The truth is, it’s simply amazing: Benjamin Netanyahu can do almost anything. Not only will he not lose popularity, he will actually gain more.
He can serve as prime minister for 12 years, be a suspect in three criminal cases, bring the country to the brink of elections for no real reason, and still climb in the polls. Israelis, it seems, cannot envision an Israel without him. Some people – including two New York Times columnists – genuinely seem to dread the day that Netanyahu will no longer be with us.
It seems to be another case of a leader who “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” as Donald Trump said about himself in January 2016 during the presidential campaign.
There is no question that Netanyahu is one of Israel’s great leaders. He is respected overseas, is cautious when it comes to military intervention, and has helped grow the economy by leaps and bounds.
He also has succeeded – no easy task – in keeping Israel out of the quagmire in Syria.
But let us be clear: Israel was strong before Netanyahu, and Israel will be strong after Netanyahu. There is no call for doomsday scenarios.
Nevertheless, many of his proponents argue, who can replace him? Who among current party leadership and serious outside candidates has the experience, the cool-headedness, and the achievements? It is a legitimate question and the answer is simple: no one. There is no one today who has the same experience as Netanyahu, and there is no one today in Israel who upon taking office will immediately be able to command the same authority that he does on the world stage.
Before we analyze why that is, it is important to keep in mind that the lack of experience among his alternatives is not necessarily bad. While it is true that Netanyahu has unparalleled experience, fresh blood is important not just for government organizations (the Mossad, Shin Bet, IDF, Supreme Court) that all require a mandatory changeover, but also for heads of state. A new general becomes head of the IDF, a new spy becomes head of the Mossad, and a new judge takes over the top seat on the bench. All bring with them new ideas, new ideologies and new ways of doing things. It is about rejuvenation.
There is, however, a deeper question to ask: Why is there no party leader in Israel today with the same experience as Netanyahu? The two politicians currently in the Knesset who do come close are Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and justice minister, and Avigdor Liberman, the current defense minister and a former foreign minister. Nevertheless, both lack any real chance of winning a future election.
The person at fault for this state of affairs is Netanyahu himself. Just look at his current government. It has been functioning without a foreign minister for the last three years, notwithstanding the serious and growing diplomatic challenges Israel faces across the globe.
Instead of appointing someone to the position, Netanyahu has kept it to himself.
At first, he said it was to entice the Zionist Union into the government, but when those talks fell apart in 2016, it wasn’t clear anymore why he did not give the post to someone else. It then turned out that he had promised the job to two different ministers in his own party: Israel Katz and Gilad Erdan.
But why give such a prestigious and high-profile posting to someone who could one day become your rival? Why give another politician an opportunity to shine and steal the show, especially if he or she is not the head of another party whom you would have no choice but to appoint as foreign minister to get them to join your coalition? When looking at the Likud today, there is no one who has served as defense minister, foreign minister or finance minister, roles that used to be a prerequisite for any politician with prime ministerial aspirations.
It is important to keep in mind that Netanyahu did this on purpose, did everything possible to avoid “raising” a potential successor from within his party
– or even from without. This was done to prevent anyone from ever being able to really compete against him. While it might make political sense, it has had two other consequences.
The first is that people left the Likud.
Just look at Netanyahu’s current coalition partners. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, head of Kulanu, used to be a Likud minister; Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, head of Yisrael Beytenu, used to be a Likud member and served as director- general of the Prime Minister’s Office during Netanyahu’s first term in office; Education Minister and Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett was Netanyahu’s chief of staff in 2006, and saw himself as a future Likud MK.
In other words, three of the people who used to work with him and follow his directives now lead parties that directly compete with the Likud. Netanyahu, with his own hands, created his competition.
The second consequence is that Israelis cannot imagine a country without Netanyahu. They fear and dread the day that he will no longer be there, the day his baritone voice will no longer be heard at the United Nations, AIPAC or in the Knesset plenum to ease their concerns about the dangers that lurk in the region.
For that reason, Netanyahu wanted an election declared this week, but on one condition: that it be in June. Why? Next month Israel will mark 70 years of independence, an opportunity for Netanyahu to play up his accomplishments as prime minister. Then a month later, in the middle of May, the United States is moving its embassy to Jerusalem. There is a good chance that Trump will arrive for the ceremony, and the photo-ops. To go to an election right after that would be a huge advantage.
The problem was that all of Netanyahu’s competitors knew that. Bennett, despite the polls, risked having his party’s Knesset numbers cut in half, outmaneuvered by Netanyahu as he was during the last electoral campaign. Liberman’s party looked like it might be wiped out together with Shas, by failing to cross the electoral threshold. The same realization hit the opposition, with Zionist Union understanding that an election in June would only help Netanyahu.
In the end, Netanyahu saw that he did not have the votes to disperse the Knesset. The alternative – of him simply resigning – would have opened the door for another minister to take over as prime minister with the current Knesset, a risk Netanyahu could not afford.
THAT IS why it was slightly disturbing to watch this crisis unfold.
An election now, with the billions of shekels it would cost the economy, was not needed – there was no legitimate reason for Israelis to go to the polls now.
Instead, what the people really need now is a government that does what it is meant to do: work for the benefit of the people by making sure, for example, that massive infrastructure projects (like the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train postponed until the end of the year) do not encounter further delays.
The crisis that erupted this week over haredi demands to pass legislation to stop drafting yeshiva students into the IDF was not real. It was solvable already last week. But as long as an election seemed beneficial to the various parties, no one seemed interested in stopping it. Only when the party leaders realized that it would hurt them did they spring into action.
Israelis deserve better. They deserve a government that works for the people and doesn’t go to “personal” elections to help out a politician in need. While the near-election this week dominated the headlines, we shouldn’t forget why it was almost called: haredi demands to keep receiving an exemption from serving in the IDF.
In other words, the majority of the people in Israel were going to have to pay the price of an election because of the narrow interests of politicians and of a minority segment of society.
Thankfully, an election has been avoided for now
. But don’t be fooled. The day will soon come when another coalition crisis will erupt, and politicians’ considerations will be different. This has nothing to do with the interests of the people.
It is about one thing and one thing only: political survival.