Analysis

Netanyahu Lashed Out Like Erdogan, but May Fade Out Like Nixon

When the curtain comes down on Netanyahu's reign, many Israelis wonder how much energy they spent on one man's legal fate

Netanyahu leaves a press conference, September 18, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Books will be written about the events of the past few weeks, said a military official this week, meaning mostly the security drama that occurred behind the scenes in the days before Tuesday’s election. But it seems that the peak on Election Day itself happened in the evening, during the continuous live broadcast conducted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his Facebook page in an attempt to motivate Likud supporters to go out and vote in the final hours before the polls closed.

Watching Netanyahu, with his dry throat growling and waving his hands around time after time, was a mesmerizing experience. Netanyahu never stopped talking for a moment and rained down an incredible volume of messages. It was both a frightening and admirable performance.

“We are on an insane roll,” a Likud mayor promised him. “Crazy, that’s the word.” Netanyahu replied, “That’s what I need: Insanity.” The demonstration was so intense that one member of the premier’s audience – who had already voted many hours earlier – felt the almost uncontrollable need to go down to the nearest polling station and fill the voting envelopes with more and more Likud votes, just to give a little bit of relief to the sweaty man in the suit and tie.

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Sometimes Netanyahu looked like a preacher on local television in the United States, spurring his followers on to fill the church’s coffers with donations.

In his more emotional moments, he reminded us of his foe, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during those fateful hours after the failed coup attempt against him in summer 2016. Erdogan, whom the rebels came very close to executing, broadcast using Facetime to his supporters and sent them out into the streets to block the path of the military units trying to overthrow him.

The left’s nightmare forecasts of violence breaking out in the streets this week around Election Day did not happen. Even the voting in Arab towns came off without almost any interference. Israeli democracy is stronger than the many who are mourning its demise. And like the panic before the election, the victory celebrations afterward were also excessive. It is still too early to say our goodbyes to Netanyahu, even though it is fascinating to watch a few media people being freed now from the Stockholm Syndrome that had taken hold of them over the past two years, because of the systematic intimidation by his supporters, the internet bullies.

Netanyahu has earned a great deal of credit. Throughout his too many years in power he has made sure to fortify Israel’s diplomatic, security and economic status. A person who filled senior defense positions under him, and who is not one of his fans, recently praised the judgment Netanyahu demonstrated during the crises in recent years. Netanyahu acted properly: In his decision to act against the Iranian military moves in Syria, in his restrained policy in Gaza and in the wise decision not to give in to the calls to impose collective punishment in the West Bank after the wave of stabbings and hit-and-run attacks in 2015. He had, in recent years, one temporary slip-up during the crisis over placing the metal detectors near the entrance to the Temple Mount in the summer of 2017, but he pulled himself together quickly under the pressure by the heads of the security services.

The long-standing disagreement between Netanyahu and the left over the Palestinian issue is a legitimate one. Even though his critics are right in their warnings of the moral implications of the occupation, they have yet to find a winning argument against his claim that a wide-scale withdrawal from the West Bank today would pose severe security risks. The great damage he caused was internal – the never-ending poison Netanyahu and his followers injected into the political debate and the unrestrained battle he conducted against civil society institutions, from the legal system to the media.

The messages of unity that senior Likud officials are now pumping out, at his orders, at Benny Gantz and Kahol Lavan are dishonest and unconvincing. Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who called on Thursday for Gantz to show national responsibility, just a few months ago accused the former IDF chief of staff of responsibility for the death of a four-year-old near the Gaza border on account of Hamas fire during Operation Protective Edge in summer 2014.

Benjamin Netanyahu has not invented anything new. Ehud Olmert (whose conviction for corruption was for some reason forgiven by the left) preceded him by a decade, and in the United States by Richard Nixon. After “All the President’s Men,” the two journalists who exposed the Watergate scandal, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, published an excellent sequel, “The Final Days.” This book documented Nixon’s last year as president, as the affair got worse, up through the moment he resigned in August 1974.

A second look at “The Final Days” reveals how similar it is to the end for Olmert, who was forced into resigning in 2009 – and where Netanyahu is today. The likenesses are many and vivid: The isolation of the “persecuted” leader, the fierce hatred of the press, the claim that legal authorities have framed him just to get rid of a strong leader, the lamentations over the loss of the diplomatic and strategic genius, who supposedly can never be replaced.

But Nixon and Olmert were forced to leave. It seems that in the end this will be Netanyahu’s fate too, even if it is now impossible to estimate how many twists in the plot will be required until that happens. When the curtain comes down in the end, Israelis will find it hard to believe how long and how much energy they devoted to the legal fate of one man, who is now stubbornly insisting on dragging them into a third election campaign in less than a year, if he does not succeed in stopping the legal proceedings against him.