Benjamin Netanyahu has much to commend him over his past decade as prime minister of Israel. In a treacherous, toxic, unpredictable region, he has kept this tiny country — nine miles wide at its narrowest point — not merely intact and relatively safe, but economically thriving, and, by the assessments of its own citizens, notably happy.
He has faced down Iran as it seeks to expand its hold on this region, and played one of the most vital global roles in keeping the ayatollahs away from their goal of building a nuclear arsenal. Strategizing with Israel’s security chiefs, he has prevented the conflict with the Palestinians from spiraling out of control in the West Bank, and thwarted Hamas’s avowed goal of destroying Israel from Gaza.
He has built strong personal relations with an unpredictable US president — and been rewarded with Donald Trump’s recognition of an unspecified proportion of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and of the strategic Golan Heights ridge captured from Syria in 1967 as Israeli territory.
He has forged effective relations, too, with Russia’s shrewd president — maintaining coordination with Vladimir Putin as Israel seeks to prevent Iran from entrenching itself in Russian-dominated Syria, even after Moscow lost a spy plane and 15 military personnel in an incident that could easily have derailed that relationship. He was rewarded last week with the spectacularly well-timed — for Netanyahu’s political purposes — return by Russia of the remains of an Israeli soldier, Zachary Baumel, killed in a tank battle in the Lebanon War 37 years ago.
All of which and more might explain why, according to our notoriously unreliable opinion polls, Netanyahu appears well-placed to win Israel’s elections on Tuesday — possibly as the head of the biggest party, and emphatically as the politician best able to cobble together a multi-party majority coalition.
But Netanyahu’s track record is blighted, too. He has forged uncomfortably close relationships with certain unsavory world leaders, including the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, whose realpolitik value for Israel should have been outweighed by their unpalatable, extremist tendencies. He has alienated large parts of Diaspora Jewry by sacrificing the interests of all streams of our faith to his narrow political coalition needs, most drastically by abandoning the solemnly negotiated agreement that would have formalized a non-Orthodox Jewish role in oversight of pluralistic prayer at a designated section of the Western Wall.
In the narrative with which he has governed and fought elections — most especially this one — Netanyahu and those who vote for him are strong, clear-eyed, Zionist patriots, while his political rivals are weak, confused appeasers, siding with Israel’s enemies in pursuing an illegal witch hunt in order to remove him
As the American political climate has become increasingly shrill, he has made it too easy for Israel to be misrepresented as a Trump cause, a Republican cause — a dangerously shortsighted miscalculation given the speed with which the American leadership pendulum routinely swings from political side to side.
He has also deliberately become an increasing force for division within Israel. In the narrative with which he has governed and fought elections — most especially this one — Netanyahu and those who vote for him are strong, clear-eyed, Zionist patriots, while his political rivals are weak, confused appeasers, siding with Israel’s enemies in pursuing an illegal witch hunt in order to remove him.
His main rival in Tuesday’s elections, the former army chief of staff Benny Gantz, noted in an interview with this writer last week that the IDF, the Mossad, the police and all other such hierarchies change their leader every few years, ensuring that they evolve effectively with a constant injection of fresh thinking and vigor. Netanyahu’s insistent claim, by contrast, is that he and he alone can lead Israel, and he has taken profoundly inappropriate steps to try to ensure that he continues to do so.
Prominent among these has been his ongoing effort to demonize Israel’s Arab electorate. On election day itself four years ago, in a cynically calculated effort to get out the vote, he asserted that Arab Israeli voters were being bused to the polling booths in droves. He promoted this claim via his widely followed Facebook page, and it was hyped for hours, too, at the top of the Walla news website, according to the allegations published against Netanyahu in the Case 4000 Bezeq-Walla affair in which he is facing bribery charges. (Wrote the attorney-general to Netanyahu in the draft charge sheet released on February 28, “You ordered [your then-media adviser turned state witness Nir] Heretz to pass the video on to [Bezeq chief and Walla owner Shaul] Elovitch… Elovitch then ordered [Walla CEO Ilan] Yeshua to publish it with the headline, ‘Netanyahu: The Arabs are coming in great droves to vote.'” As a result of the correspondence “the video was left as the lead headline on the site for many hours.”)
