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Netanyahu Is Partying Like It’s 1998

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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1990'- 2018
Credit: AFP/ MENAHEM KAHANA, Olivier Fitoussi, Alex Levac, Emil Salman, AP, Kobi Gideon / GPO, Ian Hodgson /REUTERS, AP/Armando Franca
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Israelis waking up Tuesday morning could have been forgiven for feeling they were in their own local Groundhog Day. News bulletins led with the news that the police recommended indicting Interior Minister Arye Dery for fraud and breach of trust.

Much of the 1990s in Israeli politics was dominated by the Dery case, the story of a brilliant, young Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox politician who become interior minister at 29, before being felled by multiple corruption charges. Twenty years later — after being convicted, serving time in prison, resurrecting his political career, regaining leadership of the Shas party and even his old ministerial job — Dery has come full circle, with another indictment looming.

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It’s not just the combination of deja vu, schadenfreude and sadness over Israeli politics degrading to the point that a bribery conviction is no longer a bar to high office. To add poignancy, the police recommendations came a day after the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nearly fell — Netanyahu who, in the late 1990s, when Dery was in court, was always on the brink.

And who precipitated the near-fall of this (fourth) Netanyahu government? Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned last Wednesday over the government’s “capitulation to terror.” Lieberman, who 20 years ago resigned as director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, in protest of what he saw as his boss Netanyahu’s inability to rule as a true right-winger.

The same political figures in the same predicaments — even Netanyahu’s current criminal investigations are a rerun of the Bar-On-Hebron and “gifts” affairs, from which he only escaped by the thick skin of then-Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein’s mercy.

Has Israel really not changed that much in 20 years?

In 1998 the Oslo process was stuck, a U.S. president tainted by sex scandals believed he could bring peace with the Palestinians; Haredi politicians were complaining about the High Court of Justice intervening in legislation on drafting yeshiva students; the Labor Party, in the opposition, was doing badly in the polls; a small number of tech whizzes were making fortunes from the dot-com bubble and an unusual Israeli singer had just won the Eurovision Song Contest.

Things didn’t stand still. In 1999, Ehud Barak broke out of the doldrums to beat Netanyahu, promising the dawn of a new day. The Oslo process reignited, then flamed out. Barak promised a “secular revolution,” which also fizzled out, and the dot-com bubble burst.

It took Netanyahu 10 years to return to power. Ten years in which Barak and Ehud Olmert would each make major efforts to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, and in between those efforts came a devastating Intifada and Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

But now that Bibi’s been back for another 10 years, he’s finally succeeded in taking Israel back to 1998. Even the Gaza Strip, which Israel has physically left but continues to occupy by other means, is still on the agenda.

That’s not a bad thing. At least from his perspective. There’s no peace with the Palestinians, but that also means no concessions have been made by Israel. And the frozen Oslo Accords framework is still keeping the Palestinian Authority in place, cooperating with Israel on security in the West Bank.

The economy is once again being fueled by a tech sector on hyperdrive, Israel’s credit rating has even been upgraded to AAA. It seems unsustainable, especially with the Haredi politicians conspiring with Netanyahu to keep ultra-Orthodox men stuck in yeshivas, depriving tech companies of much-needed bright employees. But it’s still growing, like a bubble.

Labor rebranded itself as Zionist Union but is as stuck as ever in the polls, and Barak is once again on the sidelines. A political upset in next year’s election, however, looks much more unlikely. And will Netanyahu overcome the investigations once again? With all the details that have emerged so far, it seems impossible, but Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who is taking forever with his decision, could well turn out to be another Rubinstein.

Netanyahu’s Israel of 2018 is depressingly similar to Netanyahu’s Israel of 1998. Of course, Netanyahu argues that this is all “sour” left-wing carping and Israel has never been more prosperous, more secure and had healthier foreign relations with so many countries. From the polls at least, enough Israelis agree with him to keep him in power next year, and beyond.

The short-lived insurrection begun by Lieberman and for the space of a weekend, supported by Naftali Bennett, may have failed. But it was a harbinger of things to come. Lieberman, Bennett and the other right-wing “partners” are sensing weakness, the first trickles of blood in the water. The lazy consensual prediction of the Israeli political commentariat, that a fifth Netanyahu victory in 2019 is a foregone conclusion, fails to take into account the growing Bibi-fatigue within his own base.

Just as 1998 was followed by 1999, when Netanyahu’s divide-and-rule tactics couldn’t keep his coalition together, the same can happen in 2019. The right finally rebelled against him then over the Wye River Accord, even though it was minimal and only partially implemented. Now, on the streets of Sderot and on social media, similar tones are being heard from people who until recently were die-hard Bibi supporters. Then, the opposition got its act together, boosted by many moderate-right Israelis who simply couldn’t bear him any longer. There’s no reason to assume it couldn’t happen again, next year.

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