Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s performance at the Likud rally last Wednesday at the Tel Aviv Convention Center showed him at his very best and worst.
At his best because he gave a polished performance, in which each and every word and movement was carefully considered yet seemingly improvised – and there was no trace of his rather pale, mummified appearance of recent months.
At his worst because it was one of Netanyahu’s most inciting and divisive speeches ever, with little regard for accuracy of facts – the sort of speech one expects to hear from an autocratic leader, not that of “the only democracy in the Middle East.”
The captive Likud audience was bused in from all over the country and was genuinely enthusiastic, daring to say to the microphones much more than Netanyahu himself did – that the investigations against the prime minister are nothing more than an attempt to overthrow the regime in an undemocratic manner, that the media and the lefties are one and the same, that the police and judicial authorities are heavily contaminated by the Left, and that we should expect to see Netanyahu in power at least until 2035. Some of the Likud ministers and MKs present were a little less enthusiastic, and were there because coalition chairman David Bitan had threatened that they would pay dearly in the next primaries if they failed to show up.
Netanyahu is right that there are many in the Israeli Left and Center who would like to see him forced out of the residence at Balfour Street by any legal means possible.
Most of his potential successors hold the same view but dare not speak up, for the fate of those who even hint that they see themselves as his successors is well known. The current “culprit” being targeted is Yisrael Katz, whose crimes are that he is an excellent transportation minister, doesn’t like Netanyahu’s inclination to steal credit from those who deserve it and doesn’t conceal his political ambitions.
Netanyahu is wrong when he says that the investigations are designed to “remove the regime” by illegal means. The investigations are designed to decide whether the various transgressions that he and his wife are suspected of having committed over the years, and for which there seem to be ample evidence, are serious enough – qualitatively or quantitatively – to bring criminal charges against them. If they are, the Netanyahus will be forced to depart the residence in Balfour Street. The majority of Israelis agree that this is what must happen.
Netanyahu may eventually be replaced by someone from the Center or Left, but will most likely be replaced immediately by someone from within the Likud – hopefully from among its more moderate, modest and responsible members. That is, unless Netanyahu leaves behind in the Likud a scorched-earth reality, in which case all hell will break loose.
Why is it time that Netanyahu go? The first reason is that he is showing worrying signs of self-aggrandizement, which manifest themselves in his apparent conviction that his own welfare is identical to that of the State of Israel in general and the political Right in particular. L’état, c’est moi? This is accompanied by a systematic demonization and delegitimization of the Left, the liberals, the Arabs, the media and anyone who dares criticize his policies and personal conduct.
In the 1990s Netanyahu still supported the limitation of a prime minister’s term of office to eight years.
Today he chuckles when his supporters shout out that he should remain in office forever, argues that every electoral victory by the Left or Center is tantamount to an illegal removal of the Right from power and that every attempt within the Likud to challenge his own leadership is an act of treason.
If to prove his point he must reinvent history – so be it. Thus at the Convention Center he argued that the Left had brought down prime minister Yithzak Shamir in 1992 by means of the false slogan “Mushchatim Nimastem [we are tired of the corrupt],” when in fact the slogan was aimed at those who had collaborated with Shimon Peres’ failed efforts to replace Shamir in 1990, and with the likes of Yitzhak Mod’ai (a former Likud member) who conditioned joining Shamir’s subsequent narrow government on receiving a hefty bank guarantee.
The main achievement of the slogan was the passage of the law for the direct election of the prime minister, which actually helped Netanyahu win in 1996. Shamir was brought down in 1992 by his extreme right-wing coalition partners, who objected to his participation in the Madrid (peace) conference, and all the votes lost to the Right due to the proliferation of right-wing lists running in the elections, many of which failed to pass the qualifying threshold.
Netanyahu himself lost the 1999 election to Labor’s Ehud Barak not because of “false” accusations of administrative and personal corruption, but because his first term of office was singularly unimpressive, and the public believed Barak, (who was soon to be ousted himself) was preferable. The Likud went down from 32 to 19 seats.
However, most telling about Netanyahu’s perception of himself was his statement to the Amona evacuees that he understood how they felt about being evicted from their homes, because that is how he felt when he was “evicted” from the residence in Balfour Street in 1999 following his electoral defeat, forgetting to add that he owned a luxurious private apartment less than a kilometer south of the official prime minister’s residence.
Then there is Netanyahu’s apparent designation of his 25-year-old son Yair as his successor (very democratic of him), even though the young man has so far proven only that he is an extreme right-wing social media bully with even less respect for facts than his father, and much less charisma.
Netanyahu should also go home (he now has two private homes – one in Jerusalem and the second in Caesarea) because of all the collateral damage his excessively long sojourn in the Prime Minister’s Office has caused, side by side with many impressive achievements in the military sphere (partially thanks to the mess in the Arab world) and the economic sphere (on the macro level).
The damage has been caused to the welfare state – largely due to neo-liberal economics and the excessive privatization of services; to the cohesion of the society, due to deliberate incitement against the old elites and the Israeli Arabs, to which Netanyahu is partner; and to Israel’s moral status in the Western democratic world – largely due to Netanyahu’s own diplomatic preferences and choices. One also cannot deny that since Netanyahu returned to power in 2009 personal and political corruption has increased to a worrying extent, with the Yisrael Beytenu and submarine affairs being only the tip of the iceberg.
Even if the unexpected happens and the police and State Attorney’s Office conclude that there isn’t enough evidence to charge Netanyahu, one way or another, sooner or later he and his family will exit our lives. For all our sakes, it will hopefully be sooner.