Bibi isn't what he sounds like.
He is a fascinating mixture of the distasteful and admirable, a politician who remains on top of a contentious and highly competitive heap despite promising much more than he has delivered.
What follows is not an endorsement, but an exploration of how his various traits fit with what is essentially political, as well as appearing undesirable and praiseworthy.
In both the case of Iran and the most recent dust-up with Gaza, we see a politician whose nuclear weapon is his tongue. He speaks with great toughness and some eloquence in both Hebrew and English. His accomplishments and commitments are at the front and center of his perorations. There is no modesty or shyness in his public persona. Yet he acts deliberately. Critics liken him to a mouse who knows only how to roar.
His pronouncements have gotten him into trouble with Barack Obama and the heads of important European governments. Netanyahu's public appearances with them demonstrate courtesy and mutual praise (they are all politicians wanting to seem accommodating to many voters), but the comments about Netanyahu among the leaders of other nations--some of them picked up on microphones that should not have been open--indicate something between bare tolerance and loathing whenever it is necessary to communicate with Israel's leader.
His caution appears in what he does not do, and how he prepares for what he does not do.
An experience in Netanyahu's first term as Prime Minister may have contributed to his timidity. He ordered the opening of a tunnel alongside the Western Wall. Palestinian hypoerbole described it as a threat to their mosques, and produced several days of rioting that caused the deaths of Jews as well as Arabs.
For some time now he has been threatening to unleash the Israeli Air Force against Iran's nuclear facilities. Either he has listened to the public comments--presumably reflecting what he has heard in private--from other heads of state as well as from Israelis with military experience urging him to avoid acting alone, or acting in advance of giving sanctions and political pressures more time to do their work, or he has had no intention of acting. His bluster may be directed at pushing other governments to act--with greater sanctions or something else--in a case where the heads of those governments might not be certain whether or not Netanyahu would actually act alone.
Again in the most recent days, he has joined with other Israeli politicians in threatening mayhem in Gaza in response to more than 100 rocket attacks against Israeli civilians. The Air Force has acted, but not in any proportion to the Prime Minister's verbiage. It has not gone beyond attacking sites from which missiles have been launched. What has occurred are extensive discussions within the top circles of the IDF and between military commanders, the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister. Actual operations have fallen far short of the demands made by local government personnel in the areas exposed to the missiles and the expectations pronounced by a range of media commentators who specialize in military affairs. Pressure comes from a million Israelis told to remain within 15 seconds of a secure facility, and industrialists who have located near Gaza in response to government subsidies, but cannot function when their workers stay home with the kids, or take their families to refuge somewhere north.
Commentators generally note that Israel has passed through another wave of rockets without doing great damage to Gaza or causing an escalation costly to Israel in property damage, casualties, and international condemnation. Quiet has said to return to the south, even though three rockets arrived in what was called a quiet day. Netanyahu and his government colleagues continue to speak of imposing a heavy cost on Gaza, but they say it will come at Israel's choice of targets and timing. Between the lines one can hear them saying that it won't come before another uptick in the rocket attacks, and maybe not then if the Egyptians or someone else manages to arrange a cease fire after a few days of rocket fire and a minimum number of Israeli casualties.
Netanyahu has not limited his lion-like roars and mouse-like actions to the realm of national defense. He frequently claims to have dealt heroically with the national economy. While serving as Finance Minister 2003-05 in Ariel Sharon's government he worked to privatize concerns that had been run by government officials with a pronounced tilt toward jobs for the party faithful, and to reduce the inflated family allowances that benefited large Haredi families. As Prime Minister, however, he coalesced with the Haredi parties and refrained from pressing their voters to enter the workforce or to serve in the military, despite promising to spread such burdens equally among all sectors of society.
Even too much for Netanyahu may have been an introduction which he later said was arranged by overly enthusiastic aides. It came at a ceremony to mark the anniversary of a forest fire that caused 44 deaths. The Prime Minister claimed to have dealt with the disaster by deciding to rent a Boeing 747 fire fighting plane, which critics say cost a great deal and was too cumbersome to be effective. The announcer who introduced Netanyahu at the memorial ceremony later claimed that he had tried to tone down the verbiage, which was almost as incendiary as the fire.
"The memorial site was created at the initiative of Prime Minister Mr Benyamin Netanyahu. The memorial was approved and created by the government and the man who stands at its head, Mr Benyamin Netanyahu. I want to invite to the podium the man who was the first to recognize the extent of the disaster, who brought help from throughout Israel and the world to deal with the fire, and since has done everything to care for the families who lost their loved ones: His Honor, Prime Minister of Israel, Mr. Benyamin Netanyahu."
One should be wary in criticizing Netanyahu for his style. It is extreme enough in its bombast and self-centeredness to arouse the ridicule of Israelis as well as others, but it fits within the realm of political pressure that moves only modestly and after considerable consultation into the realm of action (including violence for the sake of national defense). Netanyahu may be fearful of criticism, as claimed by his critics, but that is a way to stay close to the center of political consensus.
Domestic and overseas critics accuse Netanyahu of duplicity. Key to the charge is his expression of support for a two-state solution and an expressed openness to negotiations with Palestinians, but at the same time supporting settlement expansion likely to frustrate any chance of the Palestinians coming to the table.
Netanyahu is not the only politician accused of duplicity. Speaking ambiguously or differently to various constituencies is an essential part of a profession that is meant to serve a wide and demanding population. Netanyahu's constituency includes settlers as well as Israelis and others wanting to reach an accord with the Palestinians. Moreover, the Palestinians' constituency extends to violent extremists, as well as those called moderates who cleave to what many Israelis cannot accept, such as 1967 borders, a capital in Jerusalem, some resolution for the refugees of 1948 and their descendants.
If the Palestinians ever get their moderate and violent factions together, Israeli leaders--even Netanyahu and those like him--may concede some of the demands currently described as unacceptable. They may find room in Jerusalem for a Palestinian capital, and be willing to hive off some of the Arab neighborhoods that Jews avoid in order not to fall victim to yet another attempted lynching by residents. At present, however, Netanyahu holds to a bargaining position that includes "no division of Jerusalem" which has considerable support among his voters, at least as the starting point of negotiations.
The Prime Minister's comments during the lull (i.e. not complete quiet, but a minimum number of daily rockets coming from Gaza) is to threaten something massive in the event that the quiet does not continue. Critics, especially from the south, express their doubts. On the other hand, he may be angling for international legitimacy for a more severe response next time, via his moderate approach to this wave of rocket attacks, and he may be marshaling whatever international credibility he has for the larger issue of Iran. Who really knows what is behind the comments, actions, and feints of a politician?
Persuasion is the essence of democratic politics. While Netanyahu emphasizes and exaggerates his skill as a persuader, he might also be able to take credit as a persuaded, even if he cannot admit to being led by someone else.
Although Netanyahu's bombast and slipperiness cause mass discomfort, there are few who deny his skill as a politician. Many may not like the partners he accepts in his coalition and the goodies he provides to keep them happy, but political longevity and standing in the polls leading up to the next election are tests of something.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem