Israel will be fine no matter who is prime minister

Whatever happens in the coming weeks, let’s keep things in proportion – it is not the end of Israel.

ISRAEL WILL be fine no matter who is prime minister. (photo credit: DUDU BACHAR/POOL)
ISRAEL WILL be fine no matter who is prime minister.
(photo credit: DUDU BACHAR/POOL)
 At a conference a few weeks before the March 23 election, I debated a known supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israel, this devotee said, would be in grave danger if Netanyahu lost the election – the Biden administration, Iran, the Palestinians, the ICC, and of course the future supply of coronavirus vaccines all depends on the incumbent. With Netanyahu, Israel would be safe and secure. Without him, Israel would face great peril.
While passionately delivered, I said, the argument itself was ludicrous. Israel is a country with the most powerful military in the Middle East and beyond, and in fact has defeated numerous existential threats before Netanyahu.
We are believed to have nuclear weapons and a fleet of submarines often referred to as our second-strike capability; Israel is the first country outside of the United States to have an operational fleet of the fifth-generation F-35; it boasts a GDP per capita that is ahead of France, the United Kingdom and Japan; and when Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 or Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007, it somehow did so without needing Netanyahu in the room.
Nevertheless, I pointed out, Netanyahu has indeed achieved amazing feats on behalf the State of Israel.
But to make it appear like the future of this powerful country is dependent on a single individual is not only absurd, but the very argument actually weakens the country. Israel’s strength, I said, comes from each of its nine million citizens contributing through service in the IDF or by helping the economy continue to grow.
My conversation with this dedicated Netanyahu ally was no different, I am sure, than the discussions many Israelis have had over the last few years with some of his followers. These are people who find it hard to imagine an Israel that is not led by Netanyahu, who freak out just contemplating the day that might happen.
The concern here stems from two primary sources. The first is that Netanyahu has been prime minister for the last 12 consecutive years, 15 in total.
Not only do Israelis today live in a country shaped and molded by Netanyahu, but for many citizens in their 20s and younger, it is hard to even remember the prime ministers who came before him. They might have heard of Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon or Ehud Barak, but they don’t really remember them or the impact they had on Israel – to say nothing of Yitzhak Rabin. All their formative years were shaped by watching Netanyahu, so they don’t know any other nature of politics or a different political atmosphere.
The second source is Netanyahu himself. He too believes, genuinely, that being prime minister is what keeps Israel safe. His desire to remain in the job, he so has argued, is not due to some personal ambition, but rather a sacrifice that he makes – his wife, Sara, has said that her husband could have been a multi-millionaire had he gone into business – to ensure Israel’s survival.
This is important to keep in mind because there is a possibility that President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday will grant the mandate to form a coalition to someone else – someone who is not Netanyahu.
This prospect has Netanyahu concerned, as evidenced by the statement put out by Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin alongside Likud ministers Amir Ohana and Yuval Steinitz. The trio warned that Rivlin was going to violate a long-time tradition by giving the mandate to someone other than the person who receives the most recommendations from his fellow Knesset members.
Beyond the obvious panic in the statement, it was interesting to see it include Steinitz’s name. While Levin and Ohana are known Netanyahu cronies, Steinitz is not, and over the last year has more than once contemplated his political future over a fallout he had with Netanyahu for not agreeing to attack the police, the attorney-general and the courts when the prime minister asked him to. Steinitz agreeing to put his name on the statement attacking Rivlin likely means that his political calculations have changed.
What so concerns Netanyahu and the Likud is the close relationship between Gideon Sa’ar and Rivlin. Sa’ar ran Rivlin’s campaign for president in 2014 and succeeded in whipping together enough votes against Netanyahu – who wanted anyone but Rivlin in the role. That fight was part of what helped Sa’ar understand that his future in the Likud was limited, and then decide to take his five-year hiatus from politics. 
While anything is possible, it is hard to imagine Rivlin ignoring the recommendations of a majority of Knesset members and task the formation of a government to someone else. If Netanyahu receives the most recommendations, he is most likely to receive the mandate. If someone else garners the recommendations, that person will likely get it. That is how the Israeli political game is played.
Whatever happens, we should not be afraid. Whomever comes next – if someone will indeed come next – Israel will be fine. It could be Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett or Benny Gantz. With any of the three, the country will not only survive but likely will continue to grow – because Israel is greater today that any of its leaders.
Of course there will be differences in policies between one person and the next. One prime minister might decide to fight with the United States about a nuclear deal with Iran, and another might decide to try and work together with Washington. One prime minister might be more cautious to attack Iranian targets in Syria, and another prime minister might be more socially-sensitive with economic stimulus plans.
It doesn’t matter. All in all, Israel’s institutions are stronger than any one single individual. The Knesset, coalition partners, the IDF, Mossad, Shin Bet, the judiciary, the media, and civil society are all there to keep our leaders in check, to ensure that they balance their personal motivations with the interests of the nation.
No one knows this better than Netanyahu. Just ask him about the two times he tried to launch an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities only to be stopped – once by his security chiefs, and the second time by the security cabinet.
Ask him about his attempt to unilaterally annex large swathes of the West Bank under Trump, and how he was stopped by Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who discreetly lobbied America against the move. Ask him how he tried to approve a multi-billion-shekel budget this week to procure millions of more vaccines, only to be stopped by Gantz, who refused to convene the cabinet unless Netanyahu agreed to appoint a justice minister.
Prime ministers set the policy and the overall course of the nation, but they do not operate on their own. That, at one and the same time, is the strength and general flaw of the Israeli political system. On the one hand, prime ministers have a lot of leeway; on the other, it will always be hard for them to do something that dramatically reshapes the nation, since the different interests of their coalition will almost always force the prime minister to strike the middle ground.
And after all of this, we might end up with Netanyahu staying on as Israel’s prime minister, either by receiving the mandate to form a government and succeeding, or someone else being handed the mandate and not succeeding, and Israel ending up with a fifth election while he remains the interim premier.
Whatever happens in the coming weeks, let’s keep things in proportion – it is not the end of Israel.
This is true in either case. If Netanyahu stays on, it will certainly be problematic having a leader on trial – testimony starts on Monday – but Israel will be okay. Just like it will be with whomever succeeds him.
And this is terrific because it is a testament to our nation’s success: Israel today is greater than any one person. No matter who leads it.