The foremost American scholar of the American presidency in the 20th century, Richard Neustadt, stated that presidential leadership is measured by the power to persuade, specifically, how effectively a president can get other forces and powers in government to do what he/she wants them to do.
Using the Neustadt measure, President Obama today is only meeting with a modicum of success, both domestically and in international affairs. As a result, recent polling suggests that his party may be headed for major political defeats in the November congressional elections.
While the parliamentary system is different from the presidential one, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s “Neustadt score” is not much more impressive than Obama’s, and with equally dire political consequences.
A vital criterion of persuasion is the ability to keep all your political team on the same page and with the same priorities. In a parliamentary democracy — especially with a coalition government — a prime minister is significantly weaker than a president who “ought” to be able to maintain congressional support for his programs, especially when his party is in power. In Israel, cooperation with the government and the national interest is consistently being tested not only by the opposition — as it is in the U.S. — but by the parties in the governing coalition who already are jockeying for the next election.
The political crises that Netanyahu had to address over the last few months were internal as well as external. The major challenges came from within his fractious coalition, led by the Yisrael Beiteinu Party headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and the Shas party headed by Minister of Internal Affairs Eli Yishai. Some of the more extreme elements of Netanyahu’s own Likud Party members also challenged his authority.
The sequence began in March with the decision of Ariel Atias, Minister of Housing and Construction and a member of the Shas party, to approve new housing units in East Jerusalem, precisely at the moment when Vice President Joseph Biden was in Israel endeavoring to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. That Bibi could not forestall this embarrassing episode demonstrated a profound weakness in his leadership.
(Similarly, the mayor of Jerusalem and its City Council have taken upon themselves to move ahead frequently with new housing projects and developments without a sensitivity to the international implications of such decisions. Local authorities do not make foreign policy, but certainly in Israel, they frequently can affect it.)
This was followed in June by an announcement that Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev, was retiring and that the Foreign Minister was making an “interim appointment” to the position. Lieberman’s decision to bypass the Prime Minister and a cabinet committee — although temporary appointments are within his jurisdiction — showed a disdain for the process by Lieberman and an inability of Netanyahu to keep his ministers under control. Perhaps Lieberman’s candidate, Meiron Reuven, Israel’s current ambassador to Columbia, was qualified for the UN. Given the critical nature of this post, however, a full consideration for such an assignment would have been warranted.
Most recently it was Lieberman’s party, widely supported by Russian immigrants, that pushed for controversial conversion legislation with little or no consideration of its impact on world Jewry. Leaving aside the substance of the Rotem bill or the fact that it has been tabled until October at the earliest, the process demonstrates a prime minister not in control of his cabinet.
This weakness comes at a critical time for Israel. The world is waiting to see the effectiveness of new sanctions on Iran, and whether Israel needs to consider making a military move against Iran’s potential nuclear threat. In addition, the Israeli government will need to consider whether it intends to proceed with West Bank settlement development after the conclusion of the 10-month moratorium in September. This will be very closely watched in Israel, in the Arab world, among world Jewry, and within the highest levels of the U.S. government.
These decisions will make the recent leadership flaps look like small potatoes. It will certainly test the mettle of Netanyahu: the future of his government will depend on his ability to persuade his partners.