Without a Shadow Cabinet and Clear Policies, Likud leader May Lose February election

The Israeli voter will want to know the name of the defense, finance and foreign ministers in Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu’s shadow cabinet well before general election date of Feb. 10, 2009. He – and she – are desperate for a fresh, credible team capable of addressing its deep concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran, a missile-battered southwest and an impending economic recession. Netanyahu will have to take this into account. He will have to roll up his sleeves as soon as soon as the list of candidates is chosen by the 99,000 registered Likud voters on Dec. 8 and set about building an alternative transition team.
This is a matter of top urgency for the following reasons:
1. Prime minister Ehud Olmert’s coalition cabinet is in an advanced state of decomposition. For months, its dominant figures – Olmert, defense minister Ehud Barak, foreign minister Tzipi Livni and finance minister Ronnie Bar-On – have been incapable of reaching decisions on one vital issue after another. They are at sea on the never-ending missile blitz from Gaza, on how to enact the state budget, provide guarantees for pension and provident fund holders (over which a general strike is scheduled for next week), and deal with rising unemployment and crime figures – to name a few.
Ministers bicker stridently as they jockey for campaign positions.
Sunday, Livni criticized Barak (Labor) for failing to let the army shoot back for the Palestinian missile offensive from Gaza. He sneeringly accused her of electioneering on behalf of Kadima.
After years of palaver, the cabinet finally budgeted the equivalent of $160 million to fortify the thousands of unprotected schools, institutions and homes within range of Palestinian missiles from Gaza. Butt the targeted population knows from long experience that it can whistle for the funds to materialize before election-day.
2. The voter is in need of an alternative economic revival plan, with sensible specifics and time enough to think about how they affect him or her.
Netanyahu’s philosophical musings and his past performances are not enough. A Likud shadow finance minister should set up a task force, work with leaders of the economy and form a recovery program ready to go when he takes over the treasury.
3. Netanyahu must dispel the nagging rumors of a plan to retain Ehud Barak as defense minister. His case is different from US president-elect Barack Obama’s reasons for keeping Robert Gates on at the Pentagon. Every single opinion poll rates Ehud Barak one of the country’s most unpopular politicians. As defense minister, people are fed up with the platitudes he intones every time the missile blitz escalates, such as “We must act prudently” and “The truce is holding up.”
Suspicion that the Likud leader may ask Barak to stay on would cut deep into Likud’s voter support.
Netanyahu has as yet offered no ideas of his own for dealing with the Palestinian war of attrition from Gaza. Word is awaited from him and the distinguished line-up of ex-generals and security experts attracted to Likud ranks on this pressing issue.
Neither does the voter know what plans they have for dealing with Iran’s race for a nuclear bomb. The Olmert administration relegated the threat to the international community and sanctions, which the IAEA director Mohammed ElBaradi finally dismissed as “a failure” two days ago.
There may be no time to wait until a new government is installed in Jerusalem some time in March 2009. Tehran is not letting the grass grow under its feet. By then, Iran may well be in a position to build its first A-Bomb.
By then too, Obama will have been in the White House for two months and following his own vision.
Sunday, Dec. 7, the incoming US president told NBC’s Meet the Press: “We are willing to talk to them directly and give them a clear choice and ultimately let them make a determination in terms of whether they want to do this the hard way of the easy way. …We need to ratchet up tough but direct diplomacy with Iran, making very clear to them that their development of nuclear weapons would be unacceptable, that their funding of terrorist organizations, their threats against Israel are contrary to everything we believe in,” said Obama.
He said his administration would work with international partners to present a set of carrots and sticks to encourage Iran to halt its nuclear development program.
Tehran quickly rejected the carrot-and-stick policy as “useless” and one which failed in the past. “…we will never suspend” uranium enrichment, said the Iranian spokesman Monday.
Obama’s position holds only one prospect as far as Israel is concerned: However tough a negotiator he may be, Iran will follow its familiar practice of using negotiating time as a grace period for pushing ahead with its nuclear program. US intelligence experts have predicted that Tehran needs no more than a few months into 2009 to accumulate enough fissile fuel for building 2-3 bombs and staging an underground A-test.
For Netanyahu, charting an Iran policy from the opposition benches would be good tactics and more convenient than getting started after settling in the prime minister’s office.
4. Naming his candidate for foreign minister is no less urgent than his other tasks. Strategic thinkers in high places are already using the international media to lay down dicta on the assumption that Likud’s takeover of government is in the bag.
Jimmy Carter’s former security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who is also close to Obama, has warned him against being persuaded by the Israeli government to take military action against Iran because America would then lose its world standing. Tony Blair, former UK prime minister and current Middle East Quartet coordinator, has said that that the Palestinian track must be Israel’s first priority and opting for talks first with Syria would be a mistake.
Blair was not only sending out instructions to the next Israeli government but also to the next US administration.
If the Likud leader lets the dos and don’ts dictated by these outsiders stand unopposed for three months by his own external and security policies, they will become established facts and hard to overrule.
5. Up until the primaries of Monday, Netanyahu focused mainly on presenting his star recruits, but gave very little exposure to their ideological baggage. This lapse was exploited to good advantage by his enemies who have blown up the contest between the Likud leader and the far-right Moshe Feiglin into a high-noon duel. Netanyahu was falsely presented as fighting for centrist ground against being hijacked by the party’s right-wing radicals.
Netanyahu found no way of obliterating this portrayal. He thus exposed a vulnerability which must be addressed before he faces the voter next February.

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