My new column is up at The American Prospect:
Before he went into government service, Benjamin Netanyahu was a furniture marketing executive. His first public-sector job was as an Israeli diplomat posted in the United States, for which he spent much of his time promoting Israel’s image. His approach to politics was shaped by his experience as a salesman: You can sell people the product that you want to sell as long as the packaging is what the customer wants to buy. And when sales slip, boost advertising.
Judging from the Israeli prime minister’s sudden burst of marketing in recent days, Netanyahu believes his political product is deeply in trouble, both at home and overseas. He has launched a drive to rebrand himself as a successful — if underappreciated — moderate. To that, he has added a negative campaign against the Palestinian Authority leadership. The effort testifies that Netanyahu sees a recent drop in his polling figures as an omen, not a momentary dip, and that he is scared about deteriorating relations with Western governments. It also underlines his attitude toward the Palestinian government in Ramallah — as a competitor for Western sympathy, not as a strategic partner for making peace.
Netanyahu’s distress began showing at last week’s Cabinet meeting, where he chastised his ministers for not talking enough about the government’s achievements. “There are governments that talk and don’t act. This one acts and doesn’t talk,” one Hebrew press report quoted him as saying. The ministers, unfortunately, didn’t know what achievements he had in mind and asked for talking points. Netanyahu then asked Information Minister Yuli Edelstein to put together a list, according to leaks from unnamed Cabinet members. The same Cabinet scuttlebutt described Netanyahu as “frustrated” and “irritable and grumpy.”
Not by coincidence, that meeting came a couple of days after the country’s largest-circulation paper, Yediot Aharonot, published a poll on how Israelis would vote if elections were held today. The poll showed Netanyahu’s Likud losing four of its current 27 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and the chief opposition party, Tzipi Livni’s Kadimah, growing to 30 seats. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, which now has a majority of 66 in Parliament, would drop to 58 — not enough to put Netanyahu back in power.
The next step in salesmanship came at a meeting of the Likud’s parliamentary caucus. In what looked like a staged confrontation, a backbencher asked about construction in settlements, echoing claims from settler leaders that the prime minister isn’t allowing new building projects for Israelis in the West Bank. Netanyahu answered that in the current international climate, the most he could do was to continue with projects already underway. For proof, he cited the Security Council resolution that would have condemned settlements, and which failed only because of a U.S. veto. “The U.S. veto … was achieved with great effort,” he said. “We could ignore everything and say ‘no problem'” about new building, but “as prime minister with responsibility for this country,” he refused to do that.
The prime minister did not mention his phone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in which he complained about the German vote in favor of the resolution — and in which she angrily told him, “You are the one who disappointed us. You haven’t made a single step to advance peace.” Merkel is a conservative, and Germany usually avoids criticizing Israel. Netanyahu had succeeded in overcoming those historical inhibitions. It was a German official who leaked the conversation to an Israeli paper….
Read the rest here, and return to SoJo to comment.