Netanyahu Isn't Bibi-zilla, He's Dr. Frankenstein

Bibi isn't a monster, but he's allowing them to breed and grow, and they could wind up dooming the state that he genuinely loves.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shown with his dog Kia.
Amos Ben Gershom

Let’s get the easy and obvious bit about Benjamin Netanyahu out of the way first.

He is paranoid and thin-skinned. He has a unique talent for making enemies, betraying friends and alienating subordinates.

Netanyahu is suspicious of change and prefers to wait and see long after there is nothing to wait for. His pedantic style at news conferences suggests he thinks the voters are dolts, which is an undesirable trait for a democratic politician.

Also, as the State Comptroller reminded us this week, Bibi doesn’t like to pay his bills. For an elected official, he is too fond of living well and as a corollary, is too easy with other people’s money.

In recent years his ideological principles have been overwhelmed by megalomania and the firm notion that only he can lead Israel through these troubled times. Ipso facto, anything that keeps him in power is good, including a deal with Avigdor Lieberman.

That’s the bad part. The good part is that Bibi is not a right-wing Godzilla out to trample and destroy good old democratic, egalitarian, tolerant, peace-aspiring Israel (not that there ever was an Israel quite like that).

Right-wing Godzilla alert

He is certainly surrounded by those types – Miri Regev, Ayelet Shaked and Zeev Elkin all come to mind – but you never see Netanyahu leading the ideological charge against the Supreme Court, or leftist theatre troupes, or urging the death penalty for terrorists.

What you do see is Netanyahu leading the retreat on these issues when they get too politically hot to handle, and that’s because at the end of the day he regards the Kulturklampf under way in Israel between the old, Ashkenazi, leftish establishment and the emergent religious right as of little interest to him.

Using another monster analogy, Netanyahu isn’t Godzilla but a Victor Frankenstein, or the Republican Party, both of whom inadvertently created creatures they loathe, but have grudgingly learned to live with them.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
Olivier Fitoussi

Netanyahu’s vile creature of the far right is partly his own creation, by virtue of the fact that he has held the top office for long – and partly not.

Israel’s electoral system allows voices that would be drowned out in most democracies to get their place in the Knesset, and even in cabinet, because of the system of proportional representation and the decline of the big political parties. The results are monsters like Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Heyehudi.

Lieberman is not taking over the defense portfolio because Bibi wants a man in the job who applauds soldiers who shoot Palestinians lying on the ground or dreams of bombing the Aswan Dam, but because he needs more than 61 Knesset seats to stay in power.

To do that these days, Netanyahu needs no less than six coalition partners. And where are you going to get them from if you are, like Netanyahu, a pragmatic rightist? On the reasonable right, the list consists of Moshe Kahlon.

Eating his own successes

You don’t have to probe the depths of the prime minister’s mind to realize this. Seven years as prime minster and many more in the public arena offer enough insight into how he things and what his values and priorities are. 

We shouldn’t be worried that Bibi-zilla is going to flatten the Supreme Court or eat up army officers who speak their minds, but we should be worried that he’s lost his old interest in economic reform.

The fiscal revolution of low taxes and low deficits Netanyahu set off as finance minister more than a decade ago is now permanent and has served the economy well, but since then he has lost interest in the matter. Economic policy has been left to a succession of finance ministers who go from one mistake to another as they learn on the job and pander to the voters who brought them to power.

Just as Netanyahu and Lieberman were sealing their coalition deal on Wednesday, Bank of Israel Governor Karnit Flug was painting a distressing picture of the country’s economic future. In short, Israel is getting older and dumber; the qualities that enabled the rise of Startup Nation two decades ago are being allowed to rust and decay. Israel’s schools do a poor job of educating and its universities are struggling.

The country’s elderly population is projected to grow from 10% of the population to 17% over the next four decades, which means there will be fewer working age people to pay taxes, serve in the army, start up companies and create the next Waze or Mobileye, Flug warned.

Avigdor Lieberman waits for the arrival of the European Union's Foreign Policy Chief in Jerusalem, August 29, 2011.
Baz Ratner, Reuters

Not only will Israel have more old people: the ultra-Orthodox and Arab share of the population is set to grow as well. Both groups are less well educated and less likely to be in the labor force than other Israelis.

In the case of Haredim, the lack of education is disastrous: By one Bank of Israel estimate, a Haredi man with 17 years of yeshiva training is the equivalent of a high school drop out in terms of his secular education.

Natural gas and hot air

The challenges ahead of us are distressing not only because they are fundamental and not subject to simplistic, headline-grabbing reforms finance ministers looking ahead to the next election prefer, but  because the public discussion of the economy’s ills are focused on other things. A perusal of the financial media would leave you with the impression that monopolies, tycoons, the gas framework, soaring housing prices and corrupt officials are the main problems facing Israel.

They are issues, but they miss the real story and distract the public and politicians from the core issues facing Israeli society.

One of Netanyahu’s obsessions is the threat to Israel’s security posed by Iran. He was willing to risk war and sour relations with the United States on that account.

Yet when it was time to form a government last year, he was quite willing to retreat on the issue of Haredi schools teaching a core curriculum of math, science and English that would prepare their young for the labor market. Likewise, he was ready in an instant to reverse reforms requiring Haredi men to serve in the army, another route to them and mainstreaming them and readying them for the job market.

This is pure Bibi. He likes the Haredi parties not because he values full-time Torah study and thinks it provides a spiritual defense for the nation, but because they are easy coalition partners who don’t make annoying demands for a peace process or changing the playlist on Army Radio. All they want are handouts and a chance to live the shtetl life with Startup Nation paying the bills.

The funny thing is that if the ayatollahs are patient enough, they don’t have to wait 10 years to begin work on a bomb again. They could wait 20 or 30 years until Israel no longer has the human capital capable of developing the next Iron Dome or paying for an army to defend itself.