Netanyahu’s Israel Now
By David M.
New York Times
April 10, 2019
JERUSALEM — Benjamin Netanyahu’s apparent re-election
as prime minister of Israel attests to a starkly conservative vision of the
Jewish state and its people about where they are and where they are headed.
They prize stability, as well as the military and economic
security that Mr. Netanyahu has delivered.
Though in many ways they have never been safer, they remain
afraid — especially of Iran and its influence over their neighbors, against
which Mr. Netanyahu has relentlessly crusaded. They are persuaded by his
portrayal of those who challenge him, whether Arab citizens or the left, as
enemies of the state. They take his resemblance to authoritarian leaders around
the world as evidence that he was ahead of the curve.
They credit Mr. Netanyahu, whose strategic vision values
power and fortitude above all, with piloting Israel to unprecedented diplomatic
heights and believe still more is possible. And they are loath to let anyone
less experienced take the controls.
“Let’s be honest with ourselves,” said Michael B.
Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington. “Our economy is excellent,
our foreign relations were never better, and we’re secure. We’ve got a guy
in politics for 40 years: We know him, the world knows him — even our enemies
Not everyone is so enamored of him.
Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition appears to have won 65 of the
120 seats in Parliament. But his positions on the issues differed little from
those of his main challenger, Benny Gantz, suggesting that close to half of the
electorate would have simply preferred someone else in the job.
As he assembles a new coalition, how Mr. Netanyahu manages
that divide will be his first test. With a new term and an expanded Likud party,
he could form an even larger right-wing coalition of secular, ultra-Orthodox and
even some extremist lawmakers — or, if he chooses, he could to try to forge a
national unity government that brings in centrists.
Whatever he decides, Mr. Netanyahu has been afforded the
opportunity to lead Israel through a serious turning point in its history as
both a Jewish and a democratic state, if his legal troubles do not topple him
An election that was all about personality and character
— whether Mr. Netanyahu’s likely indictment on corruption charges made him
unfit to continue in the job, or whether Mr. Gantz, was up to it — left little
room for issues of policy.
To his credit, Mr. Gantz, who conceded on Wednesday, won a
record number of Parliament seats for a new party. But Mr. Netanyahu proved once
again that his talents, stamina and willingness to do what it takes to win are
all unmatched in Israeli politics.
But serious concerns for Israel that were essentially set
aside in the campaign are fast approaching. As he surpasses David Ben-Gurion,
Israel’s founding leader, as its longest-serving prime minister this summer,
Mr. Netanyahu will be unable to ignore any of them for long.
Peace with the Palestinians remains as unlikely as ever,
despite the possible wild card of a long-awaited proposal from the Trump
administration. Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing allies, to whom he may be even more
beholden under his next coalition, are champing at the bit to pursue
annexation of the occupied West Bank.
In desperation to rally the pro-settler base, Mr. Netanyahu
said publicly three days before the election that he would begin applying
Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank that the Palestinians
demand for their future state. Opponents believe this would set off a new
Palestinian uprising, bring to fruition the apartheid regime the Israeli left
has long warned against, or both.
Even without annexation in the mix, Mr. Netanyahu’s
settler- and ultra-Orthodox-dominated government, and his effusive
embrace of President Trump, have rapidly alienated Israel from predominantly
liberal and less-observant American Jews, the largest diaspora community and a
pillar of Israel’s security since its founding.
Israel is becoming a partisan issue in the United States
like never before, already forcing those seeking the Democratic presidential
nomination in 2020 — including Bernie
Buttigieg and Beto
O’Rourke — to distinguish their support for Israel from their
disapproval of Mr. Netanyahu’s policies.
Finally, though it has received little notice outside
Israel, a power struggle between the judiciary — one of the country’s last
redoubts of assertive liberalism — and ascendant ethnonationalists has been
building toward a showdown that could sharply alter the nature of Israeli
While conservatives have been working to curtail the
Supreme Court’s power through legislation, the court itself has been laying
the groundwork to assert judicial review over even the so-called basic laws that
Parliament considers the building blocks of an eventual constitution, which
Israel now lacks.
“Imagine the American Supreme Court judging the
constitutionality of part of the Constitution itself,” said Gadi Taub, a
historian and Hebrew University professor who opposes settlements and annexation
but supports a rollback of judicial authority.
Mr. Netanyahu has not led the effort to rein in the Supreme
Court, but he has railed against the legal system as a whole, over the
long-running police corruption investigations that have led to his expected
indictment on bribery and fraud charges.
That campaign, too, is expected to present a challenge for
Israel’s democratic system: Mr. Netanyahu is now almost certain to try to
extract a deal from his coalition partners to pass a law retroactively granting
him immunity from prosecution.
