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The Knock on Netanyahu

January/February 2020 WFJ Article

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14 Jan 2020
The Knock on Netanyahu

For the past year, Israel has been stuck in a baffling political impasse which may take three elections to resolve and currently hinges on whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can and should remain in office while under criminal indictment. This is unchartered water for Israeli democracy, and a supreme challenge to the legacy of the nation’s longest-serving leader.

Netanyahu has been serving as caretaker prime minister since calling early elections in November 2018, but twice he has failed to form a new government following nationwide ballots in April and September. As we go to press, a dreaded third election is looming and can only be averted by major (even miraculous) compromise by the main parties involved. The whole dynamic shifted recently when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his decision to indict Netanyahu for fraud, breach of public trust, and bribery.

The charges capped a series of investigations that have hounded Netanyahu for several years now, and he quickly denounced them as a “coup” cooked up by the Left, the biased media, and crooked police elements. Netanyahu was still hoping to win immunity from prosecution in the Knesset and somehow stay in office. But that option may no longer be viable: Israeli law does not require a sitting prime minister under indictment to resign until he is duly convicted, but it also may bar him from receiving a mandate from the president to head a new government.

It will take time to play out, but Netanyahu’s ten-year reign as Israel’s premier may be ending. He has a decent chance to fend off the charges and make another comeback one day. But calls for his resignation are mounting, and even within his Likud party the jockeying to succeed him as chairman has begun.

The Bane of Bad Press
How did ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu get here? There are three criminal cases against him, one involving “improper gifts” (expensive cigars, pink champagne) he received from wealthy friends allegedly in return for favours. The others revolve around his efforts to get better press: the Yediot/ Israel Hayom affair and then the Bezeq/Walla case, which has the strongest evidence and carries the most serious charge of bribery.

It is generally a bad idea to criminalise anyone’s efforts to get better media coverage. But it also is clear that Netanyahu (and his family) had grown frustrated with the continual sniping against them in the Israeli press, and he was looking for ways to change that which he must now answer for in court.

These scandals arose amid an atmosphere in which Netanyahu was widely portrayed as being corrupted by power. The Israeli Left has been floundering for years due to the lack of a viable peace agenda with the Palestinians. Instead, they began pushing an anti-Bibi agenda which gained traction in the media, leading to the rise of Blue & White and his present predicament.

In retrospect, Benjamin Netanyahu has always faced unfair criticisms and hurdles during his rise and prolonged stay in power. Here are some potent (though often hidden) examples which help explain why he grew so weary of the negative press and why the Left is so hostile to him.

The Shadow of Yoni
Growing up, Benjamin Netanyahu and his older brother, Yonathan, were regarded as among the Likud’s ‘young princes’ — sons of the party’s founders destined for national leadership. But Yoni Netanyahu’s date with destiny was cut short when he fell in battle while commanding the epic Entebbe raid in July 1976.

“Yoni” instantly became a national hero – a bright, handsome and daring poet/warrior whose men would follow him anywhere. That romanticised view of Yoni Netanyahu remains undiminished by the years, as evidenced by the recent Netflix film “Follow Me”.

By all accounts, the lionisation of Yoni is well placed. However, it also meant young Bibi would always be dogged by unfair comparisons to him. From the start of his public career as a gifted young Israeli diplomat at the UN, the ‘knock’ on Bibi was that Yoni would have been a truly great leader but the nation got stuck with second best. Sure, Benjamin Netanyahu has proven to be exceptionally articulate and highly competent in geo-strategic and economic affairs – indeed a generational statesman for Western democratic freedoms. But inside Israel, many still see him as standing in Yoni’s shadow, or even worse as exploiting Yoni’s popularity and tragic death to advance his own career. This has been an immensely unjust and painful hurdle for him to overcome.

The Shadow of Rabin
As Netanyahu rose within Likud, he became party chairman and Opposition leader in 1995, just as the nation became bitterly divided over the Oslo process. When prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Right-wing extremist, the Left blamed Bibi for fuelling the incitement that led to his death. The accusations were unfounded, and he has spent many years denying them. But the Left’s loathing of Netanyahu for Rabin’s death (and for killing Israel’s best chance for peace) is still lurking in the background of the present drive to oust him.

The Shadow of Ben-Gurion
The Left did manage to drive Netanyahu from power once before, in 1999. Humbled, he took a break from politics and then staged a comeback in 2005, when Ariel Sharon abandoned Likud for Kadima ahead of the Gaza Disengagement. By 2009, Netanyahu returned to the premiership and has held it ever since. This means he now has eclipsed founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. The Left resents this and is determined to depose him.

This particular ‘knock’ on Bibi runs deeper than most realise. Ben-Gurion built Israel as a model of European socialism. Like the kibbutzim, he envisioned the entire nation as an egalitarian society where everyone would share in its success, and seeking individual wealth was taboo. Ben- Gurion himself lived an austere lifestyle and rarely wore a tie. 

Over recent decades, Israel has transformed into the innovative “Start-Up Nation” modelled more on American capitalism. Israelis are inventing cutting-edge paywalls and traffic apps and then cashing out in the billions—something which would have been frowned upon in the 1950s. Netanyahu has epitomised this socio-economic makeover by championing privatisation, free markets and Israel’s hi-tech wizardry.

With their dreams of peace and an ideal socialism gone, many on Israel’s Left now say they want to preserve Israel as a paradigm of pure, upright democracy. That is an honourable goal! But they contend Bibi has tarnished Israeli democracy with his corruption and constant manoeuvring to retain power. Whether those criticisms are valid will now be adjudged in a court of law. But he does have a legitimate complaint about being unfairly chased from office.

The legacy of Benjamin Netanyahu is still being written. But he already stands on rarefied grounds as an orator and statesman, and a master of the rough-and-tumble of Israeli politics.

Meanwhile, if the Israeli people want to offer the world an enviable model of democracy, then a lot more must change than simply ditching Netanyahu. And the nation needs to examine whether the current push to oust and disgrace him is really rooted in jealousies and unwarranted ‘knocks’ on a truly great leader.


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