On the face of it, there are few politicians less alike than German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Merkel has made it her life’s mission to preserve a middle-ground consensus. Netanyahu has survived by deepening the divides in Israeli society. But they have more in common than meets the eye – and it’s not just that they are now both four-time election winners and have accumulated over a decade in power, though that is a major result of their resemblance.
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Consider these facts. Both are inherently conservative and risk-averse politicians who, the longer they have survived in office, have become less inclined to push through major reforms or radical policies, preferring in their election campaigns to stress their stability and suitability to lead rather than whatever platforms their parties may have.
Both have presided over periods of relative calm and economic prosperity, but owe much of that to their predecessors and a favorable – for their own countries but not for their neighbors – combination of regional and global factors.
And both are living on borrowed time: Netanyahu, by betting against another Palestinian uprising ending his prolonged period of no-war-no-peace; and Merkel, by not acting to effect the necessary changes to deal with Germany’s aging population.
Both leaders have procrastinated over carrying out the drastic changes necessary in their national relationships with the rest of the European Union, in Merkel’s case, and the Arab world in Netanyahu’s. Instead, they have put off the difficult decisions until the very last moment – if possible, in their successors’ terms.
Israel and Germany currently have similar parliamentary landscapes (though the Germans have an electoral threshold of 5 percent and half the Bundestag members are elected regionally, preventing small parties from gaining seats), in which no single party dominates and the two parties that have historically held power are at the weakest they have ever been – Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the rival Social Democrats now hold slightly more than half the seats, while Likud and Labor have slightly less in Israel.
Recognizing their parties’ weaknesses, both leaders have played to their relative strengths in trying to broaden their diminished appeal. With Merkel, this has meant emphasizing the bland postwar centrist consensus, while Netanyahu has appealed to the “us against them” narrative of the Israeli right. But in either case, it has served only to allow them to claim first spot over the other parties, not a clear mandate to rule.
Anyone hoping Merkel in her fourth term will prove a bit more daring than she has in the past is likely to be disappointed. If Sunday's exit polls are more or less accurate, the only governing coalition Merkel can form will be with the liberal Free Democrats and the Greens.
These are two parties with disparate platforms, which will make it almost impossible to launch many of the radical new policies Germany and Europe need – which will suit Frau Merkel’s conservative soul just fine. Remind you of someone else who blames his coalition whenever he’s pressured to do the right thing?
Both Netanyahu and Merkel are proof that longevity and stability in politics are too often recipes for stagnation and paralysis. And the more one figure dominates the scene, the more difficult it becomes for a new generation of leaders to replace them and prove themselves with new ideas.