Opinion

Netanyahu Only Looks Impregnable: His End Is Nigh

Benjamin Netanyahu looks as entrenched as ever, but so did Winston Churchill, in 1945 – only to be booted out office just when he seemed invulnerable.

Netanyahu looks impregnable but so did Winston Churchill after WWII, and he still got routed in the election
Emil Salman

Benjamin Netanyahu loves to compare himself to Winston Churchill, who spoke truth to power in the days leading up to World War II, and then led Britain to victory.

Churchill was a voice in the wilderness warning of the Nazi threat when the world didn’t want to hear it. He may not have been the great military strategist he imagined himself to be, but he did inspire ordinary Britons in the darkest days of the war.

His ending, however, was far less glorious. With victory in Europe just weeks old, British voters turfed out their wartime leader and gave a thumping victory to the Labor Party. The voters were as shocked as their leader at the results.

My guess is that history is poised to repeat itself.

On the surface, Bibi looks as entrenched as ever. His coalition commands a large majority and none of his partners don’t seem poised to bolt. He has also made sure there are no heirs apparent waiting in the wings. Naftali Bennett may want to push Bibi off the throne of rightwing leadership, but he can't do it: The Likud is Israel’s sole ruling party these days and he isn’t a member.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill lights up his cigar again before broadcasting a radio address to the British people from Washington on May 14, 1943.
Byron Rollins, AP

By Israeli standards, despite the campaigns here and there, we have enjoyed years of peace and quiet under Netanyahu, and have stayed aloof from the surrounding chaos. Eight rocky years with Obama are soon to be over, and Donald Trump seems to love Israel even more than he loves Russia.

On the economy, Bibi is a success too -- last year's lamenting about a looming recession last year proved wrong. The economy grew smartly and unemployment remains at its lowest level in decades.

He seems impregnable. But Churchill looked impregnable, too, in 1945 and on that basis, he staged a lackluster campaign. As it turned out, he was viewed as a wartime leader, and with the fighting over the country didn’t think he had any ideas for what should happen in the peace.

A leader at war

Strictly speaking, Israel isn’t at war, but Bibi imagines himself as a wartime leader doing battle with Iran, anti-Semites, BDS, the Obama White House and Palestinians. His Facebook page last year was overwhelmingly dedicated to defense and foreign affairs.

But it’s mostly a phony war: For every UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel, for every student council vote to boycott Israel, there are a million Israelis happily travelling abroad and a hundred multinational companies from the U.S., Europe and China doing business in Israel. The public doesn’t really believe we’re quite as beset by enemies as Netanyahu says.

And unless a real war comes around, Netanyahu has no vision, much less a program for advancing Israeli society.

Once upon a time, Netanyahu had a free-market economic agenda, which if not inspiring, at least worked. But he long since lost interest in that, and everything else except security. He's vulnerable to a small push that will cause his fall. But what could do it?

One obvious thing is the latest police investigations. Although all the other probes over the years have petered out and were often too trivial to be taken seriously, there is clearly a pattern of Bibi’s enjoying the good life and wanting someone else to pay for it. Sooner or later it’s going to catch up with him and the current investigation may be it.

But I’m willing to bet it is Trump who will be the catalyst.

This file photo taken on November 15, 2016 shows  a placard reading "Trump Make Israel Great Again" in Tel Aviv.
JACK GUEZ/AFP

The right is quickly losing any sense of restraint. They think that starting January 20, they will be able to whack up settlements, crack down on civil rights, and oppress Palestinians as they please. Bennett and the others will be stepping up the pressure on Netanyahu, who will inevitably feel he has to respond because he no longer has Obama as an excuse to act reasonably. You can count on Bibi’s Facebook page filling up with incendiary posts, the government producing increasingly outrageous legislation and foreign policy dictated by anger and grievance.

Along the way, a step too far will be taken that will bring Bibi down. For Churchill, it may have been when he accused the Labor Party of planning some "some form of a Gestapo" if it came to power. It was just too much for the public to stomach and demonstrated how disconnected their leader had become from their real concerns.

Churchill spent the years after he lost the election writing his history of the war. It was a best seller and earned him more than he would have as prime minister. That’s something Bibi should consider, too.