Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting on February 4, 2018..
(photo credit: EMIL SALMAN/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters have often claimed to see something Churchillian in their hero – his outstanding oratory, opposition to appeasement and willingness to confront the cozy consensus of the establishment.
Those not so enamored of Israel’s prime minister will probably settle for a comparison between the two men’s consumption of cigars and champagne, which ends less favorably for Netanyahu – not just in terms of quantity of cigars smoked and alcohol imbibed, or because of Sara Netanyahu’s preference for pink champagne as opposed to Churchill’s favorite cuvée, Pol Roger, but rather due to the distasteful (soon to be decided if criminal) way in which Netanyahu kept his cellar and humidors stocked.
With films like Dunkirk and Darkest Hour hitting the cinemas in recent months, Winston Churchill has once again become the standard against which modern-day political leaders are being measured.
Both films focus on the early days of the Second World War, when a Nazi victory against Europe, including England, looked more than probable, and yet, through Churchill’s determination and leadership, the seemingly unstoppable Nazi advance was halted, setting in motion in the next phase of the war.
Five years later, less than two months after the war ended and despite defeating Hitler, Churchill was unceremoniously drummed out of office by the British electorate. This giant of the twentieth century, who saved the free world against the evils of Nazism, was defeated by Clement Atlee, a man Churchill put down with the remark: “An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Atlee got out,” and once described as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.”
Not only were Churchill’s Conservatives heavily defeated in the 1945 elections, but the uncharismatic Atlee went on to change the face of Britain for the next generation, introducing socialized medicine with the National Health Service and the creation of the cradle-to-grave welfare state.
While many of Atlee’s reforms were later unpicked by the Conservative’s next iconic leader, Margaret Thatcher, the fact is that Atlee shaped post-war Britain as much as Churchill led the country during the fight against Hitler.
The reasons for Churchill’s landslide defeat were many, and more to do with societal changes than dissatisfaction with his leadership role during the war, but the key lesson for modern-day Israeli politicians, particularly those on the Right, to learn, is that in a democracy, no leader is irreplaceable. No politician is born to rule forever.
Netanyahu, however, seems intent on proving the impossible. Frighteningly for the future of Israel’s well-being, nobody in the Likud or among his coalition partners is brave enough to tell him the game is up and the time has come for the prime minister to stand down and stop his wild attacks on the police, judiciary and media in his ever-increasingly desperate attempts to stave off criminal charges.
From Netanyahu’s narrow, selfish perspective, and for as long as he honestly believes he can continue to run the country effectively – despite the police recommendations to indict him on bribery charges and continuing investigations into further suspected criminal wrongdoing – one can perhaps understand his refusal to resign. The law does not demand it, and Netanyahu has never claimed to be a leader of impeccable moral standards.
But surely there must be a politician on the Right brave enough to play the role of Ehud Barak, who, in similar circumstances a decade ago, forced then-prime minister Ehud Olmert’s resignation.
Despite the chants every election of “Bibi, king of Israel,” Israel is not a monarchy. Calls for the prime minister to step down are not a left-wing plot to undermine his government; without Netanyahu at its head, the Likud will still continue to lead the coalition in the Knesset and the most right-wing government in Israel’s history will still remain intact.
As Rabbi Netanel Eliyashiv, a teacher in the pre-army seminary Bnei David in the West Bank settlement of Eli, wrote in a newspaper column over the weekend: “What’s the point of fighting for the country’s borders if we don’t know how to fight for what’s happening inside them.” Eliyashiv, who can hardly be accused of being a closet liberal, also went on to point out that the ship is always more important than the captain; if the ship is danger, better to replace the captain than risk the ship sinking along with him.
Surrounded only by ministers he views as political pygmies and sycophants, Netanyahu may indeed feel he is irreplaceable, but no doubt Churchill felt the same when fighting Atlee in the 1945 British general election. Very few prime ministers in a democracy ever quit at a time of their choosing; and much as he might dispute it, now is the time for the scandal-laden Netanyahu to go. All that’s lacking is a politician on the Right with the moral courage to point this out to him.The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.