 AM

To me you sound really young like you are in your 20's. (David)

I'm in amazement of history, past and present. Currently I'm reading "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" by Richard Rhodes. With an insight to history, I can't believe that the majority of countries take the situation in Iran so lightly.

In the book, many of the scientists were from Jewish descent. Einstein, among many, had a death threat placed upon him for "corrupting German science" (and having Jewish ancestry of course.) Einstein, when he heard of fission, said "Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht!" (I never thought of that!) It was fascinating to read about their personal lives, as the rise of fascism slowly forced them out of Austria and Germany.

What was most amazing is that the scientists discussed in detail the future of the world and what these new "gadgets" meant. Oppenheimer, upon learning about fission, first said that it was “impossible.” Then, a day later, after doing some equations upon the board, looked out of his study over the streets of Manhattan, held his hands together as if he was holding a ball, and said "A little bomb like that ... and it would all disappear." He came to his own peace about his work in the Manhattan project, and thought, perhaps, it might mean the end to major wars, for fear of consequence of the use of such a weapon, 1000 times stronger than the ones that fell upon Japan. (Thank Teller for that.) Interestly, both Japan and German had started to develop the bomb, but fortunately had failed to do so before the United States and the end of the war.

Fast forward to the comedy that is today. Somehow sanity has reigned for so long; the most amazing thing is that we have not blown ourselves to bits already. How possibly could so many years have gone by without one of these things going off? (The modern ones, not the toys dropped on Japan)

Anyway, now we have some crackpot leader in Iran, who is about to get his hands on a basic form of that weapon (I hope their scientists blow themselves up developing it.)

History is more amazing than any story book could ever write. I just want to shake people watching Britney Spears on “Entertainment Tonight” saying “don’t you get it?” … but there is no one to talk to.

So I’ve learned to adjust myself to the insanity that is current history and focus instead upon raising my children well and not worry excessively about the current world events that even Shakespeare couldn’t invent.

Feeling like just an observer in such a large and amazing world, I'm glad to see that someone is giving practical thought about Iran. I just want a safe world to raise the kids, and so many people seem to want to bring it all down. God have mercy on us.

Posted by: It's Full of Stars | Feb 12, 2007 10:58:48 AM

Sorry, David, I missed this thread for a while. About Bibi's failures, to name a few:

1. Leaving Hebron to its current state and fate. I do not have to describe the situation there, do I?

2. The Meshaal fiasco

3. Yakking incessantly and vaguely about his ability to make peace with Syria and delivering zilch. You may have missed this part...

4. Running a populist divisive election campaign, where he addressed the lowest common denominator in our society, being derisive and insulting about the so called "elites" (read middle class Ashkenazi - you, in fact).

5. Behaving like a common thug in the infamous series of Likud conferences. Using his then puppets (Lieberman/Hanegbi) to pressure, intimidate and even, with "unexplained" assistance of semi-criminal elements to physically attack dissenting Likud members.

6. Disengagement from Gaza - good of you to remind this. Just conside when exactly Bibi left the government?

I could go on, but should I?

And re your Dimaggio parallel - again, with all due respect - without the burgeoning high-tech and increased flow of cash from taxes on it, all his reforms wouldn't have helped.

What can I say - we all should beware of him - he is an excellent speaker and could easily talk our socks off.

Is it the most critical pre-requisite for a PM? I am not sure.

Posted by: SnoopyTheGoon | Feb 12, 2007 3:35:46 PM

Dave (Balashon)... I agree that the PM sets the tone for the country and right now Bibi is broadcasting nothing but confidence. Everywhere else I look a see politicians wringing their hands, apologizing for Israel's existence and running around Europe looking for someone to surrender to.

Judy... No, I didn't leave it out. What I did is attribute some (even most) of his performance as PM to his having been saddled with Oslo. He also had to contend with a very partisan political arena where much of the left still hadn't figured out that Oslo was a death trap.

Jack... How may times did I say 'uh'? :-)

Irina... 'Doing better than the last few PMs' isn't that big a trick. :-)

Oceanguy... I really didn't give it the treatment I wanted to here on the site... and unfortunately the preparation I did for the call was undermined by the lack of time for questions.

soccerdad... Good points all.

Pam... [looking around]... nope, nobody else here.

It's Full of Stars... I am in my 20s (my second 20s that is). :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Feb 12, 2007 4:31:28 PM

Jack... How may times did I say 'uh'? :-)

Couldn't tell you, that thick accent was rough to understand. ;)

Posted by: Jack | Feb 12, 2007 5:37:43 PM

I don't know if this was covered in a previous comment (sorry), and not to get into a whole economic debate... but Bibi's policies helped the underclass more in the long run than previous policies. I remember my charedi cousins being unhappy and worried about it - and actually debating with them about it - when he first got the FM job; in the end, they were satisfied that it hadn't screwed them

Posted by: Ezzie | Feb 14, 2007 6:15:55 AM

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