Someday, though it’s not exactly clear when, Israel will wake up without Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at its helm.
It might be in May, a couple months after the March 23 election, if Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, Yamina’s Naftali Bennett or New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar is able to somehow cobble together an anyone-but-Bibi coalition.
It might be in five years, or maybe in 10 – but someday it is going to happen.
On Saturday Netanyahu will have served as this country’s head of government for exactly 15 years. Fifteen years: 11 years and 347 days during his present term, and three years and 18 days during his first term which began in May 1996 and ended in 1999.
Fifteen years is a considerable chunk of time. It means that Israeli 25-year-olds born the same year that Netanyahu first moved into the Prime Minister’s Office have lived only some nine-and-a-half years without Netanyahu as their prime minister. Fifteen years means that Netanyahu has led Israel for fully 20.5% – or one-fifth – of the country’s soon-to-be 73 years of independence.
It is no wonder, therefore, that many have difficulty fathoming what it will be like when the 71-year-old prime minister is no longer chairing the cabinet meetings, dominating the news, or flying on Israel’s behalf around the world.
And the Likud’s present campaign is to a large degree about getting people to shudder at that very thought.
“To be Israel’s prime minister you need to think many steps ahead,” Netanyahu said in one of the campaign spots aired this week, “with leadership, the ability to get things done, international stature, negotiation capabilities. So ask yourself who will bring millions of more vaccines to Israel: me or Yair Lapid?”
In another spot he asked – obviously only rhetorically – who will keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
“To stop Iran true leadership is needed,” he declared. “Leadership that is strong on the world stage. Leadership that does not hesitate to stand up against the whole world, against anyone who threatens to destroy Israel. Leadership that will send the Mossad to the center of Tehran to bring out its secret nuclear archives. So who will stand up to Iran and protect Israel, me or Lapid?”
He rammed this point home even harder in a 30-minute interview this week with The Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov, asking on no less than four separate occasions who else but he can fly the plane that is Israel.
“If you have a plane you need to fly and you are a passenger, who are you going to let fly the plane? The guy that’s experienced, who’s got proven results, who’s recognized around the world... or somebody who doesn’t know how to fly the plane? So the plane either doesn’t take off or it crashes.”
All that is meant to present as almost unfathomable the idea that someone other than Netanyahu can lead the country. But someday there will be a day after Netanyahu, and then what? What will Israel’s fate be the day after?
THERE IS historical precedent to look at: David Ben-Gurion, that irrepressible force who strode like a giant across the Zionist stage both in the three decades preceding the establishment of the state and as prime minister for over 13 years afterward. When he stepped down in 1963 for personal reasons, handing the reins of power over to the decidedly uncharismatic Levi Eshkol, many asked how the country could manage without Ben-Gurion in charge, especially with a man as gray as Eshkol.
Yet the country managed and even prospered under Eshkol’s six-year tenure, which included the stunning victory in the Six Day War. In the mid-1960s Israelis realized that no one is irreplaceable, not even Ben-Gurion.
Netanyahu accuses his opponents of lacking the experience needed to do his job. Lapid, Bennett and Sa’ar, he said in his interview with Harkov, “are full of ambition, but they have no record, no experience, no capacity, no proven ability, and now we have to fly the Israeli plane. Who’ll fly the plane?”
But Netanyahu himself entered the job in 1996 without ministerial experience. By that time he had been deputy chief of mission to the embassy in Washington, ambassador to the UN, a Likud MK, and deputy foreign minister, but that does not account for significantly more government experience than what Lapid, Bennett and Sa’ar have racked up during their time in the Knesset and in various ministerial posts.
Leaders are not hatched fully mature overnight; they generally grow into their jobs. Netanyahu did so, but to listen to his campaign pitch is to believe that no one else would be able to repeat that particular trick.
ANOTHER OF Netanyahu’s messages in his election ads is that his vast experience has enabled him to create invaluable relations with leaders around the world: with men such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, with India’s Narendra Modi, even with US President Joe Biden, with whom he said in the Post interview he has had a “very close relationship for close to 40 years.”
And while close personal relationships between leaders are definitely an added value in diplomatic relations, neither Putin, Modi, nor any other world leader – including the leaders of the four Arab countries that recently signed accords with Jerusalem – want a close relationship with Israel because they get along well with Netanyahu. Rather, they want that close relationship with Israel because it serves their country’s interests. And those interests will remain as they are, regardless of who occupies the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem.
Remember as well that just as Netanyahu will not be around forever, neither will Putin or Modi.
Russia’s interests in a very close working relationship with Jerusalem – and Israel’s keen interest in a close relationship with Moscow – took off in September 2015, when the Russians intervened massively in the Syrian civil war to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad.
From that time on, close coordination between Jerusalem and Moscow was imperative to prevent accidental clashes that would harm the interests of both countries. That Russian interest – to coordinate closely with Israel – will exist regardless of who serves as Israel’s prime minister.
Granted, Putin knows and trusts Netanyahu, and their chemistry is a positive force in the bilateral relationship, but there is no reason to assume that he will not come to trust whoever comes after Netanyahu.
By sheer virtue of the amount of time he has been in office, Netanyahu enjoys a degree of name recognition and the international stature that goes with it that no one in Israel can rival. To borrow from adspeak, Netanyahu has been Israel’s pitchman for so long that many cannot separate the pitchman from the product.
But this can be a two-edged sword.
For those around the world who admire Netanyahu, Israel benefits from that admiration. But for those who don’t like or respect Netanyahu, the question arises whether Israel might benefit if he is no longer seen as the country’s face.
Take the progressive wing of the US Democratic Party, in particular Sen. Bernie Sanders, as an example.
Sanders deeply dislikes Netanyahu, and has said as much, saying bluntly of the prime minister in April 2019: “I’m not a great fan of his, and, frankly, I hope he loses his election.”
Sanders has also proven himself to be not too big a fan of Israel, either. So does that mean that were Netanyahu not the prime minister, Sanders – and like-minded progressives in the US, as well as the Left in Europe – would be less hostile to Israel?
Doubtful, because even if Netanyahu loses the upcoming election and Lapid, Bennett or Sa’ar becomes prime minister, Israel’s policies regarding Gaza, the Palestinians and Iran are unlikely to fundamentally change.
None of those candidates, for instance, are going to remove the blockade of Gaza, something that rankles Sanders so much. None of them are going to roll back Israel’s settlement policies or begin evacuating settlers.
Netanyahu as Israel’s public face may change – something that would be viewed around the world as a hugely dramatic development – but that is unlikely to lead to a concomitant dramatic change in Israeli policy. As a result, even if Netanyahu loses, the harsh criticism of Israel on the Left will not disappear.
In fact, one can argue that Israel benefits to some degree from having Netanyahu serve as the country’s lightning rod, as some of the country’s harshest critics abroad find it easier and more politically correct to blast Netanyahu than to slam Israel. The day after Netanyahu, their opprobrium is likely to be directed not toward Israel’s leader, but, rather, to the country as a whole.