Ten More Years of Netanyahu?

As the prime minister racks up a decade in office and dreams of many more years in power, this is an apposite time to consider what his legacy will be.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surveys his kingdom, November 18, 2015.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surveys his kingdom, November 18, 2015.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Half a dozen of the most influential men in Israel have been getting together in twos and threes in recent weeks to discuss ways of replacing the man they have all served under. As reported in this paper by Yossi Verter and on Channel 2 by Amit Segal, the leaders and potential leaders of Israel’s centrist and right-wing parties are anxious to form a similar coalition to the current one, perhaps minus one or two ultra-Orthodox parties and the more right-wing Habayit Hayehudi, and perhaps along with parts of Zionist Union – but under a different leader.

Illustration by Amos Biderman.Credit: Illustration

Some of these men are currently coalition partners of Netanyahu, or have been in the past but are now in the opposition. Others, like former minister Gideon Sa’ar, are hoping to replace him as Likud leader. One intriguing figure in the mix is Gabi Ashkenazi, the former IDF chief of staff who, ever since joining civilian life five years ago, has burned with desire to end the prime minister’s rule.

Israel's center-left, center-right leaders salute Ashkenazi, while Netanyahu stands by looking concerned. Standing silently is Ehud Barak, whose personal spat with the general started the affair.Credit: Eran Wolkowski

Ashkenazi’s reported place in this group is interesting, since he was initially thought be considering joining Zionist Union. Now, though, he seems to have joined the consensus that removing Netanyahu can only be achieved from the center-right. Not party to these discussions, but a key potential ally, is President Reuven Rivlin, who will receive the endorsements of the parties for the next prime minister.

How would this happen? There seem to be two possible courses of action: Before the next election, two or three parties form a center-right alliance – perhaps even a joint list – headed by an alternative candidate for the premiership, in the belief that they can receive more Knesset seats than Likud. Or, immediately after the next election, they refuse to endorse Netanyahu as prime minister, even if on paper he has his standard right-wing/religious majority, forcing Likud to elect a new leader.

An agreed-upon strategy could spur part of the current coalition to precipitate a crisis and force an early election. “It could all happen very quickly,” says one man, himself a former Netanyahu loyalist and very close to this group’s thinking. “Don’t take it for granted that this time next year Netanyahu will still be in power.”

He may be right, but like so many others who were cast out of the inner circle and became convinced that the prime minister’s time was running out, he doesn’t have a clear idea of how it will happen, either.

Obama and Netanyahu during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March 3, 2014.Credit: AP

Meanwhile, on Sunday, March 13, 2016, Netanyahu marks 10 years as the prime minister of Israel, combining three years in the 1990s and a further seven since returning to office in 2009. He has won a total of four elections and, as a lesson from his defeat in 1999, remains in perpetual campaign mode. As Verter wrote last September, Netanyahu no longer talks in years but in decades. He will still be in office next January when President Barack Obama leaves the White House, and he plans to outlast Obama’s successor as well.

The flaw in the anti-Netanyahu cabal’s plan is both tactical and strategic. At least three of the plotters – Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (currently enjoying a boost in the polls), Sa’ar and Ashkenazi – see themselves as the next prime minister, and are unlikely to join forces only as number twos.

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with Shimon Peres.Credit: Tess Scheflan

But the obstacle in their path is greater than just conflicting egos and ambitions. With the departure from the political scene of Netanyahu’s three nemeses, the only ones who ever beat him in elections – the late Ariel Sharon; the imprisoned bribe-taker Ehud Olmert; and the thoroughly discredited Ehud Barak – none of Netanyahu’s political contemporaries remain.

Israelis have traditionally favored older, more experienced prime ministers (except in 1996, when Netanyahu beat Shimon Peres by a whisker). Now, the man who was once Israel’s youngest prime minister is a 66-year-old grandfather and an unlikely elder statesman. Just like on the eve of the Knesset election a year ago, the polls show that two-thirds of Israelis are fed up with “Bibi.” But the same polls show him leading by a 30-point margin over his challengers when voters are asked who’s most suited to serve as prime minister.

