To Bibi or not Bibi?

When the focus is on Netanyahu, he wins. People are forced to ask themselves where they stand on him and his leadership. Everything else becomes meaningless.

NETANYAHU AFTER the late-night vote. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
NETANYAHU AFTER the late-night vote.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
That is the question at the heart of these elections: are you in the “Only Bibi” camp or in the “Anyone but Bibi” camp? Have the Israeli people had enough of their leader for the last 10 years, or do they still believe that Benjamin Netanyahu – he and only he – can continue to keep the country safe within a volatile Middle East?
Netanyahu’s supporters make a strong case. The Middle East remains in the throes of an unprecedented storm that has been raging since the Arab Spring erupted in 2011. For the most part, he has kept Israel safe, he has grown the country’s economy and he has maneuvered smartly between a tense relationship with one US president (Barack Obama) and a Russian strongman (Vladimir Putin).
With the election of Donald Trump in 2016, Netanyahu forged what seems like a strong and intimate alliance with the unconventional president and succeeded in deriving strategic benefits – like the acknowledgment of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, transfer of the US Embassy, a withdrawal from the Iran deal, and recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Cigars, champagne and meddling in the media don’t bother these supporters. Netanyahu presents himself as an underdog persecuted by the police, the attorney-general and the media. He keeps Israel safe so, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
However, his detractors see a different Netanyahu. They refuse to just sweep the corruption charges under the carpet, and are opposed to legislation (like an immunity bill) that would be enacted to ensure his continued tenure. They take issue with the prime minister’s continued attacks on the institutions that uphold Israel’s fragile democratic character – the police, the prosecution and the Supreme Court – and worry that if he gets his way, the rule of law will be lost for good.
They look at Netanyahu as a leader who has been here for too long – 13 years in total – and yearn for a fresh beginning, one that might not work but could revitalize the country. His rhetoric, they claim, is divisive and polarizing and has alienated Diaspora Jewry, America’s Democratic Party and large swathes of Israel’s nine million citizens, who feel increasingly disenfranchised.
Netanyahu has succeeded in making himself the focus of this election, like the one before it in April. The issues that should concern Israelis – healthcare, education, peace with the Palestinians and more – have all fallen to the side. With the focus on him and his leadership, this round of voting is no different than the one in April: both referenda have been about him and his premiership.
With no real Left in Israel today, the differences in policy between Likud and Blue and White are miniscule. It’s not like one party is pushing to withdraw from the West Bank and the other is fighting to keep it; it’s not like one is trying to turn Israel into a socialist state and the other to retain its capitalist identity. Both sides understand that the current economic policies are working, and that a peace deal with the Palestinians is not on the immediate horizon.
But that doesn’t matter. When the focus is on Netanyahu, he wins. People are forced to ask themselves where they stand on him and his leadership. Everything else becomes meaningless.
Is Netanyahu the only person who can lead this country? Of course not. No country is dependent on one leader. And like other countries, our strength is derived from the people, and their multiple talents, ingenuity and principles.
But if Netanyahu’s tactics end up working on Tuesday and he is elected to another term, he will have succeeded in a way that no one else has in Israeli history. He will be known as a political Houdini who even three former IDF chiefs of staff could not defeat. If he gets the 61 seats on the Right – between Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina – he will be able to pass his immunity bill and avoid ever seeing the inside of a courtroom, or a prison cell.
But what will be with Israel? How will this country come together after two dirty elections that have seen both lead candidates – Netanyahu and Benny Gantz – sling mud at one another almost daily for the last six months?
Can the country move past this political divide? Can it find common ground to stand on? Can it be the Israel so many people want it to become?
Whoever wins, we have no choice but to answer a resounding “yes!”