Analysis

As Bibi Meets Boris — Tory Rebels Prove Morally Superior to Likudniks

Netanyahu visits London today. While he can still get his parliamentarians to dissolve themselves and call an unnecessary election, the backbenchers in Westminster proved they still have backbone

Benjamin Netanyahu and Boris Johnson in the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, September 30, 2016.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

You can believe the version put out by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office that his sudden visit to London Thursday morning was born out of necessity, because a super-important phone conversation with the U.S. defense secretary needed to be followed up face-to-face.

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You can also be of a more cynical disposition and believe that Netanyahu and Mark Esper have ample means of secure communication — and therefore the expensive and logistically nightmarish trip (with Mrs. Sara Netanyahu, for some obscure reason) is superfluous and mainly yet another election campaign show.

Whatever you believe, it is clear that the other meeting in London today, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is little more than a formality.

First Netanyahu decided he needed to go to London, and only then did his staff contact Downing Street to try to work out whether Johnson had time in the middle of his parliamentary Brexit battle. Even before a window of opportunity had been located on Wednesday afternoon, preparations in Jerusalem were well underway.

The famously theatrical Boris, who loves to be the main star in his own dramas, has been relegated to the status of an extra in the Bibi show. He is unlikely to be put out by Netanyahu using him for electoral window-dressing. He and Netanyahu are kindred souls: Veteran political showmen who share a similar brand of nationalist populism and understand the need to make an appearance.

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Another thing they have in common is that both lost their parliamentary majorities. Netanyahu is facing an election in 11 days, which is crucial not only to his political survival but is his only chance to change immunity laws and prevent his prosecution for corruption. He’s fighting for his freedom. Wing 10 in Maasiyahu Prison beckons.

Johnson isn’t facing an election yet, though he’d like to. For the dark knight of no-deal Brexit, backed by the irrational furies of British nationalism, this is the best moment for a snap election. Too bad he doesn’t have a majority in parliament, and that the number of rebels in his own party continues to rise. Johnson has lost in three votes already this week, and parliament is blocking him from leaving Europe without a deal, and also blocking him from holding an election.

Both Netanyahu and Johnson have lost their parliamentary majorities and tried to hijack their country’s democracy. Netanyahu dissolved the Knesset just six weeks after the election because he couldn’t form a coalition and wouldn't allow another candidate to have a go. Johnson, this week, tried a similar trick. He prorogued, or postponed, parliament in order to try to prevent the opposition from stopping him from crashing out of the EU without a deal. And then, when they went ahead and blocked him anyway, Johnson tried to call a snap election. But unlike Netanyahu, he failed.

If Johnson is paying any attention to Israeli politics right now, which is doubtful, he has reason to be jealous of Netanyahu, because when Netanyahu dictates the Knesset follows.

Johnson wasn’t foiled by the opposition, which is split and rudderless, due to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to express a clear opinion on whether he supports Brexit (most of his MPs suspect he’d actually prefer leaving the EU because the economic turmoil will open the way to his radical left policies). Johnson was foiled by 21 Conservative rebels who voted in favor a motion to prevent a no-deal Brexit. They did so despite the unprecedented threat of being kicked out of the party and not being allowed to run in the next election. They upheld their country’s interest over that of their party’s leader and stood by the principle of the supremacy of parliament in British democracy.

Britons who care about democracy can comfort themselves knowing that their parliament, at its most chaotic moment, is stronger and more honorable than the Knesset. Most importantly, the governing Conservatives have proved that they still have some members who care more about their country than about their leader.

The Conservative and Unionist Party of Great Britain, with its roots in the Tories of the late 17th century English parliament, can claim to be the oldest political party in the world. But Likud is no stripling either, being around in one form or another since Zeev Jabotinsky broke with the mainstream Zionist movement in 1923 and formed his own right-wing Revisionist version. In the last 96 years, the Revisionists evolved but always remained remarkably loyal to their leader. No Likud leader has ever been forced out of office by the party. But also, no leader has hollowed the party out of democratic or ideological substance as Netanyahu has.

Netanyahu’s Likud lawmakers can only complain about his autocratic ways and how he has transformed the proud party of Jabotinsky's “hadar” (decorum and dignity) into his own personal cult. But none of them would rebel. When the time came, they all meekly voted to upend Israeli democracy and hold a do-over election.

In their meeting today in Downing Street, Johnson may ask Netanyahu to stop talking about Iran, a subject in which he has little interest in anyway. He might, instead, ask him for advice on how to empty the mother of parliaments of meaning and turn a historic political party into a platform for his own tawdry ambitions.