Netanyahu stuck leading a lame-duck government

The show is over. Some gimmicks, tricks, artificial respiration or a shot of adrenaline may prolong its life. But everybody knows, both here and abroad, that the Netanyahu government is a minority government living on borrowed time.

It can still stay nominally in power for several months, but it cannot rule effectively. The main obstacle lying ahead is the economic situation. In order to fight the deep recession caused by the government's mistaken economic and social policies, the government needs a strong Cabinet with a solid majority in the Knesset. It cannot take the necessary measures and carry out the needed reforms — that are mostly unpopular in the short run — when it is not assured of a stable majority.

As every Cabinet minister knows that new elections are around the corner, no minister is prepared to turn from interest groups' demands to give preference to the long-run interests of the economy.

Can any politician who wants to win the coming elections cut any social service, religious budget, curtail the civil service or lower the benefits of even the smallest pressure groups? So from where will the budget resources come for the necessary steps to curb unemployment and resume economic growth? And where is the money for the unexpected increase in unemployment insurance?

The domestic economic situation is as good a reason as any for holding new elections as soon as possible. Waiting too long will just increase the price of rehabilitation after election day.

No less important is the international situation. The prime minister and his government have no credibility left in the international arena. Nobody will seriously try to make a deal with a lame-duck government.

Benjamin Netanyahu is a man of inertia. He is afraid to take bold steps of the kind that made David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin great leaders. Jumping into the cold waters of new elections is a risk-taking venture. The public opinion polls are not clear.

Labor Knesset member Ori Orr's anti-Sephardi statements helped Netanyahu in one of his most difficult political weeks. But Israel's political memory is very short. Orr's furor against a Labor Party critical of his remarks will not necessarily help Netanyahu or the Likud; some of the most prominent Sephardi politicians — David Levy, David Magen, Shaul Amor — will probably run against Netanyahu in the next elections.

A new party headed by Roni Milo and Dan Meridor with, perhaps, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak might be more attractive to the centrist voter who does not want either Labor or the Likud. Ariel Sharon is still a wild card. And, last but not least, the Labor Party might still learn a lesson or two and force Orr to resign from the Knesset, and better sooner than later.

It took Ehud Barak too long to understand that if he doesn't force Orr to quit, he too might find himself out of the race, together with his friend. Barak did not understand that not taking Orr with him to Washington is not even a token reprimand. Nobody here cares about a U.S. visit, mainly because the trip itself is useless.

The next election will be won in Dimona, Ofakim and the Katamonim, not in Washington's Foggy Bottom, especially in August when everyone is rushing to pack and leave town, and the Jewish community is already on vacation.

Barak would be better off staying in the country, picking up the pieces and trying to save a Labor Party that seems to be on the brink of oblivion. He can do so by creating a new alliance with the North African community and giving its leaders, such as Shlomo Ben-Ami and Amir Peretz, a central place in the leadership.

For Netanyahu, his only option is to call for new elections. In so doing he leaves less time for other parties to organize and he also still benefits from the short memory of the voters, who have not yet felt the full burden of the economic, social and employment situation.

Netanyahu has also one last gimmick up his sleeve: He can quickly sign the second redeployment agreement with the Palestinians, for which he has a solid majority in the Knesset, and then shortly afterward go to the polls.

An agreement can be reached in just one short meeting between Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat, with or without the presence of President Clinton. Netanyahu can claim that he delivered on most of his demands for better security arrangements and that he made the Palestinian Authority meet its commitments.

By signing now, he can prove his critics wrong and restore his credibility both at home and abroad.