One after another, the would-be leaders of Israel compete to excoriate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Many of them have served under him — as defense ministers, finance ministers, ministers of environmental protection — and have concluded that he is unfit for office, that he is, variously, a criminal, the head of a dishonest government, leading Israel to disaster with his diplomatic and security policies, inciting sectors of the Israeli populace against each other, undermining the courts and the police, capitulating to the ultra-Orthodox, alienating world Jewry, and plenty more.
Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid is generally polling as the main competition to Netanyahu’s Likud, has long asserted that the prime minister is both personally corrupt and running a corrupt coalition.
Lapid, a former finance minister under Netanyahu, has most recently been at the forefront of critics of the so-called police recommendations bill (latterly suspended amid an escalating public outcry), which he alleges was personally “tailored” to help shield Netanyahu from the corruption cases in which he is embroiled.
For Avi Gabbay, the new Labor leader, whose Zionist Union alliance is not too far behind in some of the polls, Israel under Netanyahu is “really getting close to becoming Turkey” in its corrupt, one-man rule. Gabbay is demanding “elections as soon as possible.”
As a member of the Kulanu party, he too served as a minister in Netanyahu’s coalition, quitting in May 2016 when Avigdor Liberman was appointed as defense minister in place of the “temperate” Moshe Ya’alon. At his farewell press conference, Gabbay protested against what he said was becoming an “extremist” government and, full of biblical foreboding, warned: “The Jewish people already destroyed the Second Temple with their civil wars, we must stop these processes that will lead to the destruction of the Third Temple.”
“Temperate” ex-defense minister Ya’alon himself, a former IDF chief of staff and Netanyahu’s right-hand man through several rounds of conflict with Hamas and innumerable other security challenges, declares most weeks that Netanyahu is a crook and that he must resign over an allegedly corruption-riddled deal to purchase German submarines, for which Netanyahu’s two chief legal lieutenants, David Shimron and Yitzhak Molcho, are under investigation.
One of Ya’alon’s distinguished predecessors as both chief of staff and defense minister, Ehud Barak, who also long served together with Netanyahu, let rip just days ago to catalog Netanyahu’s failings. In a New York Times op-ed, Barak accused the Netanyahu-led government of showing a general disrespect for the rule of law, and claimed that it had “declared war” on the courts, the media, civil society and the ethical code of the IDF.
“For all of Israel’s great achievements in its seven decades of statehood, our country now finds its very future, identity and security severely threatened by the whims and illusions of the ultra-nationalist government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” Barak declared. “In its more than three years in power, this government has been irrational, bordering on messianic,” Barak wrote. “It is now increasingly clear where it is headed: creeping annexation of the West Bank.” Netanyahu had also capitulated to the ultra-Orthodox members of his coalition, Barak charged, and damaged Israel’s “crucial relationship with American Jews.”
Other resonant figures have weighed in, too, some of them a little more gently. Netanyahu’s former education minister Gideon Saar, who took a break from politics to spend more time with his family, has said he feels “ill at ease” over one of the Netanyahu corruption cases — involving an alleged deal with the Yedioth Ahronoth daily for more favorable coverage — and that he ultimately intends to become prime minister, but so far has refrained from directly challenging his Likud party leader.
Another former Likud highflier, Moshe Kahlon, chose to bolt and set up his own party, rather than directly challenge Israel’s second-longest serving prime minister, and now exalts in the position of Netanyahu’s finance minister.
Two other former chiefs of staff, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, have been the most restrained of all, steering clear of party politics thus far and instead establishing a “social movement” aimed at bringing “an end to the divisions, an end to the incitement, an end to the baseless hatred.” At their launch, partnered by yet another former Netanyahu education minister Shai Piron, they didn’t so much as mention the name Netanyahu. They really didn’t need to.
What’s quite staggering is not merely the avalanche of criticism and doomsaying by the prime minister’s would-be successors, however. It is, rather, the disconnect between the insistence that Netanyahu has to urgently go — for the sake of Israel, no less — and the critics’ abiding unwillingness to take the one step that would most effectively advance this ostensible national imperative. No matter how grave the purported danger, they simply refuse to get together to defeat it.
Few of Isaac Herzog’s greatest admirers would claim that he was the most potent opposition leader ever to face off in an election campaign against Netanyahu. Yet the Zionist Union chairman, mild-mannered, limited in his appeal, outmaneuvered in the campaign by the experienced Netanyahu, undermined by some in his own party, and also battling the country’s most widely read newspaper, raised his party’s share of Knesset seats in 2015 to 24 (in partnership with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua), while Netanyahu’s Likud fell back a little to 30. It would be false to claim that Herzog came within a whisker of winning the elections, but this fairly unchallenging challenger did give Netanyahu a run for his money. And we will never know how those elections would have been affected had Kahlon and Lapid put their egos aside and agreed on their parties running together.
More than two years later, some of Netanyahu’s critics would have us believe that the very fate of our country is at stake, that we are deeply threatened both internally and externally. And yet, still, the egos hold sway. Gabbay and Lapid snipe at each other. While asserting that there is nobody better qualified than he is to lead us to salvation, Barak merely snipes from the sidelines. Poll after poll shows the uncharismatic Ya’alon failing to so much as clear the threshold to win any Knesset seats at all, and yet he insists on heading his own new political movement rather than bolstering somebody else’s.
Tens of thousands of Israelis protested on Saturday night due to their sense that corruption is taking an ever greater hold on Israel under Netanyahu (and that was before his coalition chief, David Bitan, was called in for a full day’s police questioning in an escalating graft investigation). A far greater number of Israelis, needless to say, wish we had a different prime minister. Netanyahu, in poll after poll after poll, remains by far the public’s most popular choice — but at about 26-31%. That leaves well over two-thirds for whom Netanyahu is not the favored premier.
This, in turn, would suggest that many Israelis are searching around, thus far in vain, for credible alternatives. It would surely give the long list of Netanyahu’s would-be successors considerably more credibility if, when complaining about the damage the prime minister has done, is doing, and will do if he is not stopped, they also declared that, given the gravity of the hour, they were putting aside their relatively marginal ideological differences and unifying to protect the country.
The Israeli public proved in 1999, after three relatively terror-free years, that it was prepared to oust Netanyahu, in part because of a sense that he was missing opportunities for peace. Almost two decades later, the critics would have us believe that the dangers posed by Netanyahu are far more acute. But their egotistical approach, as all their own surveys must be telling them, continues to leave much of the public unpersuaded.