Opinion

Netanyahu's Overextended Stay in Power Is Turning Israel Into Bibistan

Other than the reelected Angela Merkel, only dictators and despots have ruled their countries longer

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem September 10, 2017.
RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used his congratulations to Angela Merkel on her election victory to hint at his future plans. When someone wins for the fourth time, said the prime minister who has done so, it’s a sign that fifth is next. He smiled with the smug satisfaction of someone who has kept such promises in the past as well as the pleasure he derives from the exasperation that this sparks among his enemies, rivals and would-be successors. They all realize that even if Netanyahu’s trying to be humorous, the joke is on them.

It’s no wonder that Netanyahu is hanging on to Merkel’s coattails. If you factor in his first term in office, Netanyahu and the German chancellor are running neck and neck for the title of longest serving leaders of democratic countries. Besides Merkel, the only leaders serving longer than Netanyahu are Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a host of despots and dictators, including Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Normal democracies usually opt for term limits or tend to replace their leaders every once in a while, if only to open the windows and allow some clean air into the corridors of power.

The dangers and pitfalls of an overextended stay at the top are well known from history as well as research carried out in countries that sought to limit terms. If power corrupts, prolonged power corrupts exponentially. It creates an addiction to pomp and authority and an estrangement from ordinary citizens. It allows corruption to spread, criticism to be stifled, civil rights to be curtailed and interests of the state to become subordinate to the whims of its leader. Even if he was clean as a whistle, Netanyahu couldn’t stay immune from such inevitable degeneration and decline.

After a dozen years at the very top, maybe Netanyahu actually believed that he is allowed to accept gifts worth hundreds of thousands of shekels from billionaires with business interests. He may have reached the conclusion that he’s justified in bringing down a functioning government because of an effort to harm a newspaper that favors him. Perhaps Netanyahu is no longer capable of comprehending why anyone gets excited by the fact that his personal lawyer also represented clients who stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars from decisions that Netanyahu made.

After looking down at people for so long, it’s almost natural for Netanyahu to regard criticism as subversion and protest as a putsch or to expect the media to cover his visits to far off countries with the same enthusiasm shown by the old general who’s always waving his hands frantically behind Kim Jong-un’s shoulder. 

After years of scheming and maneuvering to consolidate his power, Netanyahu has diminished his cabinet, degraded the Knesset, deterred the legal system, weakened the media and turned most of the Israeli public apathetic. Like America in the age of Donald Trump, and despite its different government system, Israel has become a country of one man with one voice. Israelis now live in a Bibi-state, and will soon forget how to get along without him.

When Netanyahu lost the 1999 elections after his first term in office, author Amos Oz said that he felt as if a noisy air compressor — of the kind that powers jackhammers — that had been droning under his window had suddenly grown silent. Netanyahu has since weaned himself off compulsive talking to the media, but his presence, his complexes and his run-ins with the law continue to grate on Israel’s ear, denying quiet discussion or reasonable thought, distancing the country even further from the normalcy it so desperately needs. 

Terror attacks such as the one that took place in Har Adar on Tuesday, in which three Israelis were killed, may keep Netanyahu in power for years to come, but that doesn’t mean his time isn’t over. As Conservative Member of Parliament Leo Amery famously told Neville Chamberlain in 1940, only a few days before Winston Churchill came to power: "You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. In the name of God, go!''