Netanyahu is certainly not rare among long-serving leaders in neglecting to prepare a successor. Indeed, many parties in today’s personality-driven Western politics have been hollowed-out, like Likud, to become little more than platforms for their leader. But the way that, at a relatively young age, Netanyahu has subjugated both internal opposition within Likud and exhausted an entire political generation in other parties is much rarer.

As he continues racking up election victories and years in office, the perceived experience gap between him and his challengers grows. Ashkenazi is now being touted as a saviour – after all, he ran the Israel Defense Forces – as is his successor and fellow new civilian, Benny Gantz. But in Netanyahu’s Israel, even generals aren’t the hot political commodity they once were.

Even if he’s not planning to go anywhere for now, 10 years is an ideal point to begin asking about Netanyahu’s legacy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talking at an event in honor of David Ben-Gurion, November 2015.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

‘Financial wizard’

In 2009, with the world still reeling from the financial crisis, Likud’s election campaign successfully marketed the returning Netanyahu as a “financial wizard.” But as much as he would like to take credit for Israel’s relative prosperity – and he is certainly the most financially literate of all Israel’s premiers – Netanyahu played a bit part at most: the foundations of fiscal stability were laid by the unity government of the mid-1980s; the high-tech, Startup Nation boom was fueled by an injection of funding from the Rabin government in the early ’90s (made possible by $10 billion of U.S. loan guarantees); and Ehud Olmert and his finance minster at the time of the global crisis, Roni Bar-On, deserve credit for largely sheltering the local economy from the storm.

Netanyahu, both in his first term as prime minister and as finance minister in 2003-2005, also deserves credit for currency liberalization and cutting the bloated public sector. But his disregard ever since for growing inequality, the spiraling cost of living and house prices have tarnished the wizard’s image. He grouses about monopolies and unions who block his attempts at reform, but at the same time has allowed the creation of a huge new monopoly in the natural gas sector.

Recent social protests in Tel Aviv. Credit: Nir Keidar

The massive “social justice” protests of 2011 didn’t bring about political change – Netanyahu went on to win two more elections – but they put his economic record in perspective. It’s mixed at best, and certainly not legacy-defining. And besides, Israeli prime ministers are always measured, first and foremost, on war and peace.

Thanks to his aggressive rhetoric and the lack of any serious attempts to achieve a breakthrough in the diplomatic process with the Palestinians (when compared to his immediate five contemporaries in office – Rabin, Peres, Barak, Sharon and Olmert), Netanyahu is labelled a belligerent prime minister. While this is almost certainly true, by another standard he could be judged the most peaceful of all prime ministers in the last 24 years.

On average, less Israelis have been killed in terror attacks or acts of war during the Netanyahu years, and less non-Israelis, Palestinians and Lebanese have been killed by Israel’s security forces. He is more risk-averse and less likely to use large-scale military force than any of the other five prime ministers of the last generation.

The IDF using the Hannibal procedure in Rafah in August during the Gaza war.Credit: Reuters

Whether or not his threats to launch a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program were a bluff designed to force the international community to act, his reluctance to act against Hamas in Gaza is often forgotten. Ultimately, he authorized 2014’s Operation Protective Edge – which resulted in over 2,000 deaths on the Palestinian side and over 70 Israeli deaths – but only after it was dragged out of him by his cabinet colleagues and the generals. And he held back from committing ground troops, in the end allowing them only to operate in a relatively small region close to the border. Ultimately, this was the only Netanyahu military offensive that necessitated a relatively large mobilization and in which there was a relatively large numbers of casualties. Ten years in office with only one division-sized operation must be counted as a period of relative calm for Israelis.

Netanyahu’s aversion to large military operations probably has more to do with his lack of confidence in the IDF’s ground capabilities – a mistrust partly engendered from his days as a special-ops officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, and partly his clashes with generals during his years as premier – than any hidden moderation.

Maybe a lower number of casualties, on both sides, is not the best metric, though. The fact that the current wave of terror on Israel’s streets consists mainly of stabbings and not exploding buses – 34 Israelis have been murdered in the past five months, four more than were killed in the single-worst suicide bombing of the second intifada – is to a large degree still the result of the operations launched against the Palestinian terror infrastructure by Sharon and subsequent security coordination with the Palestinian Authority (which was mainly initiated under Olmert).

