To his credit, Benjamin Netanyahu caught himself. On Tuesday, when journalists accompanying him on his state visit to China asked what he thought of the new taxes and budget cuts proposed by his Finance Minister, Yair Lapid, the Prime Minister let on that he would oppose them. Without delay, MK Ofir Akunis, a close ally of Netanyahu, criticized the Finance Ministry on Facebook for the “economic measures it is willing to inflict upon the public,” warning that not all of Lapid’s plans will be authorized by the government. What Lapid wanted to take away, Netanyahu would return. The next day, Netanyahu reversed himself, announcing that he would support Lapid’s plan, but for cuts to the army’s budget.
Netanyahu’s almost failing to back Lapid’s plan is a non-story, of course, but still it says something important about Israeli politics. It surprised no one when the Prime Minister hinted he would reject the belt-tightening budget that he had himself instructed Lapid to prepare. Netanyahu has demonstrated time and again that while he wants Israel’s economy to succeed, he equally wants the minister responsible for Israel’s economy to fail. For example, Haaretz reported that two weeks ago Netanyahu had an opportunity to avoid the strike that shut down the airport, paralyzing tourism and trade for days, but chose not to because the strike would poison relations between Lapid and the Histadrut labor union. This reflects a broader strategy; political analysts agree that Netanyahu rejected Lapid’s post-election demand to be appointed Foreign Minister because he believed that it was in the Finance Ministry that Lapid could be made to fail most spectacularly.
This stratagem has precedents. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert forced upon then popular Labor Party leader Amir Peretz an appointment as Minister of Defense, although Peretz had little army experience. Olmert hoped Peretz would embarrass himself. Peretz obliged, trivially at first when photographers captured him surveying troops with capped binoculars, and later consequentially when the bloody summer-long second Lebanon war left dozens of soldiers dead, spurred mortar attacks on the cities of Israel’s north, and produced no benefit. Before that, Prime Minister Arik Sharon had appointed Netanyahu himself as Minister of Finance, in hope that if Israel’s economy tanked, Netanyahu would be a ready scapegoat. (The economy thrived, and Netanyahu’s career survived.)
Such dealings are, in part, a result of a parliamentary system of government ruled by coalition. By their very nature, coalition governments bring political rivals together in temporary and uneasy alliances. Today’s coalition partner is tomorrow’s election competitor. In such a system, allies are often political frenemies: their successes are met with concern and their failures with pleasure. This is not unique to Israeli politicians.
But like so many other things that we import from abroad and improve at home – diamonds and fighter jets, for instance – causing coalition partners to falter and fail has over the past decade become an Israeli specialty. Each of Israel’s past three Prime Ministers – Netanyahu, Olmert and Sharon – boasted in his day, off-the-record, of having screwed coalition partners by harnessing them to jobs they were not suited for, and were destined to botch. One might admire the canny wile displayed by each man, if in damaging their rivals they hadn’t also compromised the country’s safety and welfare. But they did.
Which leads us back to today. There is good reason to believe that among the goals towards which our Prime Minister will work, energetically and creatively, over the next four years is this: the failure and public humiliation of his Finance Minister. I’ve come to think of this give-him-enough-rope-and-see-that-he-hangs-himself governance as “smart-ass politics.” It’s clever, it’s cunning, and it’s calamitous.