The wisdom of the old Yiddish saying “Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht” – Man plans and God laughs – is on full display in the current political crisis in Israel. After the April 9 election, Benjamin Netanyahu, along with most politicians and pundits, was certain that setting up a new right-wing coalition would be a piece of cake. Turns out that while they weren’t looking, the Yiddish God of the famous proverb ate it, and then burst out laughing.
The mirth is compounded by the fact that, as the 18th century English poet William Cowper noted, “God works in a mysterious way”: His (or Her) unlikely agent for thwarting Netanyahu’s designs is Avigdor Lieberman, a wily, controversial and unpredictable politician whose ruthlessness is often encapsulated in a common Israeli saying that is also derived from Yiddish: “He has no God.”
Netanyahu’s opponents on the center-left, along with all those concerned about the fate of Israeli democracy, are praying that the unexpected godsend won’t turn out to be a fata morgana, a fleeting mirage. The odds are still in Netanyahu’s favor: Lieberman might relent before the Wednesday night deadline for Netanyahu to set up a new coalition expires, and if not, Netanyahu is still the odds-on favorite to win the new election he proposes instead. Nonetheless, there is also a slight chance, where there was none before, that both efforts will fall flat, paving the way for President Reuven Rivlin to pass the baton to Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz, or, theoretically, to an alternative candidate from Likud.
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If Netanyahu is suddenly faced with the specter of imminent political demise, he has only himself to blame. His April 9 election added hubris to his cardinal sins of self-absorption, self-victimization and self-aggrandizement. Were it not for his yearning ambition to suborn Israeli politics and constitutional norms to his need to avoid a criminal indictment, he could have been sworn in as prime minister shortly after the election.
By refusing to countenance a broad coalition with Kahol Lavan because of its opposition to his legal shenanigans, however, Netanyahu may have consigned himself to his own highway to hell. As the Book of Proverbs notes: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Which is why, for a few fleeting hours at least, Netanyahu’s critics find themselves fantasizing about a world without him. It’s not an easy task, given his decade in power and the four more years he supposedly had coming. Younger Israelis can’t even begin to imagine an Israel without him: Netanyahu as prime minister is all they’ve ever known. For them, a Netanyahu-less Israel is terra incognita, uncharted lands that evoke both wonder and fear.
It is a tantalizing vision nonetheless, one in which the Israel of tomorrow is fundamentally different from the Israel of today. Some things, including Israel’s right-wing bent and reluctance to engage in a serious peace process with Palestinians, are unlikely to change. In many other ways, the differences are bound to be so fundamental and dramatic that the word “change” does them no justice: Metamorphosis would be more precise.
And while it is presumptuous to predict the precise landscape of an Israel without Netanyahu, some of its most defining features are obvious already, as listed below.
* Without Netanyahu, Israeli politics would revert back from the personal to the political. His domination of the national psyche, along with his perennial manipulations and machinations, would come to an abrupt end, leaving a leadership vacuum in its wake. As Amos Oz famously said after Netanyahu’s first three-year term ended in 1999, it’s as if a compressor outside your window suddenly stopped drilling, leaving an eerie silence instead.
Given his penchant for liquidating talented rivals on the right and intimidating potential challengers on the left, it’s no wonder that Netanyahu’s shadow looms large over the Israeli political landscape. Lacking his eloquence and charisma as well as his cunning, his successor would have no choice but to fall back on what were once considered the fundamentals of public service: Ideology, policy and government.
* Without Netanyahu and his urgent need to avoid indictment, the right-wing crusade against Israel’s Supreme Court in particular and the rule of law in general would falter. If a more centrist government is established, the campaign to neuter the courts would dissipate altogether but without Netanyahu’s personal stake and drive, even a right-wing coalition would find it hard to muster the anti-court majority needed for such a drastic constitutional upheaval.
* Without Netanyahu, Israeli society would be less divided and more at peace with itself. Fiery and fundamental disputes between right and left, Jews and Arabs, religious and secular and Ashkenazim vs. North African Jews would continue unabated, but the flames might be contained. Netanyahu, after all, is Israel’s most effective propellant for polarization; incitement against minorities, rivals, critics and dissenters are his stock in trade. His heirs may seek to follow in his footsteps, but it would take them years to emulate his raw talent and vast experience in sowing discord and internal strife.
* Without Netanyahu, Israelis would also be spared the media’s unhealthy obsession with his controversial family – including wife Sara, with her state-funded, Marie Antoinetteish ways and radical alt-right son Yair, who seems to have adopted Rush Limbaugh or Alex Jones as role models. The family of whoever replaces Netanyahu as prime minister would, almost by definition, seem modest, normal and, well, balanced in comparison.