With similar damn-the-consequences cynicism in the run-up to this year’s vote, Netanyahu personally brokered an alliance among several right-wing factions, fearing they might separately fail to clear the 3.25% threshold for Knesset representation, that gave legitimacy to a party helmed by self-styled disciples of the late racist rabbi Meir Kahane (whose Kach party was banned by Israel in the 1980s and designated as a terrorist organization in Israel and the US). This party, Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), aims to extend Israel’s sovereign borders from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River and resettle elsewhere in the Arab world any and all non-Jews in that expanded country, Israel’s Arab citizens among them, whom it designates as “enemies of Israel.” Otzma Yehudit’s leader has been banned by the High Court from running for election; his No. 2 seems set to win a seat in the Knesset.
Netanyahu has waged a still more sustained campaign of division and demonization against key pillars of Israeli democracy. Seeking with increasing desperation to extricate himself from allegations of corruption, he has over the past two years incessantly castigated his political opponents and the Israeli media as Bolsheviks and leftists single-mindedly bent on bringing him down. As the investigations against him gathered pace, and concluded with police recommendations that he be put on trial, he widened his targets to include the cops and their commissioner, a man he had himself appointed, staining them as biased and determined to frame him.
As the attorney general moved to adopt many of those recommendations and eventually announced in late February that Netanyahu would go on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, pending a hearing, the prime minister asserted that the state prosecution was part of the plot against him, too. And that Attorney General Avichai Mandeblit, also his appointee, was yet another of the weaklings who had come to share the leftist agenda.
Will the respect and appreciation that so many Israelis have for Netanyahu’s achievements in keeping the country safe, triumph over their concerns for the harm he is causing to the fabric of the nation?
Some of which might explain why Gantz’s less than dazzling campaign — which has seen him lurch from statesmanlike speeches to counterattacks against Netanyahu’s efforts to smear him as incompetent and unstable; has been quite staggeringly male-dominated (as of course has Netanyahu’s); and has been dogged by leaks of private conversations and the curious saga of his phone apparently being hacked by Iran — nonetheless has made sufficient headway to pose arguably the strongest challenge to Netanyahu since 2009.
To a large extent, in a country where politics has direct life-and-death implications for the citizenry — where the choice of government can determine the size of the country, its population mix, and the frequency with which its conscript children must risk their lives to defend it — Tuesday’s poll is about one question: Is Netanyahu good for Israel?
For some voters, the answer is a simple yes or no. They love or loathe him and his policies; they trust or mistrust him utterly; they’ll always/never vote for him; they’re delighted/devastated he’s talking about applying sovereignty at the settlements; they relish/revile his partnerships with the ultra-Orthodox parties… They face no dilemma.
For many others, though, the question is excruciatingly complex. For many Israelis, Tuesday’s vote is an agonizing choice between the two sides of our longtime prime minister, and their conclusion may go a long way toward determining whether he retains power. Will their respect and appreciation for Netanyahu’s achievements in keeping the country safe triumph over their concerns for the harm he is causing to the fabric of the nation?
As they weigh that conundrum, these voters will by extension be asking themselves whether they are confident that Gantz and the rest of his Blue and White party leadership, while working to bolster Israel’s internal unity, are capable of protecting the country and maintaining all those important diplomatic relationships worldwide. Ironically, given that Blue and White features two other former IDF chiefs in its ranks, the surveys suggest it is Netanyahu’s “Mr. Security” credentials that his rivals are finding hardest to crack.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of Netanyahu’s fight to stay in power, however, is the suspicion that, if reelected, he will seek legislation to grant himself immunity from prosecution in the three corruption cases in which he is facing charges. Gantz has warned that Netanyahu is setting Israel on the path to becoming something like Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gained ever-greater control over law enforcement and the media and “is protecting himself from investigations and from other efforts aimed at preventing corruption.”
Asked repeatedly of late whether he would initiate, support or tacitly encourage any such Israeli version of the so-called “French Law,” Netanyahu has been ambivalent. In one television interview two weeks ago, he said the idea was “out of the question,” but just seconds later he recalibrated to say he didn’t know, and then that he didn’t think so.
The “French Law” shorthand designation is deeply misleading. To be of any use to Netanyahu, such legislation would need to be applied retroactively — a highly undemocratic move. Furthermore, in France, where the state president is protected from prosecution while in office, there are term limits; no president can serve more than two five-year periods. In Israel, the prime minister can serve for as long as he is elected to do so. An Israeli version of the “French Law” could thus potentially enable Netanyahu to continually avoid prosecution.
Several of his potential coalition allies and Likud colleagues have said they would oppose any such legislation. Were it to pass, Netanyahu’s battering of the pillars of Israeli democracy would graduate to the cracking and crumbling of those pillars.
That scenario may not figure too highly in voters’ minds as they make their choice. And that’s fair enough. After all, we’re a democracy. On Tuesday, the Israeli electorate will decide where we’re headed next.