Netanyahu Isn’t Seeking Another Term. He's Thinking Decades

As the prime minister sets his sights on competing with Queen Elizabeth II for political longevity, his government remains passive as Jerusalem burns.

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Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Illustration by Amos Biderman.Credit: Illustration

Unnoticed amid the flood of posts, tweets and speeches that greeted the Jewish New Year was a minor scoop, like a shy cyclamen under a rock: Benjamin Netanyahu announced his political plans for the future. Not at a press conference, not in a party meeting, not from the Knesset rostrum, but in one post among many in which he patted himself on the back for his incredible achievements.

“Instilling this simple truth (that Israel is the true friend of the United States, whereas Iran is the enemy) will help us cope with the great challenges that await us down the road. Not only next year but in the next decade. And that,” he asserted on Facebook, “is where I am aiming.”

The prime minister, it emerges, is not directing his gaze toward the next election or even at the one after that. He is aiming at the year 2025, at the very least. As a historic leader with a far-seeing vision, he no longer speaks in years but in decades. We thought he wanted to be the longest-serving prime minister after David Ben-Gurion? Wrong. His model is turning out to be Queen Elizabeth II. We said he wants to get through Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House safely? Another mistake on our part: He’s planning to outlast whatever president will be elected in November 2016, too. That is, to make it through his, or her, term of office.

Netanyahu’s declaration bespeaks immense arrogance. It smacks of dangerous megalomania and encapsulates his mood since the last election. He perceives what’s known as “the verdict of the voter” as a mere formality, the aim of which is to leave him in office in perpetuity. In the past, at festive events such as his birthday celebration, when Likud politicians would wish Sara Netanyahu and her husband four more years in office, she used to scold the well-wishers: “Why only four years? Ten years!” Now we’re hearing it from the boss himself. On the record. A holiday gift to the nation.

His explanation of the necessity for voting for him over and over lurks in a few sentences with which he chose to conclude that same Facebook message. It is, of course, the “Iranian issue.” He boasted of his huge achievement – what he referred to as “changing public opinion in the United States” – and tilting the American public against the agreement between the world powers and Iran. But he ignored completely his stinging defeat in the major and decisive arena, on which he placed all his chips: the House and the Senate.

He will seek to burn into the Israeli public’s consciousness the idea that it’s essential for him to be at the helm when the 15 years agreed upon in Geneva come to an end, and Iran will be allowed to do whatever it wants. He will say that only he, he alone, is capable of navigating the ship of state through these rough waters. Only he can deliver, for the umpteenth time, the “speech of his life” to Congress and present Israel’s case articulately and credibly to the international community. Only he.

Together with this declaration of his political intentions, the premier offers his nation no hope, change or possibility of a breakthrough of any kind. He is not presenting any framework to end the impasse in his country’s relations with the Palestinians, or for dealing with its growing diplomatic isolation and the intensifying foreign boycott. He is not putting on the table any solution or formula that would prevent Israel’s transformation into one state for two peoples with a sick, disintegrating democracy.

The major target, the true aim, the supreme goal, as he sees it, is perpetuation of his tenure as prime minister.

Trump card

In the wake of the last election, Netanyahu became convinced – in large measure with justification, as things stand now – that he is the one-and-only, that he is invincible, that there’s no one in sight who can oust him from office. From morning to night, he is occupied with thoughts of how to shore up his control and weaken his rivals – present, future and imaginary.

Last week, this column reported that the premier has been speaking with leaders of the coalition parties, including Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), about a scenario involving the establishment of a large right-center party – headed by him, of course – to run as a bloc in the next election. That proposed alignment – Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, Yisrael Beiteinu and possibly one ultra-Orthodox party – would nullify any danger, threat or challenge, however faint, of the left gaining power. This is because it would not be feasible for the rival camp to forge a broad alignment on a similar scale. In the meantime, however, this whole idea resides only in Netanyahu’s head.

At the same time as he goes about firming things up, he is also intent on preserving the existing status quo; no movement, budging or rocking the cradle can be entertained, as far as he’s concerned: He is convinced that as long as Israel’s citizens continue to enjoy a reasonable degree of personal security and a healthy economy, which will not be substantially hurt by international sanctions, the next election will be a walk in the park.

Luckily for Netanyahu, he’s been spared the need to confront an aggressive, biting opposition on a daily basis. For years, a mini-intifada has been raging in Israel’s capital: knifings, stone throwing, firebombs and vehicles plowing into crowds of people. Life in Jerusalem neighborhoods that border on Arab communities has become intolerable, but the parliamentary opposition is silent, feeble and pale. For a moment, we may have forgotten that one of the members of the coalition, Habayit Hayehudi, is a right-wing party that also contains an extreme-right faction. Has anyone heard that party’s leaders, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, giving interviews lately about the loss of Israeli sovereignty in the country’s capital? That was the theme song whose words Bennett sang in a choked voice in the big right-wing rally on the eve of the election. Indeed, it is easy to forget that “united Jerusalem” was a key issue in the election for Likud and its sister party.

