Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference, February 19th, 2019.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
For many people, Tuesday’s election will be a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Have the Israeli people had enough of their leader for the past decade or do they still believe that he is the only person who can continue to steer the country through the rocky waters that make up the Middle East?
The Netanyahu supporters make a strong argument: Israel, they say, has had a decade of economic prosperity under Netanyahu as well as relative security along its borders. Yes, there is the occasional flare-up in the Gaza Strip, but overall, less Israelis have died in terrorist attacks in the last decade than the one before.
These Netanyahu supporters point to his diplomatic prowess and his trips around the world that took him – just in the last two weeks – to Washington for meetings with US President Donald Trump and to Moscow for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In between, he hosted Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Jerusalem and along the way brought home the remains of missing IDF soldier Zachary Baumel as well as US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
The supporters recall his resolute opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and how he built up strategic ties with the Trump administration, getting it to withdraw from the pact and move its embassy to Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s detractors recognize this success but they also see something else. They see a leader who has been running Israel for 13 years and who has become allegedly corrupted by his position. The three criminal cases against him are all for events that took place during his last few years as prime minister. Being in power for so long, they claim, is unhealthy and has made Netanyahu believe he can do almost anything and get away with it.
These critics view Netanyahu’s assault on the Supreme Court, the Justice Ministry and the Israel Police as a frontal attack on the democratic character of the Jewish state. When he attacks the attorney-general, the police commissioner or the state’s attorney, they worry that he will eventually undermine the institutions needed for this country to thrive. When he blasts the press, they are concerned that one day there will be no one left to serve as a watchdog of this democracy.
While the Netanyahu supporters claim that there is no viable candidate out there who can replace him and achieve what he has achieved, the detractors point to Blue and White’s three chiefs of staff who, they say, have over 100 years of defense experience accumulatively.
They point to his divisive style of politics and the way he demonizes political rivals and critics. They warn that anyhow, Netanyahu will not remain prime minister for long since by this time next year, all predictions are that he will be indicted.
These questions about Netanyahu have dominated the elections. Peace with the Palestinians, for example – once a key election issue – never came up. Social welfare issues were spoken about on the margins and only because Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut Party pushed them into the headlines. Parties like Kulanu, headed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, suffered as a result. Despite four years of hard work at lowering the cost of living and housing, Kahlon could barely get himself a prime-time TV interview.
Is Netanyahu the only person who can lead Israel? Of course not. No country is dependent on one single individual. But no matter what happens on Tuesday, this election will be remembered as one of Israel’s most historic. Not because of some issue that sits on the top of the nation’s agenda and needs to be resolved, but because of Netanyahu, whose fate now rests in the hands of the 6.3 million people eligible to vote.
If he wins, Netanyahu will be viewed as a magician; a type of political Houdini who even three former IDF chiefs of staff could not defeat. If he loses, it will be the end of an era, one that he has shaped and dominated likely beyond what we currently understand.
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