Opinion

Will Israel Be Worse Off Without Netanyahu at the Helm?

The premier himself hints that we'd be worse off without him, but Israel owes its recent success to factors beyond his control

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivering a speech at the launch of Likud party election campaign in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

When Netanyahu supporters aren't insisting that he's being persecuted, then they're arguing that the justice system has no right to force out of office an official chosen by the voters. And if that doesn't convince you, then they warn about the dire fate awaiting Israel without its leader.

Netanyahu himself has been relaying that last claim, too, and I’m sure he really believes it. “We need to win because of the great achievements that have brought Israel to its best situation in its history,” the prime minister said this week formally launching the Likud campaign.

The witch-hunt claim has no basis, especially regarding the so-called "Case 4000": there is overwhelming evidence that the prime minister made an illicit deal to get fawning coverage of himself and his family, in exchange for financial benefits for telecoms tycoon Shaul Elovitch. It was a patently dumb and dangerous quid pro quo that risked his political career for a few crumbs of PR, but Bibi made it, and must live with the consequences.

The "can't dismiss the voters' choice" claim essentially says that any politician who can convince a majority of voters to return him or her to office should receive a get-out-of- jail-free card. Those who attack the justice system for undermining democracy by moving to indict Netanyahu during an election are in effect saying the system should time its decisions to the needs of a particular candidate.  

However, the third defense for keeping Netanyahu in office – Israel needs him – is a more subtle argument.

Israel, the island of calm

Israel has racked up remarkable achievements over the last decade. The economy has registered non-stop growth and Israel has become a global center of high-tech and innovation. The fears of Israel becoming isolated, whether  by the BDS movement or governments angry over the absence of a peace process, have proven entirely unfounded. Quite to the contrary, it seems Israel is winning new friends in China, India, Brazil and Africa. In the meantime, Israel has remained (relative to an admittedly low benchmark) an island of calm as wars rage around it.

Israel’s success can be summed up in its No. 8 ranking this week among world powers, a feat that Bibi himself didn’t fail to mention in his speech this week. It’s a remarkable achievement when you consider that it is the only one of the top ten with a population of less than 10 million peop

Give Bibi credit where credit is due. The accusations levelled by Attorney -General Avichai Mendelblit portray a vain man panting for gifts of cigars and champagne and obsessed by media coverage. But there’s another side to Netanyahu: He is a strategic thinker who plays the diplomatic game with finesse and has judged the country’s interests on the world scene correctly.

However, that’s far and away from saying that Israel is at risk without Bibi as boss.

The real story of Israel’s achievements over the last decade are about changes that Netanyahu had nothing to do with and will continue whether he or not he remains prime minister. The best you can credit him for is that he recognized them earlier and better than most others, and acted on them.

The first, of course, is the Startup Nation phenomenon. Israel’s high-tech industry has earned it a place in the global economy that textiles, weapons and Jaffa oranges never did. It’s brought tens of billions of dollars in foreign investment and caused the world’s biggest companies to establish footholds here.

Israel’s tech prowess has even served as the foundation for close ties with emerging powers in Asia. Without a doubt, Netanyahu expertly leveraged Israel’s tech assets in his diplomacy, but he had no hand in creating it.

The discovery of major reserves of natural gas in 2009 (coincidentally came the same year Bibi took office) has become another major asset for Israel. As the launch of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum shows, the gas is winning Israel partners, if not exactly close friends, for Israel in the Arab world in a way no peace agreement has.

For this, Netanyahu can take some credit:. By insisting on the controversial gas framework deal, he cleared the way for further development of Israeli gas reserves, ensuring that we will be pumping enough of energy to export while serving the domestic market. But the gas was there by grace of God, not the beneficence of Bibi.

There are non-economic developments that have helped Israel, too, like the chaos wrought by the Arab Spring and by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Combined with Israel’s powerful intelligence assets, we have become the go-to country in the region, not just for the United States and Russia but for the Gulf Arab states as well.

All of these processes are much bigger than Bibi or anyone else who may occupy the prime minister’s office after the April 9 election.

If it seems no one in Israel can fill his shoes, that is in large part due to Netanyahu himself, who made sure to send anyone deemed a possible rival into political exile.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Indeed, we had better hope that they do, because even if Netanyahu does form the next government and somehow survives an indictment, at best he has maybe another year or two of political life.