Israelis have grown accustomed to Mr. Netanyahu’s bullish
PowerPoint assessments of the country’s condition: 10 years of uninterrupted
economic growth, its best-ever credit rating, and diplomatic openings and new
trading partners in Africa, Asia and Latin America. During the campaign, they
also got used to clips showing Mr. Trump granting recognition of Jerusalem as
Israel’s capital and of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, both
coveted national goals.
Dorit Rabinyan, an author who calls herself left-wing, said
Israelis feared Mr. Netanyahu’s exit as if they would be “orphaned.” And
she confessed to having a tinge of the same feeling herself. “I’m anxious
about it at the very same time that I’m hopeful about it,” she said.
Critics point to a yawning income gap between those
prospering in Israel’s high-tech industry and those in the middle class or
living outside the major cities. A housing crunch, clogged highways and a
crushing cost of living are keeping many young adults in their parents’ homes
and driving others to emigrate.
That gave Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents on the left and even
the center-right ample ammunition.
“He’s provided short-term profits at a very high
long-term price,” said Ari Shavit, a Jerusalem-born journalist who has
followed Mr. Netanyahu throughout his career. “Netanyahu’s Israel is
mortgaged. And we are going to pay dearly.”
Mr. Shavit said the same could be said for Mr.
Netanyahu’s failure to use Israel’s position of strength and strategic
comfort — “this golden moment” — to take on its single most existential
issue, the Palestinian conflict; and for his exploitation of Mr. Trump’s
largess at the cost of “endangering the relationship with Democratic America,
younger America and the next administration in Washington.”
Mr. Taub said he expected Mr. Netanyahu to continue his
decade-long practice of slow-walking settlement expansion, as the right
complains, and sabotaging peace talks, as the left complains.
“Gantz, with his high talk of values, optimism, change,
sounded like Obama in 2008,” Mr. Taub said. “But no one in Israel thinks
there’s really an option to annex the West Bank or make peace. So it will be
the triumph of the status quo.”
But Mr. Oren said he believed that a Trump peace plan was
forthcoming, and that Mr. Netanyahu was best suited to reach a deal, at last, no
matter how much his coalition partners fought it.
“It’s the old adage: The left makes war, the right
makes peace,” Mr. Oren said. “Netanyahu will be extremely loath to say no to
Trump, which could prove to be the success of that program.”
On the West Bank, however, few share that view.
Ghassan Khatib, a professor at Bir Zeit University and
former spokesman for the Palestinian government, said Mr. Netanyahu’s long
tenure had already left behind two devastating casualties: any hope for a
two-state solution and any support for moderate Palestinian leadership, whose
investment in a diplomatic solution to the conflict Mr. Netanyahu has
Mr. Khatib said that Mr. Netanyahu, by politically
empowering the extreme right wing in recent years, had contributed to a
radicalization that has made Israelis averse to peacemaking. “The Israel that
we talk about now is not the Israel we negotiated with 25 years ago,” he said.
“I think that Netanyahu’s taking us into some kind of apartheid reality.”
It is precisely because Mr. Netanyahu has been so
successful that some on the left argue that his leadership is undermining
Israel’s seemingly irrepressible democracy.
Anshel Pfeffer, the author of “Bibi,” a critical
biography of Mr. Netanyahu, said he believed that by campaigning as the
“indispensable man,” Mr. Netanyahu had “created a narrative where it’s
illegitimate or irresponsible to replace him.”
certain justification for that,” Mr. Pfeffer said.
“The left wing always said, ‘Here’s the deal: If you
don’t solve your issues with the Palestinians and end the occupation, and
resolve your outstanding issues with Arab countries, you won’t realize your
incredible potential,’ ” he said. “You’ll have a spartan lifestyle,
you’ll have to go to war all the time, and the world may isolate you — the
diplomatic tsunami. And it’s inarguable that in the last 10 years, Netanyahu
has broken this paradigm.”
Yet, at the same time, Mr. Netanyahu has fueled and
directed the right wing’s animosity at predominantly liberal institutions like
the courts, the police, higher education and the news media. To the left,
Israeli democracy is on the defensive. To the ethnonationalist right, which
succeeded last year in enshrining
Israel’s self-definition as the nation-state of the Jews in a basic
law, it is in need of an adjustment.
“Somebody told me that Israel went really far on the
democracy side, and now we have to rebalance it,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a
liberal pollster and writer. “They see it as a corrective, that Israel has too
healthy a democracy.”
Some, including Mr. Gantz, have warned that Mr. Netanyahu
was headed down a path toward a regime like that of President
Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.
Mr. Pfeffer said Israel was not there yet.
“Those other countries don’t have the institutions that
can indict the prime minister,” he said. “It hasn’t happened here; the
media and judiciary are still strong. But once you erode democracy, you make it
much easier for the incumbent to win.”