Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during his victory speech at Likud headquarters as his wife, Sara, looks on.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Beyond the questions of who will form the next government and what kind of Push-Me-Pull-You coalition will result, there is an equally compelling mystery stemming from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stunning comeback.
Can Netanyahu learn from his near-death experience? One likes to think his confrontation with the very real phenomenon of Netanyahu-fatigue – which is not going away – may have humbled him, and will lead him to reorient his approach. One fears, however, that his last-minute demagogic pandering to the worst Likud yahoo impulses, the yetzer hara, evil inclination, in the darkest recesses of Israel’s anti-Semitism-scarred soul, will leave him more arrogant and hard-headed than ever.
Here’s the opening to a speech I would love for Netanyahu to give – some elements of which did appear in his victory speech: “My friends – and by that I mean all citizens of Israel, be they Jewish or Arab, Left or Right, my ardent supporters or my passionate opponents – I heard you. I heard your demands for a more just economic system with a more robust economy. I heard your cries for a more optimistic and proactive politics. I heard your denunciations of political sleaze, be it brazen corruption or ethical sloppiness. I heard your yearnings that Israel be a light unto the nations, not a pariah state. I heard your requests for a more straightforward, constructive governing approach. And I will do my best to listen and learn, to adapt and grow.
“Of course, I also heard your pleas for security first, for tough dealings with the nuclear-hungry Iranians, for realistic approaches to the unyielding Palestinians, and for careful vigilance with the rest of the chaotic Arab world. That’s what I have given you before, and will deliver again. But some things on this list are difficult for me to provide.
“And so, I hope that if I return as prime minister, I will have a national unity government, with Isaac Herzog to strike a new tone in foreign affairs as foreign minister, with Tzipi Livni running the prime minister’s residence and heading up an anti-corruption task force as justice minister, with Moshe Kahlon looking out for the poor and the middle class as finance minister, and with Yair Lapid as interior minister working day and night on a viable electoral reform – that contrary to his own interests encourages larger, more inclusive, bridge-building parties, much like the Joint Arab List was this election.
“I am keeping Moshe Ya’alon as defense minister because he, like the rest of this all-star team, is the right person for this challenging job. I am also looking for a new ambassador to the US, to set a new tone in what I hope will be more constructive relations with President Barack Obama and our bipartisan supporters throughout the US.”
In 1994, Bill Clinton felt the sting of political rejection without losing his position, when the Republicans won Congress for the first time since Dwight Eisenhower’s day. Looking back on it, that near-death experience brought Clinton back to the center, back to his defining ideals, back to himself, and back to the American people’s good graces. Benjamin Netanyahu almost lost this time because he too forgot how to listen to Israeli needs and he, too, abandoned the center.
Netanyahu’s back. He won a clear victory, albeit with reprehensible rhetoric and a sharp veer rightward. But Israelis overall want governance from the center. The Jewish people, and democratic lovers of freedom the world over need him to learn some tough lessons, evolve, and be the best kind of leader Israel can offer, not a demagogic panderer who wins by demonizing fellow citizens, be they to his Left or from the Arab sector.
The author is a professor of history at McGill University, teaching this semester at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School. His next book,
The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, will be published this fall by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martins Press. @GilTroy