The results of the elections in Israel highlighted the singular, central role played by Benjamin Netanyahu in Israeli politics. His stunning success in being elected for the fifth time as prime minister, notwithstanding three legal proceedings pending against him, has impressed both his supporters and detractors in Israel and abroad.
In a few months’ time, Netanyahu will beat the record of Israel’s first premier, David Ben-Gurion, by serving for a longer period as prime minister than he did.
Contrary to what some of his critics claim, Netanyahu has not turned into an Israeli version of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Far from it.
Israel is endowed with a stable and vibrant parliamentary democratic system. Its judiciary, notwithstanding the criticism levelled against it by prominent members of the Israeli Right, is independent and well-respected. Elections in Israel are free, and freedom of expression is equal to none in the Middle East. Further, whether one agrees with his policies or not, there is little doubt that in foreign affairs, Netanyahu has secured more friends and created less enemies than Erdogan has.
A more valid comparison would be with Margaret Thatcher, who served as Britain’s prime minister from 1979 to 1990. To be sure, for that comparison to be valid, one would have to stress not only the similarities between the two, but also the differences.
Thatcher was the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century. Netanyahu will soon become the longest-serving Israeli PM.
Thatcher was a singularly charismatic leader, representing the center-right and right-wing of her country, as Netanyahu is. Indeed, the “Iron Lady” was adored by her supporters and disdained by her critics, as Netanyahu is.
Thatcher was an ideologue, as Netanyahu is, though she could be pragmatic to attain her ideological objectives, as Netanyahu can.
Both are identified with a free-market economic outlook, seeing the virtues of a dynamic economy based on private enterprise and competition.
Thatcher managed to lead her Conservative Party to a singularly impressive three consecutive electoral victories. Netanyahu, for his part, led his Likud Party to a stunning four consecutive electoral victories.
Thatcher adopted a critical attitude towards the traditional socio-political and academic elites in Britain, partly in response to a hostile posture displayed by them toward her. In 1985, for instance, a considerable majority of the governing assembly, the Congregation of Oxford University refused to grant her an honorary doctorate. She was only the second person in the 20th century (at least until then) to be refused such a distinction.
IT WAS a snub that resonated widely in Britain. As a student at Oxford University then, I recall vividly the unprecedented impact of that decision, and the fierce debates that ensued in its wake.
Netanyahu, for his part, has shown a similar critical attitude toward the elites in Israel, particularly toward the media and intellectual elites.
In this context, a clear difference has to be drawn between the two. Thatcher was never openly critical of the law and order authorities in Britain, whereas Netanyahu has criticized either directly or through other prominent Likud members, the police and even, albeit in a more subtle manner, the attorney-general. There are central elements in the right-wing in Israel that are critical of the Supreme Court, seeing it as too activist, allowing itself to get involved in political matters beyond its purview. The line between legitimate criticisms levelled at decisions handed down by the Supreme Court, and a disdainful attitude toward it, are not always preserved. Although Netanyahu has been careful not to engage directly in such verbal assaults, he has not come out against them either.
Another distinction that can be made in this regard relates to the blurring between the private sphere and the public realm. Thatcher made no effort to introduce her family into the political province, nor did her husband or children endeavor to get involved in it. Netanyahu, on the other hand, appears in public more often than not with his wife, who is reported to be directly involved in politically related issues, and his elder son is reported to be engaged in shaping policy, on occasion making his views known in public.
It should be stressed also that Thatcher was never suspected of having been involved in any illegal activity, whereas Netanyahu has three legal cases pending against him.
Whether he is to be tried or found guilty, his life style, contrary to Thatcher’s, has been the subject of criticism. He and his wife are widely reported to live at the expense of rich friends, asking them for expensive gifts and being reluctant to spend their own money, even though they are financially well off.
Of course, in any comparison of this sort, the different internal and external circumstances within which the two prime ministers operated must be taken into consideration. The renowned British politician Enoch Powell used to say that every political career ends in failure. Thatcher’s certainly did as she was forced to resign by key members of her own Conservative Party. How will Netanyahu’s political career end? The writer is a lecturer at the Diplomacy Studies Program, School of Political Science, International Affairs and Government, Tel Aviv University.
Of course, in any comparison of this sort, the different internal and external circumstances within which the two prime ministers operated must be taken into consideration.
The renowned British politician Enoch Powell used to say that every political career ends in failure. Thatcher’s certainly did as she was forced to resign by key members of her own Conservative Party. How will Netanyahu’s political career end? The writer is a lecturer at the Diplomacy Studies Program, School of Political Science, International Affairs and Government, Tel Aviv University.
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