But every leader, especially one who has been in power as long as Netanyahu, must be judged by what happens on his watch. It could be argued that seven years after returning to office, those achievements have been squandered by Netanyahu. But the security coordination has persisted throughout this period and, by the standard of any previous wave of terror or Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed, 34 dead Israelis and around 180 dead Palestinians is a relatively low figure. In the long-term, though, keeping down the casualty list is only half an achievement and not much of a legacy.

U.S. President Barack Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the White House in Washington, September 1, 2010.Credit: Reuters

Diplomatic failure

As a substitute for the lack of foreseeable progress on the Palestinian front, Netanyahu presents greatly improved relations with the Far East. But here, again, he’s taking credit for work done by his predecessors and the Israeli private sector, which hardly needed the government’s encouragement to seek out new markets.

And then there’s the secret diplomacy. Under Netanyahu, Israel’s under-the-radar coordination with Sunni Arab regimes have, without a doubt, intensified and improved. Not only have these ties served to build an unofficial coalition against the expansion of Iranian influence in the region, but they’ve helped to largely isolate Israel from the Syrian war just across the border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, during their Sept. 21 meeting in Moscow.Credit: AP

The personal relationship between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been a key factor in allowing Israel to safeguard its own interests, to a degree, while its neighbor to the north continues to tear itself apart. Netanyahu deserves kudos for preventing Israel from getting sucked into the Syrian quagmire.

But this adeptness at dealing quietly with autocrats only highlights Netanyahu’s singular diplomatic failure in relationship with a country he is supposed to know the best. Publicly falling out with one American president can be attributed to a clash of personalities, but two? Clashing with Bill Clinton in his first term and Obama over the last seven years is no accident. Perhaps as his advocates in Israel and the United States insist, he is only looking out for Israel’s interests and, given the deep support Israel still enjoys in America, he can get away with it. In 10 months, Netanyahu will be onto his third president and we’ll be able to start assessing whether they’re right, or if a terminal decline in the strategic relationship is another part of Netanyahu’s legacy.

Like many politicians, Netanyahu deeply admires Winston Churchill and believes he emulates him in his warnings against the twin evils of Iran’s quest for regional dominance and the spread of radical Islam. When he’s mocked by political rivals and the media for his “warmongering,” Netanyahu comforts himself that Churchill was similarly derided in the 1930s after his warnings about Nazi Germany. But no elected politician can credibly be compared to Churchill – a serial political failure who, as an unelected war-time prime minister, was thrust to greatness when Britain faced its darkest hour.

More realistic comparisons to Netanyahu may be found among the handful of conservative politicians who combined a capacity for winning multiple elections with a streak of authoritarianism. Among these, Netanyahu would certainly choose Margaret Thatcher, who lasted nearly 12 years in Downing Street. He certainly admires her market-driven fiscal policies and obstinate refusal to back down – whether from opposition within her own cabinet, to the trade unions, Argentina or the Soviet Union.

Recently, however, Netanyahu’s critics have been more likely to compare him to a very different long-serving leader, one closer to home – Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, after serving as Turkish prime minister for 11.5 years, became president in August 2014, beefing up his powers.

The two leaders share a number of traits. Both are deeply suspicious of what they see as a relentlessly hostile media and believe that forces within the legal system are plotting to overthrow them. They are also convinced that within the upper echelons of the military, intelligence, security and police forces, there are those allied with what Netanyahu sees as the “old elites” and Erdogan as Turkey’s fabled “deep state,” constantly undermining their policies.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Recep Tayyip Erdogan on poster in Turkey after flottila incidentCredit: AFP

The Netanyahu hallmark

But the Erdogan-Netanyahu comparison is largely unfair. None of Netanyahu’s machinations against the Israeli press come close to Erdogan’s imprisonment of dozens of journalists and wholesale takeover of news organizations with the help of friendly millionaires or, more recently, court orders. Neither have Netanyahu’s appointments of more malleable attorney generals and defense chiefs even resembled the widespread investigations and purges of thousands of judges, prosecutors and senior officers led by Erdogan. It must also be said that, for all the talk of laws proposed by members of his coalition curtailing freedom of speech and circumscribing the activity of human rights organizations, it remains largely talk. Netanyahu succeeds in both promoting these laws and then quietly shunting them to die in committee.