One can only imagine what kind of ruckus would be raised here if the prime minister for the past six-and-a-half years, or even the past two years, had been Labor leader Isaac Herzog and Jerusalem was in its present condition, with the opposition being led by Field Marshal Bibi. The streets and the public squares would be ablaze. The spectacles of the Oslo period would be reprised. Not a day would pass without inflammatory, militant, inciting patrols by Likud MKs in Jerusalem. Herzog would be subjected to vicious condemnation; he would become the enemy of the people. The masses would besiege the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street. Violent demonstrations would be mounted outside the Prime Minister’s Office. The balcony in Zion Square in central Jerusalem would return to its good old, bad days.

But under Netanyahu, it’s all passing with amazing quiet. After all, he is a “right-wing prime minister.” How are his government’s deeds and behavior in Jerusalem, the steps it’s taken or is about to take – most of which, according to his latest pronouncements, are unlikely to be implemented – different from those of any other government? In fact, they are no different. What’s different is the posture, the branding. For a generation, this nation has been habituated to believe that a “national government” will safeguard Jerusalem, fight for it and protect it fiercely, whereas a “leftist government” is one that abandons and hands over, is conciliatory and submissive.

That was, and remains, Netanyahu’s trump card.

Bad judgment

There’s no escaping the fact: Something bad, very bad and unclear, is happening to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. He seems to be in a spiral, in free fall. His bizarre notion of making the promotion of judges conditional on the severity of the punishment they mete out to people who throw stones and firebombs – in other words, the idea of threatening not to promote the judges if they do not please the powers-that-be – would better suit Likud backbenchers like Yaron Mazuz or Oren Hazan. But it wasn’t they who came up with the idea: It was the brainchild of an important minister, a lawyer, and a member for seven years of the Judicial Appointments Committee as a representative of the Knesset and the government.

Neither Mazuz nor Oren would have prompted Supreme Court President Miriam Naor to release a response to the media, rare in its sharpness, the way Erdan did. Naor – whom we mistakenly thought was bland and conservative, not colorful like her predecessors Dorit Beinisch and Aharon Barak – taught Erdan a basic lesson in civics: “The comments attributed to Minister Erdan are better suited to countries we would not wish to resemble,” she lashed out at him, adding, “His idea is contrary to the principle of the judge’s independence. Israel’s judges will continue to do their work faithfully and will not cower before anyone.”

Erdan made his comment on Channel 2 last Friday evening. Naor responded after the end of the Sabbath. And on Sunday, the Prime Minister’s Bureau made public Netanyahu’s position on this burning issue in a press release: “The way to deal judicially with those who throw stones and firebombs is by means of administrative detention [i.e., arrest without trial] (or arrest) until the conclusion of the proceedings against them, and by legislating minimum punishments and enforcing them.”

Erdan undoubtedly gritted his teeth. Again the boss had stabbed him in the back. Well, he’s used to that by now.

Netanyahu responded quickly because he was aware of the damage that he too could suffer if Erdan’s nonsense wasn’t nipped in the bud. But there was also something amusing in this eruption of communiques: The public security minister and the prime minister were exchanging opinions in the media about “what needs to be done.” As though they were two know-it-all pundits around a glass table in a television studio.

Netanyahu has been prime minister since early 2009. The chaos in Jerusalem, in both its western and eastern sections, has prevailed for the past three years, most intensely since the summer of 2014. However, the premier has done nothing other than to convene meetings, pass cabinet resolutions to “beef up security” and the like (June 2014), and then ask the Knesset to postpone allocation of part of the funds earmarked for such activity in the 2015-2016 budget.

Despite the resounding rebuffs he got from the prime minister and from the Supreme Court president, the obstinate Erdan, as usual, did not go silent or slink off into hiding. He announced on his Facebook page that he is determined to push forward with his idea and to present to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked a series of cases in which, he believes, the punishment handed down to offenders was too light. Later in the week he took another step on the same path by asserting that judges must hand down verdicts “in accordance with the positions of the people’s representatives.”

What’s got into Erdan? Instead of dealing with the truly urgent problem he has been dragging along for the past four months – appointing a police commissioner, a matter that is wholly his prerogative – he has chosen to prattle away with populist, infantile, unfeasible ideas that might have been culled from the garbage can in the yard of MK Bezalel Smotrich from Habayit Hayehudi. And for what? For half a headline in the newspaper. For an item on a newscast. To stir up Internet commenters and other rabid types from the extreme wings of Likud.

There is no longer any point in recalling Erdan’s Via Dolorosa since he fulfilled his dream, last December 31, of finishing first in Likud’s internal primary. Since then it’s all been downhill: the saga of his submissive and belated entry into the government after being humiliated and rejected by Netanyahu on the day he handed out ministerial portfolios to Likud MKs; the annulment of the reform in the Israel Broadcasting Authority that Erdan initiated in the last government; his quarrels with ministers Ophir Akunis and Yisrael Katz, with the former about the IBA, with the latter about security for the tramway construction project in Tel Aviv.

And the biggest flop of all: His attempt to appoint Brig. Gen. (res.) Gal Hirsch police commissioner. Without consulting, without checking with the appropriate people, without vetting. This is one more impetuous move by Erdan that’s destined to end badly. Hirsch is a bizarre candidate, to put it mildly. His business affairs in the security companies he owns have been occupying the attorney general for several weeks. The end is not in sight, the police have been without a permanent chief for months, and the minister responsible for the snafu is busy dealing with the promotion of judges.