Being fair to Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is right on time at the opening of the 22nd Knesset on October 3 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is right on time at the opening of the 22nd Knesset on October 3
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Maybe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can tough it out over the post-election maneuverings and both head off another do-over election and entice Blue and White into a unity government.
But even if that were to happen, Netanyahu would still be headed for his last rodeo. He would retain the premiership under the terms of President Reuven Rivlin’s parameters, meaning a rotation in office with Blue and White leader Benny Ganz, and take a leave of absence although not leave of the Prime Minister’s Residence in case he is indicted on one of the charges that have been leveled against him.
In either case, his long interrupted tenure is at an end, and a succession crisis in the Israeli nationalist camp has begun.
There is an element of unfairness. I do not believe that preparation for a post-Netanyahu succession is warranted by Netanyahu’s “corruption.”
Netanyahu is perhaps a hedonist compared with the ascetic Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Shamir. On the other hand, had he been a private citizen he would have cleaned up far more in lecture fees in one year than that great moralist Ehud Barak gained in his undisclosed “research” for Jeffrey Epstein. Political leaders worldwide attract rich patrons who want to bask in the aura of power. The Clintons turned the White House into a bed and breakfast for wealthy donors.
The American Constitution’s definition of an impeachable offense as high crimes and misdemeanors should remain the criterion for chucking a leader out of office. Netanyahu’s peccadilloes do not approach this yardstick, but it is hard to see the police and prosecution after investing so much in resources and institutional prestige in pressing the case against Netanyahu to relinquish their quarry and drop the charges. This would create a crisis of mammoth proportions that would be eclipsed only by a Netanyahu acquittal.
Nor is the Blue and White veto of Netanyahu legitimate. Those who trumpet the rule of law should not – when it is convenient – claim that the law is an ass. Israeli law states that a prime minister as opposed to a cabinet minister must leave office only upon conviction. Blue and White is held together purely by antipathy for Netanyahu.
There are, however, good reasons for Netanyahu to step down. The “it’s time for a change” sentiment remains a factor in politics. The penchant for change and the alternation of power is more marked in the US, but it makes its mark in other politically free countries. Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel can provide examples from Europe of politicians who stayed in office too long. Change is necessary in politics. If a party is in power too long it becomes ossified and remote; if the opposition believes that it has no chance at attaining power it has less incentive in being a responsible opposition.
The grueling job has taken its toll on Netanyahu. He was flailing in the last election, such as scheduling whirlwind visits to Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin in the hope of wresting Russian-speaking voters from Avigdor Liberman, and a pledge to annex areas in Judea and Samaria, which he had many opportunities to do beforehand but refrained. Posting cameras at the voting booths to prevent fraud is a correct idea and should be employed universally, but with Netanyahu it came across as a last-minute improvisation. As Netanyahu acted as his own campaign strategist, he must accept the blame for his party’s loss of votes.
Still, the anguish in Likud from losing Netanyahu at the helm is understandable. No Likud grandee commands his recognition factor, and a recent poll showed that his announced challenger Gideon Sa’ar would garner seven less seats.
Moreover, the interregnum following Netanyahu will not be pretty as no successor has a clear-cut advantage. This is a byproduct of Netanyahu’s deliberate policy of refusing to groom successors. A lengthy period of infighting ensued when prime minister Begin left, and prime minister Shamir was constantly harried by Ariel Sharon and David Levy.
The problem is further complicated by the absence of nationalist parties that could pick up the slack while the Likud searches for a successor. Religious Zionism has splintered between its liberal and more traditional components, but worse: it has failed to agree on rules of the game that would prevent its descent into rampant factionalism.
Liberman may have been the big winner in the last election, but he cannot rally the Israeli nationalists as he is the prime culprit for Netanyahu’s failure to form a government after the April election. Additionally, he remade himself into a tribune for secularists. Likud leaders since Begin ran the gamut from traditionalists like Begin to secularists like Shamir, but they always knew how to pepper their statements with traditional phrases that appealed to the religious and traditional voters. Liberman in the last campaign burnt his bridges to this vital component of Israeli nationalism.
There are some points of consolation. First, it was inevitable: Netanyahu would have had to leave at some stage, and as argued above it was sooner than later. More importantly, the national camp had become synonymous with Netanyahu, and this combined with the unfair harassment of Netanyahu by the media created a “Netanyahu is always right” mentality, and anyone challenging the prime minister’s judgment or offering an alternative was labeled a leftist. Even politicians who had constantly staked out positions that were more hawkish than Netanyahu’s were branded leftist plants in the employ of the New Israel Fund. This type of argumentation completely erodes the intellectual rigor and integrity of Israeli nationalism.
It is time to take courage and invoke the phrase based on Jeremiah, Lo Alman Yisrael – Israel is not bereft. We are not bereft of resources, and no leader is irreplaceable. Netanyahu’s departure will create growing space for alternative leaders of Israeli nationalism.