However, the fact that Netanyahu rarely follows through with undemocratic legislation, and doesn’t send in the police to shut down newspapers or arrest journalists doesn’t mean he hasn’t been eroding democracy in more subtle, but equally destructive, ways. The climate of economic uncertainty created in the Israeli media, particularly the television sector, and the atmosphere of hysteria online toward perceived enemies of the state – which he has not only played a central role in ramping up, but done next to nothing to condemn when it often spills over into verbal abuse and intimidation – is beginning to have a numbing effect on the public discourse.

This has been a hallmark of his entire political career. There was some truth in Netanyahu’s complaints after the assassination of then-Prime Minister Rabin that it was unfair to blame him for the murder – after all, he was fulfilling his duty as leader of the opposition to point out the failings in the Oslo process and he had no desire of any kind to see Rabin killed. As it was, he was way ahead of the premier in the polls at the time. But six months later, he ran a vicious smear campaign against incumbent Shimon Peres, accusing him of “dividing Jerusalem,” and allowed proxies to run the independent “Netanyahu is good for the Jews” campaign. Nineteen years later, on last year’s Election Day, he wasn’t even using proxies when he warned of Arabs being bussed to polling stations.

Netanyahu didn’t invent anti-Arab racism and hysteria. But in his habitual knack of exploiting racial tensions – as he did again in the wake of the shootings at a Tel Aviv bar on New Year’s Day – he is certainly emerging as its enabler-in-chief.

In the absence of any other major visible achievements, he runs the risk of this becoming his chief legacy. He wants to project himself to the world as the leader of an advanced, high-tech nation, but instead comes across as the promoter of bad old sectarianism.

More than a decade in power is an anomaly in democracies, and rightly so. That’s why the United States has term limits. In Britain, wise prime ministers have known not to overstay their welcome and risk being hounded out by their own colleagues, like Thatcher was in 1990. Tony Blair could have probably gone on winning elections, but he chose to return the seals of office after 10 years. Current Prime Minister David Cameron has already announced he will not seek a third term.

Politics should be a rejuvenating process – society needs new leaders with fresh ideas. But Netanyahu sincerely believes there isn’t a safe pair of hands to turn the unsteady ship of Israel over to. There is some resemblance here to another leader who a few months ago also clocked up 10 years in power.

Likening Netanyahu to German Chancellor Angela Merkel may seem incongruous. The tone of the two leaders could hardly be more disparate. But their motivations and desires for their two countries are similar. Merkel is a woman who, according to those who know her well, is not driven by ideology but by a desire to preserve the miracle of Germany’s rebirth after World War II and maintain the hard-won stability of post-Cold War Europe.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has been described as a deeply ideological politician, but his guiding philosophy is less one of ideology and more of preservation. Entrusted with what he believes is the historic custodianship of the future of the Jewish people, the first (and so far only) prime minister to be born into an independent Israel is a survivalist – and his true legacy, therefore, is to preserve the independence his generation inherited. But is that enough?

The comparison to a country like Germany is instructive. A risk-averse policy of self-preservation makes sense for a leader like Merkel, who in 2005 took charge of a reunified Germany at the height of its economic success, at the heart of a peaceful Europe. Doing nothing to jeopardize that status was a no-brainer and, as recent events in Germany regarding the immigration crisis prove, not always that easy.

But Israel is a small country in a rough neighborhood, a work in progress, a country without borders and not at peace with itself. The Netanyahu tactic of simultaneously telling us he’s presiding over a period of unprecedented prosperity, while terrifying us that without his constant crisis management we will teeter into the abyss, leaves no room for meaningful change. Perhaps that is Netanyahu’s true legacy: convincing Israelis they can’t change, because change is downright deadly.

Even if, come the next election, Israel is suffering the results of an economic slowdown, the wave of terror is ongoing and the investigations into petty corruption in his wife’s affairs have crystallized into indictments, Netanyahu will run for a fifth term. Beneath the slogans and campaign gimmicks, his narrative will be very clear, and it will be a persuasive one for many Israelis.

“I know you may not like me or my wife,” he’ll say, “but look at those inexperienced hacks on the make who want to replace me. Do you really think that in this tough neighborhood, and at such a time, we can afford to have one of them in charge? I’ve seen you through 10-plus years, don’t risk everything now. You could do a lot worse than 10 more years of Netanyahu.”

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