Every time Greece enters another crisis, one can be sure it won’t be long before the prime minister declaims the sentence, “Had I adopted a populist policy, we would be in exactly the same situation as Greece.” And if we set aside the social ramifications of his economic policies, Benjamin Netanyahu truly has something to brag about. Israel has maintained a respectable credit rating, its unemployment rate is relatively low, and the shekels in the pockets of Israeli tourists in Athens can buy plenty of souvlaki and ouzo.
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There’s no doubt that our economic situation is many times better than that of Greece. Israelis don’t have to fear that their country will be declared in default. The Bank of Israel is in no danger of going bankrupt. Investors from all over the world are interested in doing business with us. And all this wouldn’t have happened had then-Finance Minister Netanyahu, who later became prime minister, adopted a “populist policy.”
In everything to do with economics, this diagnosis is correct. But the slogan popularized by U.S. President Bill Clinton – “It’s the economy, stupid” – is irrelevant to Israel’s case.
How many leaders worldwide would be willing to open a credit line for Israel in exchange for its prime minister’s signature on a written promise to evacuate areas of the West Bank? Not even the whole territory – just half the West Bank plus two Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Isn’t Israel in default with regard to its diplomatic agreements and statements (Oslo, the road map, the Annapolis outline, the Bar-Ilan University speech)? And instead of eliminating obstacles on the road to negotiations, Netanyahu has laid down a clearly populist condition: Palestinian recognition of Israel’s Jewish identity (what exactly is that?).
The right-wingers who came up with the law requiring a referendum on territorial concessions sought to thwart any territorial compromise with our neighbors, just as the left-wingers who decided to hold the referendum in Greece sought to thwart an economic compromise with their neighbors. Both referendums emit a stench of populism, in which the government hopes it can sway public opinion to its side and thereby defend its interests. In our case, that means the status quo.
Netanyahu is relying on the belief that Europe won’t stop him from managing the conflict until he has put an end to any diplomatic solution. And for now, he is succeeding in holding the European rope at both ends.
Israel publishes tenders for a new neighborhood of a West Bank settlement, and Germany sells it submarines at a discount. The French president tries to concoct a new diplomatic initiative, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel puts out the fire. We lay siege to 1.8 million residents of the Gaza Strip, and the European Union mumbles something about labeling the produce of the Jewish colonies. The prime minister announces that one needn’t take his promise to advance a diplomatic solution seriously, and Europe suffers a sudden hearing loss.
The lesson we ought to learn from the Greek case is that someday, Europe will have had enough of changing our diapers. How long can we rely on the Germans’ guilt feelings? In conversations with senior officials in Berlin, the impression I’ve gotten is that Merkel believes in Netanyahu’s willingness to exchange his settlement policy for one of territorial concessions to the exact same extent that she believes in the willingness of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to exchange his socialist worldview for a capitalist one.
How many Greeks are now standing in line at the banks? And who among us would have believed that a country with a glorious history and a wealth of cultural assets would descend to the brink of the abyss before our very eyes?
The author is the diplomatic analyst of the Al-Monitor website’s Israel Pulse.