Give Netanyahu an honorable retirement

Had Benjamin Netanyahu retired before the April elections, he would be enshrined as one of the greatest, high-achievement prime ministers in Israel’s history.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu. He cannot be a unifier (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu. He cannot be a unifier
Had Benjamin Netanyahu retired before the April elections, he would be enshrined as one of the greatest, high-achievement prime ministers in Israel’s history.
Starting from the depths of disruption in the second Intifada, Israel’s daily life became normal with minimal terror eruptions. Islamist rejectionist hostility has been contained, with limited wars as necessary to keep Hamas under control. With the Arab Spring and its aftermath bringing greater instability to the Middle East, Netanyahu has maneuvered well to protect Israel’s position. He identified the existential threat from Iran early and kept it at the center of attention and policy. On this issue he was sold out by Obama but helped by Trump – due, in no small measure, to his extraordinary relationship with the current US president.
His other foreign policy achievements include linking up sub rosa with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States; opening up new alliances with India as well as countries in Africa and South America; and special relationships with conservative/populist governments in the EU (however unsavory or antisemitic they may be.) He also made the commitment to a two-state solution with the Palestinians and carried out strategic withdrawals – when both were essential to Israel’s international standing and allies. The downside is that he did not seriously explore chances to move toward peace – although, in truth, there may be no such chance at this time.
Perhaps Netanyahu’s greatest contribution was opening up the economy as Israel made the transformation from a socialist, restricted business way of life to a free market and start-up nation. The economy has continued to grow exponentially – which is generally a credit to the incumbent prime minister.
Netanyahu even made cuts in social welfare for haredim (ultra-Orthodox) – a check to the catastrophic, long-term policy of accommodating haredi resistance to entering modern society. He also took initial steps to get them to accept a fair share in a democracy – such as serving in the army and compromising at the Kotel with Diaspora Jewry. Unfortunately, he immediately reversed these steps for fear of losing haredi support for his continued service as prime minister.
This is Netanyahu’s key shortcoming. Exercise of power erodes his self control – as shown in Case 1000, the “Illegal Gifts Affair.” Search for continued power overrides his principles and restraints – as shown in cases 2000 (“the Yediot-Israel Hayom Affair”) and 4000 (the “Bezeq-Walla Affair”), where he allegedly traded breach of trust and outright bribery actions for positive media coverage. When the investigations threatened his continued reign, he resorted to debasing and delegitimizing the central legal institutions of this country – the police, state prosecutors, attorney general, the judiciary – not to mention the free press. When he sought special immunity legislation to remove the risk of accountability for his bad actions, he made clear that he was ready to undermine the Supreme Court and its central role as a check and balance in Israeli democracy.
THE SAME addiction to power led to his violations of the Likud’s and Israel’s best values. He pressed for the inclusion of racist Kahanists in the Knesset and government in order to garner their voters for his side. He “koshered” these bigoted disciples of the party utterly rejected by the Israeli mainstream and, notably, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. He polluted political discourse by turning the label “Left” into a smear word, meaning weak on terror, soft on Arabs, and disrespectful of family and tradition. He then wielded the label to delegitimize centrists, rightists and anyone who disagreed with him and his leadership role.
Out of fear of losing haredi support, he broke his word and repudiated a compromise at the Kotel, thereby deeply offending the non-Orthodox leaders of American Jewry. Similarly, he used his deep Trump connections to gain votes – legitimately. But to gain extra political mileage with Trump, he stopped necessary outreach to the Democratic Party and took steps that damaged the bipartisan support for Israel. Long term, bipartisanship is absolutely essential for Israel’s security, but it was sacrificed for the immediate pursuit of electoral gain.
Similarly, he played the anti-Arab card to win extremist right-wing votes. His campaign used cameras in polling places to intimidate Arab voters. The policy climaxed in a posting on his Facebook page that stated that the Arabs wanted to annihilate us (the Jews) – only to blithely “disown”’ the post after making its appeal to the extremists. This was a betrayal of Israel’s Declaration of Independence which appealed to Israeli Arabs “to participate in building of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and full representation.”
In the heat of the last campaign, in order to get rightist voters, he promised annexation – a policy he studiously refused to carry out for 12 years because it would damage Israel. For electioneering purposes, Netanyahu publicly took responsibility for Israel’s policy of bombing Iranian positions in Syria. Former chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot complained publicly that this declaration would evoke greater Iranian-Syrian pushback and damage Israel’s security. There are reliable reports claiming that in order to offset his “embarrassment” at being shown “weak” (i.e. being escorted off stage due to rocket fire), he demanded an outsize military attack on Gaza. The IDF command vetoed this step. But what does that say about the search for power overriding his proper exercise of judgment to protect Israel’s security?
The honorable policy for Likud to pursue, for the greater good of the State of Israel, is to thank Netanyahu for his outstanding past service and retire him with dignity and full honors. The party should not be sending him to seek power through coalition building because this brings out his worst behavior and threatens to damage his legacy as well as the state.
The Likud leaders continue to back him out of fear of his wrath and because he brings them more voters. But they are being selfish at his, and the state’s, expense. The most likely outcome is an ultimate clash between Netanyahu and the legal system. If he does not damage the system badly, he will likely end up in jail. If he steps down now, he will be offered a resolution that leaves him free and his legacy intact.
ISRAEL’S CITIZENS want an end to political deadlock and instead the creation of a national unity government between Likud and Blue and White. If the haredim are included, then the evasion of fair share army service and abuse of Diaspora Jews will continue. If the hard Right is included, then reckless foreign policy and abuse of Israeli Arabs will continue. If Likud goes with a new leader, the right coalition would happen at once.
But why can’t there be a government of national unity with Netanyahu at its head and including all his right-wing bloc? There is degradation of legal and moral norms when a MK under criminal indictment serves as head of government. This also winks at a culture of corruption, which has infected too many of Israel’s political leaders in the past. President Reuven Rivlin backs this option because he is a fervent proponent of reconciling all the tribes of Israel. The president has upheld the unity and dignity of all while the prime minister has sown division, marginalized Arabs and appeased the haredim to their detriment and the harm of the whole society.
But for that very reason, Netanyahu cannot be a unifier. He has too brashly polarized and dismissed the Left; too sharply marginalized Israel’s Arabs and other minorities; too harshly degraded Israel’s legal institutions and press to head a government of national
This does not take away from his great achievements. Although the Holy Temple was his vision, King David fought too many wars and spilled too much blood – so he was not allowed to build the Temple (Chronicles I, 22: 7-10).
It is not too late to crown Benjamin Netanyahu’s career with closure and dignity. This will not satisfy the Bibi haters or demonizers – but it will help heal deep divisions, which rack the public. When Netanyahu returns his mandate, Likud should not inflict a third election just because that is its path of least resistance internally. The Likud, with the president’s encouragement, should give its leader an honorable discharge with distinction. Then a Likud-Blue and White national unity government can get the government moving forward again.