Jeff Barak
The Jerusalem Post (Opinion)
July 27, 2009 - 12:00am

Binyamin Netanyahu's second term as prime minister is proving the truth of Karl Marx's comment: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce," although the speed with which his government is descending into the farcical is surprising, even for the most ardent of Netanyahu's critics.

A key hallmark of his first administration was Netanyahu's inability to govern, highlighted by an inefficient Prime Minister's Office and resulting in an unruly coalition. In the end, Netanyahu fell, not at the hands of the opposition but because his coalition partners and one-time political allies brought him down.

LAST WEEK'S events in the Knesset were a stark reminder for Netanyahu that even with an elephantine administration of 30 ministers and deputy ministers, his government is not stable. After only 100 or so days in power, the wheels are already beginning to come off.

Netanyahu's failure to drive through his flagship legislation for reforming the Israel Lands Administration is a harbinger of further political embarrassments for the prime minister. The inability of Netanyahu and his coalition whip, Ze'ev Elkin, to see this political pratfall coming is painfully reminiscent of Netanyahu's government failures in his first administration.

The roots of Netanyahu's Knesset recent defeat can be traced back to the prime minister's shifting positions during the budget discussions, when he left Yuval Steinitz, his finance minister and closest political ally, out to dry. Netanyahu not only cut deals over Steinitz's head with Histadrut leader Ofer Eini, he more importantly also reneged on his most basic economic principles.

When politicians see weakness and zig-zagging in a prime minister, that prime minister loses his deterrent power. After first-term Likud MK and political nonentity Miri Regev successfully challenged Netanyahu over imposing VAT on fruits and vegetables, further challenges to his authority were inevitable and, as we saw last week, not slow in coming. While not quite a dead man walking, any dreams Netanyahu might have had of serving a full term of four years as prime minister have already been shattered, even before his administration has finished its first Knesset session.

The troop of top-level American visitors to Jerusalem this week: special envoys George Mitchell and Dennis Ross, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Advisor General James Jones, will no doubt have watched Netanyahu's domestic political hammering with interest, but also with some concern. Will Netanyahu's weakened internal standing force him to harden his stance externally vis-à-vis the Palestinians?

Again, looking back to Netanyahu's first term as prime minister, one can see a pattern. Then, after signing the Hebron Agreement and handing over more of the West Bank to the Palestinians than Ehud Barak ever did, Netanyahu launched the controversial Har Homa building project in Jerusalem and demolished the chances of improving relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This time around, after grudgingly announcing his acceptance (with conditions) of two states for two peoples, Netanyahu immediately sought to create a new crisis with Washington over another construction project in Jerusalem.

The building of 20 new houses in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem will not fundamentally change the demographic balance of Israel's capital. The Americans understand this and although they voiced their opposition to the decision to go ahead with turning the empty, Jewish-owned Shepherd Hotel into an apartment building, their disagreement was voiced discreetly in a low-key meeting. It was Netanyahu who decided to turn this traditional and consistent US opposition to Jewish construction in East Jerusalem into a crisis between Washington and his administration.

Netanyahu's bombastic comments at last week's cabinet meeting that "united Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people in the State of Israel and our sovereignty over the city is not subject to appeal" were a return to the Bibi of old, the Netanyahu before the Bar-Ilan speech. And, like the Bibi of old, while his remarks to the cabinet that "There is no ban on Arabs buying apartments in the west of the city, and there is no ban on Jews building or buying in the city's east" might make a convincing a soundbite for his constituency, they are not 100 percent accurate.

The FACT is that while American Jews like Irving Moskowitz can buy land in East Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods, a Palestinian resident of, say, Sheikh Jarrah cannot purchase an apartment in many parts of west Jerusalem, because the Israel Lands Administration, which owns the land, will only enter into a contract with Israeli citizens of persons entitled to citizenship under the Law of Return.

So, on meeting with him this week, the American visitors will have to ask themselves with which Netanyahu they are dealing: the Bibi of old who sees a Palestinian state as an existential threat to Israel and who will do all in his power to make sure it never comes about, or the new Netanyahu, a pragmatist who has spoken in favor of the creation of a Palestinian state and who appears to have authorized Defense Minister Barak to negotiate the terms of a settlement freeze with Washington.

The problem is: Does Netanyahu himself know what he stands for these days?


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