The U.S. administration has played it all wrong with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. After one year with both Netanyahu and Obama in office, the only "success" America has chalked up is a "freeze" on settlement building in the West Bank which is actually only a temporary freeze, and isn't really enforced to begin with.
The Mideast experts in the West Wing apparently think they're up against one tough negotiator, a guy who stands up for his principles. But if anyone in the White House would actually bother to show a bit of interest in Israeli media and its coverage of the prime minister, they would be shocked at some of the headlines which repeatedly pop up. Some of the most popular ones go a bit like this: "Bibi Backtracks Once Again" or "Bibi's Never-Ending Zigzag", and that old favorite "Bibi Caves in to Pressure - Again". Everyone in Israel knows that Bibi is what we call in Hebrew "Lachitz"; he's as squeezable as a ketchup bottle.
But this important fact seems to have evaded those D.C. experts. Indeed, what Obama and his aides have apparently failed to see is that Netanyahu is one of the weakest prime ministers this country has ever seen. As Yoel Marcus wrote just this week:
"One of Benjamin Netanyahu's critics said the prime minister doesn't know what to fear when he gets up in the morning. Why? Because he's afraid. Every issue on which he feels he is likely to lose or fail - he abandons. Fact: Since coming to power he has not lost a single vote in the Knesset. He doesn't submit any proposal on which he is liable to fail."
Over the past year, Netanyahu has succumbed to pressure from coalition members and from his own party that has made him renege on so many of his initiatives, it's hard to keep count. Here are just a few examples:
Value added tax on fruits and vegetables
Netanyahu backed down from a plan to impose a Value Added Tax on fruits and vegetables after he met strong opposition from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a partner in his coalition. Shas Chairman Eli Yishai said that the tax would harm the weaker sectors of society. Eventually, Netanyahu claimed that "A central part of my job is to listen to the will of the people. I've reached the conclusion that now is not the time to impose this tax."
The drought tax
The government had a great idea to hike up water prices to make people use less of this disappearing resource. But the huge public outcry meant that Netanyahu had to let this initiative go down the drain.
Expulsion of the children of foreign workers
Netanyahu's government isn't exactly known for its tolerance of minorities and foreigners. So, when he and his Interior Minister Yishai decided it was time to kick out the children of foreign workers in Israel, the public outcry worked once again. The deportations won't begin until August 2010, assuming he sticks to his guns this time...
The Highway and Railroad Plan
Just two weeks ago, Netanyahu unveiled his plan to spend over 80 billion shekels ($20 billion) on new highways and railroads connecting the Galilee to the Negev. But officials in the Treasury got up on their hind legs and seem to have derailed this plan, as well.
National Heritage Sites
And just this morning, Netanyahu added two controversial sites to a list of sites that would be granted 400 million shekels (100 million dollars). After pressure from right-wingers, Netanyahu added the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem to the list.
The "Jobs" Law
This would have allowed municipalities across the country to appoint dozens of deputy mayors to public offices at a huge cost to the public coffers. The huge public outcry did it again (thank G-d for Israeli public outcry...).
The Absorption Budget
When Foreign Minister and head of the extreme right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party Avigdor Lieberman heard that the Absorption Ministry's budget would be cut along with all the other ministries, he called a press conference and announced his party wouldn't be voting with the coalition. Bibi quickly put in a call, and invited him in for a chat at his office to promise it wouldn't happen.
Right to vote for Israelis living abroad
Netanyahu's initiative to allow all Israelis abroad to vote will probably change drastically, if not vanish totally into thin air. The goal, of course, was to strengthen his fan base, since most of the several hundred thousand Israelis living abroad are known to lean to the right. Netanyahu has met strong opposition from his coalition partners, mainly Ehud Barak and the Labor Party. It now seems the privilege will be given only to those who left the country one year before elections.
And this is just a partial list, from one year in office.
So, why is it that small-town politicians, officials and public outcry can twist Bibi's arm, but the leader of the free world can't even beat him in a thumb-wrestling match? Simple. Everyone knows Bibi is "Lachitz", and everyone knows his weak spots. Everybody knows he cares what people think of him, that he can't take the pressure, and most importantly: all he wants is to do what most prime ministers never do - finish a full term without going to elections.
You might ask then, "Why is it that when it comes to Iran and the peace process he doesn't give in"? Well, that's because those are precisely the areas where he has no pressure to do otherwise - not from abroad, and not at home.
U.S. administrations have rarely put any pressure on Israeli governments. The last time Israel faced any real pressure was when Bush Sr. threatened Yitzhak Shamir that the U.S. would cancel loan guarantees - a threat which many analysts say made Shamir eventually attend the Madrid peace conference.
Obama has done nothing of the sort. Even when his envoy, George Mitchell, hinted about using the loan guarantee threat again, America failed to follow through.
And it's a shame. Because the experts in D.C. obviously don't know what a huge opportunity has fallen into their laps. They have no idea what a weakling of a leader Netanyahu is. He never leads. He never initiates. It's all about survival for him.
If only they knew that with a bit of pressure, in just the right spot, they could have Bibi eating out of their hands.