Without Bibi, Israel Will Be Worse Off

Brexit, the rise of Trumpism and extremist parties in Europe show: it doesn’t take a lot for the center to begin bleeding.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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A profile shot of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the 2016 Genesis Prize award-ceremony in Jerusalem, June 23, 2016. He is wearing a dark suit, white shirt and dark tie.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Amir Cohen, Reuters
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

"Following information received in matters pertaining, among other things, to the prime minister, and which has been presented to the attorney general by the police's investigations and intelligence department, the attorney general has conducted a number of discussions... Upon their conclusion, the attorney general has decided to instruct that an examination of the matter be opened.” (Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit)

Could this statement, so boring, so bureaucratic, mark the beginning of the end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

It’s early days to say. The fact is, the attorney general declined to say what it was he was looking into. He even refused to call it an investigation.

From such small beer, it’s hard to see history being made. Then again, neither did the amateurish, small-time break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex 44 years ago.

No matter, Mendelblit’s announcement is a good starting-off point for some thoughts about what Israel will like be without Bibi. If it isn’t the current “examination,” something else will inevitably call the moving van to the prime minister's residence on Balfour Street.

The Netanyahu era's end will matter not just because he’s been in power continuously since 2009 (not much longer than Barack Obama or any American president save Franklin Roosevelt) but because Bibi-ism has come to dominate Israeli politics. Without its philosopher and general, Bibi himself, Bibi-ism will likely struggle to survive after his rule.

Bibi-ism: Not what you thought

What is Bibi-ism? Its guiding principle is that Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel’s leader and that without him the state will flounder.

Its second principle is that the world is an unstable place, and that Israel can only assure its own security by relying on its military might, not on the goodwill of other powers, or the wording of peace agreements.

Bibi-ism isn’t militaristic. It doesn’t look for controversy. It doesn’t grow teary-eyed at the sight of the flag and other symbols of the state, and it has little interest in the culture wars between the Israeli left and right.

On economics, Bibi-ism used to be about free markets, low taxes and smaller government, but that principle has been forgotten. These days Bibi-ist economic policy is a blank to be filled in by the finance minister du jour.

In short, Bibi-ism is all about a pragmatic, non-ideological Israel. Netanyahu's rhetoric tacks to the right, but his actions speak louder.

In the Bibi years, settlements have grown at about the same pace as they had when Israel was ruled by more dovish governments under Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak. Netanyahu has been careful about entangling himself in wars with Hamas, and has rejected the iron fist approach that Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman advocate. He exploits the culture wars, but doesn’t fight them.

Naftali Bennett, left, and Avigdor Lieberman in the Knesset, May 14, 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Always a lurking truck

Bibi is a pragmatist, but a pragmatist with headlights shining into his eyes. In his world, there’s always a truck ready to strike, whether in the form of another European Union peace initiative or another broadside from Bennett. And, like the proverbial deer, his response is to freeze up.

Apart from the failed campaign to block the Iran nuclear deal, it’s hard to point to anything he has done over the past seven years. But oddly enough, this inactivity has served Israel mostly well.

Bibi has refused to enter into a peace process with the Palestinians, but he has also resisted the temptation to entangle Israel in Syria, or to fight Hamas, except when necessary. He has avoided signing onto harebrained economic schemes like Yair Lapid’s zero-VAT (a plan to lower housing prices).

What will come after him is worrying.

To call Netanyahu a master politician who has vanquished his rivals inside the Likud and out would be a gross exaggeration. His pragmatism has survived partly because Israel has mostly prospered under it, but mainly because the country is too divided for any ideology of the left or the right to pose a serious challenge to it. Everyone knows that the left is vanquished – politically it survives in the microscopic Meretz Party and struggles inside the much-reduced Zionist Union.

But the right has hardly made headway in winning voters’ affections either.

In the last decade, the most extreme rightist parties have consistently failed to win any seats in the Knesset at all. The more moderate rightist parties that do – at various times Naftali Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi, Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu and the National Union – poll well under 20% of the vote, and often, little more than half that. The Likud has certainly enough rightists it its ranks, but for voters, it’s the party of Bibi-ism, not the party of extremists like Miri Regev or Zeev Elkin.

With Bibi gone, it’s not at all clear who will speak for and lead this big, amorphous political middle.

Miri Regev, then culture minister, in the Knesset in 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

As in the U.S. and Europe, there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the political establishment in Israel. But unlike Americans and many Europeans, who have turned to Trump and extremists of the right and left, discontented Israelis have given their votes to gentlemanly upstarts, like Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon, who defy the usual left-right divide.

Far from engaging in nationalist and religious rhetoric, they have focused on economic difficulties middle class Israelis face. But the political constellation of a pragmatist at the top and mild rebellion a notch below isn’t likely to survive Bibi.The political rhetoric of the right (which is the only relevant one, since no one cares about the left) is worrying – suspicious of minorities, disparaging of democratic institutions, intolerant and isolationist. It hasn’t made much headway into mainstream Israel because Bibi has refused to adopt it and because ordinary Israelis haven’t felt enough economic, social or political distress to be much attracted by it.

But as America’s slide into Trumpism, the rise of extremist parties in Europe and the Brexit vote all show, it doesn’t take a lot for the center to begin bleeding. The political establishment everywhere in the West is in disrepute, and social media give outlets and legitimacy to ideas once considered outside the range of respectable.

Israel without Bibi is vulnerable to the same trends happening elsewhere and if they triumph, they are unlikely to make it a better, happier place.

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