Friday, May 18, 2012

Netanyahu - Hero or Villain?

Last week, Chicago Jewish News editor and publisher Joe Aaron  (pictured) published an angry editorial against the current Israeli leadership. He left practically no one unscathed. The way he painted the corruption of Israel’s leaders makes Ex Illinois Governor Rod Blagojavich (a convicted felon currently serving a 14 year prison term) look like a choir boy. Graft, corruption, bribery, conspiracy, forgery, obstruction of justice, rape… you name it… as a group Israeli leaders are - and have been - guilty of all of it.

Now I have no problem with legitimate criticism of prominent figures. I do it all the time. Nor do I question that this sort of thing goes on. And that it has been going on in governments all over the world since the beginning of time. Including ours.

On the other hand I have read some pretty marvelous praise about Israel from Mr. Aaron in the past. He is one of Israel’s biggest defenders even as he is one of its biggest critics. I often agree with him. So why now? Why this unbelievable screed?

In order to answer that one must know a bit about the political philosophy of Mr. Aaron. He is very firmly in the peace camp. He is a vehement critic of the settlements and generally supports those politicians and parties – like Labor -who advance the peace process. I was in that camp too before Gaza was given over to Palestinians. In my view that has proven to be a foreshadowing in microcosm of would occur of we did the same thing to the West Bank (Yehuda and Shomron).

Mr. Aaron still believes that we can make a deal with the Palestinians even with conditions as they stand now. OK. I respect his view. But I strongly disagree with it. I tend to be on the side of caution when it comes to the security of the Jewish people. Giving up the West Bank would not advance security at this time. It would do the opposite.

Mr. Aaaron’s views tend to preclude supporting anyone even slightly hawkish. So the rather brilliant move by Netanyahu to form a unity government has completely undermined Mr. Aaron’s views about what direction Israel should now take. It has apparently also blinded him to all the good coming out of this new deal.

I’m not necessarily disputing all of his observations about how this coalition deal came about. As the former democratic Speaker of the House, Thomas P. (“Tip”) O’Neil  used to say, “Politics ain’t bean bag!” But there are some things that are flat wrong. Just to mention one.

He writes that Likud’s Netanyahu was about to lose his coalition and had therefore called for early elections. The unity deal saved his government for another 18 months! For Mofaz, who heads the opposition Kadima party it was indeed a good deal – as Aaron points out. Polls showed that his party would be virtually destroyed in the next election. So making ‘a deal with the devil’ was a no brainer for him – even though it was a complete reversal from his pledge never to join a coalition with Likud.

Netanyahu on the other hand had little to lose by having early elections. Time Magazine reports that his approval rating is at an all time high at 50%. Is there any real question that Likud would gain even more seats than it has now as many of the Kadima voters  would be defecting to either Labor or Likud?  Both of those  parties would have gained seats but Likud would command a much higher number of seats than it has now making it much easier to form a new coalition. So calling for a new election was a calculated but low risk move that would likely have put him in power for another four years. It was win win either way for him.

It is easy to be cynical about any politician, including Netanyahu. But so far scandal has not touched him. And the way cut-throat politics works in Israel if there was anything that could bring him down it would have showed up by now.  So he is going to be around for awhile.  I happen to be a fan of Netanyahu for many reasons. And so is most of the US congress. Both houses. So I’m pretty happy about this new unity government.

Instead of bashing the government now because of his dislike of Netanyahu, Mr. Aaron would do well to have given this a more sobering assessment. Which is exactly what Jonathan Rosenblum did in Cross Currents. In my view it’s all good. Here in part is what he said:

The new coalition, which at this writing houses over three-quarters of the MKs, allows Netanyahu to present a united front not only versus the Iranian enemy, but also towards her American ally. Whatever decision is made with respect to Iran will demonstrably be the decision of the Israeli people and not just her prime minister and defense minister. 

In addition, the size of the coalition means that Netanyahu can focus his attention on the strategic dilemmas facing Israel, without the ever present distraction of coalition politics. As long as he keeps Kadima in the coalition, he does not need any of the smaller parties that had hitherto made up his governing coalition and none can threaten him with their departure.

Joe Aaron may not like this outcome, but I do. In addition to the above the new unity government will be free of the religious parties demands to stay in a coalition - something I saw as an immediate benefit in an earlier post. No more back of the room horse trading of votes for money. Not for Charedim and not for any other interest group with a few MKs to bargain for. 

These parties will now be like anyone else outside the government. As Jonathan Rosenblum notes - they will have to make their case for funding to the public and not simply trade votes for money. Issues like the draft and funding their Yeshivos and Kollelim are no longer sacred cows that the government won’t touch. They will be subject to a fair assesement of a government sensitive to the needs of all of their constituencies.

Despite their fears - this will very likely have positive consequences for Charedim.  No one seriously believes that all yeshiva students will suddenly be inducted into the army. Netanyahu is actually more sympathetic to Charedim than many of the past prime ministers.  I am sure that a compromise can be worked out to the satisfaction of both sides. But Charedi parties will no longer be able to dictate the terms.  Funding Yeshivos may require some sort of Charedi nod to a bit more secular studies in at least some of their schools. That is a tough one because of how adamantly they are opposed to that. We’ll see how that plays out.

King Bibi. That’s how the Time cover reads this week. The idea being that Netanyahu stands poised to be the longest serving prime minister since Ben Gurion. For me this is a wonderful development. I just hope it lasts. 

Oh, and one more thing. The answer to the question asked in the title is neither. He is simply a very shrewd politician with the potential to become one of the greatest prime ministers in Israel's history