* Without Netanyahu, Israel’s unhealthily symbiotic relationship with Donald Trump would undergo drastic and, arguably, welcome change. While any Israeli prime minister can be expected to cultivate relations with the leader of its closest ally, he would inevitably fall short of emulating the torrid love affair between Trump and Netanyahu, which often extends into mutually beneficial interference in each other’s internal politics. A lesser, albeit saner bond would replace the alliance between the two ethnocentric nationalist rabble-rousers.
* Without Netanyahu, by the same token, Israel might be given an unexpected opportunity to repair some of the damage to its relationship with the Democratic Party and salvage whatever it can of America’s traditional bipartisan support. Netanyahu’s very personal battles with Barack Obama, especially but not exclusively over the Iran nuclear deal, along with his unholy alliance with Trump and evangelicals, exacerbated and accelerated the parting of ways between Israel and the American center-left.
His successor, unencumbered by Netanyahu’s lethal legacy, could discard the prime minister’s often-avoidable confrontations with Democrats like so much excess baggage.
* Without Netanyahu, relations with U.S. Jews might also survive their current downward spiral. Netanyahu may not be responsible for the fundamentals that are driving a wedge between the two largest Jewish communities on Earth, but he certainly widened the gap to a point that it seems unbridgeable.
Netanyahu’s increasing inability to absorb criticism, his growing intolerance for liberals and leftists in general and his expedient preference for ultra-Orthodox political support at the expense of pluralism and recognition of Reform and Conservative Jewry turned his disagreements with American Jewry into a personal feud, at both ends. American Jews, who seethed over Netanyahu’s unilateral abandonment of the deal on prayers at the Western Wall and who are appalled by his incestuous relationship with a president that most of them detest would passionately embrace his heir in an effort to mend the broken fences.
* Without Netanyahu, Israel would hopefully disengage from its embrace of authoritarian nationalists such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and rejoin the family of Western liberal democracies. Israel’s relations with Europe are always problematic, but Netanyahu’s perceived arrogance, his tight relations with Trump and his disdain for Western Europe in general are an unnecessary irritant that constantly adds fuel to the simmering fire.
* Without Netanyahu, Likud might still recuperate and return to its glory days as Israel’s most vibrant and lively political party. His ten years in office, coming in the wake of Ariel Sharon’s destructive split to form Kadima, allowed Netanyahu to rebuild the party from scratch – but in his own image. Critics and dissenters were systematically purged, making way for a new generation of toadies, kowtowers and, embarrassingly, ignorant lowlifes.
* Without Netanyahu, the Israeli media could breathe easier. As in Trump’s United States, the Israeli media’s fight for survival in the 21st century is precarious enough – but its travails are compounded by the constant barrage of abuse and defamation from Netanyahu. For many right-wing Israelis as well as Trump-inspired America, the media is now truly an “enemy of the people.” A new prime minister, devoid of Netanyahu’s obsession with, and resentment of, the free press, could relieve the pressure and, who knows, even give an interview every once in a while to journalists who don’t necessarily worship the ground he or she walks on.
* Finally, without Netanyahu, Israel would, or at least could, return to a semblance of its former self, which, for lack of a better word, might be described as sanity. Whatever one thinks of his tenure in office, which included significant diplomatic, security and economic achievements, Netanyahu’s frantic efforts to avoid the long arm of the law, including incitement against police and legal authorities and his plot to subvert Israeli democracy itself, have unbalanced Israel’s body politic.
Netanyahu’s attempt to protect his blatantly personal interests with a bodyguard of false ideological pretexts have injected an unhealthy dose of hypocrisy and lies to the political discourse, to the point that Israel’s right wing can no longer differentiate between reality and fantasy.
Netanyahu, in essence, has hijacked Israeli politics and public discourse and is keeping them hostage, at least until his demands for immunity from prosecution are met. As a result, many Israelis are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, embracing Netanyahu’s cult of personality and blurring the distinctions between him and the state he was elected to serve.
If, by divine intervention or due to Lieberman’s well-known lust for tormenting him, Netanyahu is suddenly removed from the scene, Israelis will be released from captivity. Initially, they will be in a state of shock: The daylight will seem harsh and the scenery alien and foreboding, but it won’t take long for most to adjust to the new realities.
Within a spectacularly short time, Netanyahu’s reign will recede in memory and be thrown into the dustbin of history, leaving Israelis to wonder how they succumbed to his devilish charm in the first place. It all depends, of course, on whether God is laughing at Netanyahu’s expense – or everyone else’s.
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