In a few days President Barack Obama will be journeying to Israel to meet his counterpart Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu. For once, Barack should abstain from concentrating on his own soaring oratory. Instead, he should quietly watch and learn from Bibi about how to craft a coalition and make government and democracy work.
Yes, I am aware that Bibi is prime minister in a parliamentary democracy. And Obama is president in a federal constitutional republic, where as head of the executive branch, he is independent of the legislature. And I may be guilty of comparing Java oranges to California grapes.
But there are surprising similarities between these two men. And their two countries.
Though their relationship is less than affectionate, these two leaders share similar personality traits. And somewhat similar political situations. Each believes he is the smartest person in the room. Each is intelligent, pragmatic and arrogant — and sometimes inflexible, intransigent and a bit aloof.
And each guy has daddy issues.
Though both just won a national election, they are constrained by their opposition. And their countries are internally divided over conflicting political and social ideologies.
In the last election, Obama won a decisive victory against his Republican opponent Mitt Romney. But Obama has been held back by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives and by Republican opposition in the Senate. To date Obama has faced Congressional gridlock, and his Democratic party and the Republican party have not been able to agree on anything substantial: the budget, taxes, cutting government programs, climate change, significant gun control, immigration reform — nothing.
Accordingly, unless Obama and his people come up with a better plan, this administration will fail to have Congress pass its legislation on gun control, immigration reform and a responsible budget to grow the economy and reduce the deficit.
Bibi’s Likud-Beitenu faction won the largest number of seats of all the Israeli parties. But the election results have brought nothing but tsouris (“misery”) for Bibi. His parliamentary group was in fact reduced to 31 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, the Israeli parliament. If Bibi did not get his act together quickly, his 7 year reign as Israeli leader was going to come to an ignominious end.
Bibi had until Monday, March 16, to form a majority coalition government with some of the other parties that had won seats in the last election. To paraphrase, Samuel Johnson, “the threat of calling another Israeli election and potentially being thrown out of office on his tuchus, certainly concentrated Bibi’s mind.
Did Bibi go on the Israeli equivalent of Letterman or “The View” and whine to the Israeli people like a spoiled, self-entitled trust fund brat? No he did not. Bibi sucked it up. Swallowed his considerable pride. And walked across the street and broke Matzoh with his sworn enemy, his former chief of staff, Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, which had won 19 seats.
Previously, Yair had jumped into bed with Naftali Bennett, the head of the religious nationalist Jewish Home party. Both Yair and Naftali had come together due to their parties’ opposition to Bibi’s previous policies of exempting ultra-Orthodox Jewish men from mandatory service in the Israeli armed forces and from the work force for the purpose of Torah study.
This was the major defining issue in the last election. Both Yesh Atid and the Jewish Home parties rode the wave to victory demanding an end to these exemptions and the cutback of welfare payments to these ultra-Orthodox Torah students.
In order to build a majority coalition unified against the ultra-Orthodox parties, Bibi then attracted the dovish Tzipi Livni, of Kadima fame, now leading her own centre-left Hatnua party. Throw in a few stragglers from the centrist Kadima party and presto, magic, Bibi secured a majority of 68-70 seats in the Knesset.
To summarize, Bibi’s coalition consists of the centre-left Hatnua party, the centrist Yesh Atid and Kadima parties, Bibi’s own right wing Likud-Beitenu party and the religious nationalist Jewish Home party. Notwithstanding their conflicting ideologies, Bibi has masterfully secured a consensus among these coalition parties. The priorities of his new government will be to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, enact budget reform, expand Israel’s mandatory military conscription and lower the cost of living.
His coalition also includes three party leaders, who will want to replace him as prime minister in the next election; namely, Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett. Talk about your Lincoln Team of Rivals. Oy vey!
Bibi’s outreach to his rivals is the equivalent of President Obama bringing into his Cabinet Republicans Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. Not very likely and practical. But the White House’s fluency in Spanish would definitely skyrocket.
My point to President Obama is that if even hard-ass Bibi could show some flexibility and achieve consensus among warring factions, surely Barack could come down from his lofty lectern and deal mano a mano with his Democratic Congressmen and Senators and Republican counterparts.
Bibi has shown that if a leader gets down in the trenches and seriously negotiates and compromises, even at the expense of his own supporters, responsible government programs and, more specifically, a budget deal among ideological enemies are possible and achievable.
Like Bibi, Barack does not have the luxury of time. It is time to concentrate the mind, Mr. President.