How did it come about that so many Israelis feel that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – one of the least impressive prime ministers Israel has ever had (unless one is impressed by a bass voice and impeccable American English), whose main political achievement to date is his own political survival – is irreplaceable?
One can blame the Palestinians for Netanyahu’s original assumption of the premiership in the first of three direct elections for prime minister (1996), when after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks ensured Netanyahu’s victory over Shimon Peres by less than 30,000 votes (i.e. 15,000 votes were what tilted the result).
Three years later (1999) Netanyahu was beaten by Ehud Barak in the second direct elections for the premiership, and his party – the Likud – went down to 12 Knesset seats.
His reaction? To take time out, and “la’assot lebeito” (look after his own interests – i.e. make some money). That was also what Barak did when in the third round of direct elections in 2001 he lost to Ariel Sharon, at the time still leader of the Likud.
In other words, these two highly intelligent Sayeret Matkal veterans – Netanyahu and Barak – seem to believe that others should clear the political mess that they leave behind. Both made comebacks, and in the 2009 elections – after Sharon decided to defect from the Likud hornet’s nest and establish Kadima, and Ehud Olmert was elected prime minister after Sharon’s incapacitation – we got Netanyahu back as premier, and Barak as defense minister.
This time Netanyahu had Olmert’s petty corruption and Barak’s autistic leadership style to thank rather than his own achievements, though his performance as finance minister in Sharon’s government (until the evacuation of Gush Katif) was undoubtedly impressive.
And with this political record, Netanyahu will soon overtake David Ben-Gurion in terms of total time in office as prime minister, though people tend to forget that Ben-Gurion – the founder of the State of Israel, and its most impressive prime minister, despite his occasional childish pettiness – was the political leader of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine) for 13 years before the establishment of the state.
What have Netanyahu’s achievements been as prime minister since 2009? First of all, he has managed to keep two totally incoherent governments going, largely by means of “divide and rule” tactics. Secondly he has managed to work closely, and in full cooperation, with his defense ministers – first Barak and then Moshe Ya’alon – in highly problematic security circumstances. Third, he has managed to avoid doing anything on controversial issues.
In June 2009, he spoke at Bar-Ilan University of the two-state solution, and then spent the following years ensuring that no progress was made in the negotiations with the Palestinians toward achieving such a solution, inter alia doing nothing to stop Jewish settlement activities throughout the West Bank. Primarily against this background, as well as his uncompromising positions vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear capability, he managed to lead Israel to an unprecedented state of isolation in the international arena, though fortunately for Israel the rise of Islamic State and its ilk, as well as Vladimir Putin’s apparent return to Soviet-style strategies and tactics, have somewhat softened Israel’s international predicament – at least for the time being.
Netanyahu’s reaction to the social protest movement of the summer of 2011 was to bury the issue in the Trajtenberg Committee report, most of the recommendations of which were simply ignored. On most issues his views are simply unknown. For example, does he really believe that the housing, education and health problems in Israel can be resolved exclusively by means of market forces and private initiative? And what is his true position on the question of fully integrating the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community into mainstream Israeli society, military service and gainful employment included, with the subsequent effects that this will have on the secular society in general, and the status of women in particular? What does he think about the ugly manifestation of racism – both official and unofficial – vis-à-vis the Arabs and the African infiltrators/refugees? On September 14 German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke at a demonstration in Berlin against manifestations of anti-Semitism in Germany. Is it too much to expect Netanyahu to speak up, as our new president Reuven Rivlin has done, against manifestations of racism in Israel, from the safety of his office, if his venturing out to the street is considered too dangerous, or don’t these manifestations disturb him? More generally, is Netanyahu worried about disrespect for democratic principles among the political Right in general, and his own party in particular, or is the disappearance from the Likud of most of its more liberal members and supporters of the rule of law, without his lifting a finger to back them up, an indication of where he stands on this issue? Sometimes one gets the impression that he is simple scared to express more liberal positions for fear of the reaction of his own political camp to his doing so.
But who knows whether he really holds such positions? And what about the recent operation in Gaza – is the outcome what he had hoped for? Couldn’t he have attained a similar result, with many fewer human casualties, less physical destruction and financial expense, by keeping an open mind regarding the coalition government between the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas? And if he wanted another, more decisive outcome with regard to Hamas, why did he maneuver Israel into a situation in which this couldn’t be achieved due to Israel’s problematic international position, which he himself got us into? What we do know is that like Shimon Peres as leader of the Labor Party in the years 1977 to 1992, Netanyahu’s way of warding off any threat to his leadership in his own party is by politically castrating any potential competitors, Gideon Sa’ar being the most recent example.
What is quite amazing is that he has been getting away with this strategy, despite his loss of support in his own party, which once again resembles a hornet’s nest much more than the cohesive movement that backed up Menachem Begin for close to 20 years in the wilderness. If even MK Danny Danon says that the Likud must do some serious soul searching (Yom Kippur is certainly a good time for that), then the situation must be grave.
A friend of mine, who is a great admirer of Netanyahu, pointed out to me when I related to him my misgivings that I wasn’t being fair. These are unsettled times in our region, he said, and with Israeli society divided as it is, what we need at the moment is someone who can simply see us safely through the storm, without rocking the boat too much – which is what Netanyahu has been doing quite successfully.
Yes, I answered, but where is the boat heading? And besides, assuming that he has a direction beyond his own political survival, why is Netanyahu doing nothing to try to mend some of the schisms in the Israeli society on the way, or to try to place Israel in a more comfortable international position in order to prevent future unpleasantness? Well, answered my friend, there is no one around to do the job better than Netanyahu.
Really? Even within the Likud I can think of one or two worthy candidates, not to mention several senior politicians from other parties (Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid not included). And let us not forget that the Likud is no longer the largest parliamentary group in the Knesset.
Who’s fault is that? The writer is a retired Knesset employee.