Departure Would Be a Very Big Deal
By Aaron David
March 14, 2019
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is
in trouble. Israel's attorney general has plans to issue an
indictment charging fraud, breach of trust and most seriously bribery.
(Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.)
familiar with Netanyahu's formidable political skills should count him out just
yet. He may still emerge after Israel's April 9 election as the best positioned
candidate to form a new government. However, it's hard to see how he can survive
a formal indictment and defend himself at a trial against charges of bribery,
all the while keeping his coalition together and governing the country.
mistake. Should Netanyahu's career end through resignation or conviction, it
will be a very big deal. Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics for more than
a decade. Indeed, should he survive past July, he will become the longest
governing prime minister in Israel's history -- surpassing even David Ben Gurion,
Israel's first and arguably greatest prime minister.
transformations are rare in politics. And we should be careful not to see
Netanyahu's potential political demise as a panacea for all that ails Israel.
Hopefully, his departure will take some of the incivility and polarization out
of Israel's politics; alleviate tensions with American Jews; and perhaps lead to
a more pragmatic approach toward Palestinians.
expecting miracles (this is the Holy Land after all!) ought to lay down, take a
deep breath and wait quietly until the feeling passes.
And here are
several good reasons why:
Israel's leadership crisis will remain
still in the middle of a leadership transition from powerful founders who
carried legitimacy and authority in Israeli politics -- and who could make big
decisions on peace and war -- to a set of new leaders, who have fumbled and
ministers have sought to fill their greater predecessors' shoes. Consider their
fates: Ehud Barak defeated Netanyahu in June 1999, only to go on to become one
of the shortest-tenured prime ministers in Israeli history and to suffer a landslide
defeat at the hands of Ariel Sharon in 2001.
Then there was
Ehud Olmert, who resigned
in 2008and went on to serve 16
months in prison on corruption charges.
been far more successful, presiding over economic growth, an expansion of
diplomatic contacts in the Arab world and a relatively stable security
situation. And yet he's a deeply polarizing figure, who has undermined the
country's democratic norms, dragged down its political discourse and will likely
soon have the distinction of becoming the first sitting Israeli Prime Minister
to be indicted.
notwithstanding, his legacy may well turn out to be a deeply stained one. And
his departure won't easily change the divided nature of Israeli politics and
society; the transactional character of coalition governance; and the
combustibility of Israeli politics, where since 1999, the average length of an
Israeli government is about
two and a half years.
Centrist parties have a rocky history
Benny Gantz, a
former Israeli chief of general staff of the Israeli Defense Forces and leader
of the newly formed Israel Resilience party -- with no prior political
experience -- may yet surprise us all.
So far, he's
been measured -- well-spoken and silent on the big issues -- but with a platform tacking
rightward, taking a tough stance on Hamas, asserting Israeli control
over the Jordan Valley and not endorsing a Palestinian state, in an effort to
capture disaffected Netanyahu voters. He and his main coalition partner, Yair
Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, are the most serious challengers Netanyahu has
Still, as the
inestimable Haaretz columnist Anshel
Pfeffer points out, the Gantz-Lapid coalition (known as the Blue
and White political alliance) really isn't a party but a temporary alignment of
diverse interest and personalities designed for a single purpose: getting rid of
And it has a
built-in self-destruct mechanism. If Netanyahu wins, the bloc will almost
certainly fall apart in the wake of recriminations over the reasons for the
defeat. But even if it wins, Blue and White may
fall victim to personality disputes, the rivalry between Gantz
and Lapid over their rotating prime minister deal (Gantz is set to lead first)
and the inevitable fate of centrist parties, which sooner rather than later
The peace process will still be a headache
Gantz is no
leftist, despite Netanyahu's efforts to paint him as one. And even if his
platform tacks right for political reasons, there's nothing to suggest that his
views on the Palestinian issue reflect any real intention or commitment to take
big leaps and risks for peace.
painful to admit, Israeli and Palestinian positions on the core issues reflect
the huge gaps that right now simply can't be closed. Not to mention the deep
divisions between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank,
which make the Palestinian national movement a veritable Noah's Ark problem with
two of everything -- statelets, security services and patrons and visions of
what and where Palestine is.
Gantz may well
be inclined to adopt the Israeli security services' more pragmatic view of how
to deal with Palestinians -- tough but practical and avoiding steps that might
accelerate a blowup. And even though Gantz has held up Menachem Begin and
Yitzhak Rabin as examples of Israeli patriots -- two prime ministers who took
real risks for peace -- Gantz may well come to see trying to maintain ties with
Arab states as priorities, rather than a politically loaded and fraught peace
process that would need to resolve explosive issues like Jerusalem.
certainly try to be responsive to the Jared Kushner peace plan if and when it
appears. But like Netanyahu -- depending, of course, on what's in it -- will
most likely say, "yes, but..."
Trump and Gantz: No Vulcan mind meld
President of the United States -- and every Israeli prime minister must develop
as close a relationship with him as possible. As the 2020 US election
approaches, Trump will want to continue to demonstrate he's the most pro-Israel
president in history. But there will be changes.
become prime minister, unlike Netanyahu, he will likely stay out of US politics.
There will be no end runs to Congress; no
twinning with Trump's inflammatory politics about "witch
circulating Trump endorsements from Fox News; and no effort to
help Trump make the Republican Party the most pro-Israel party in US politics.
At the same
time, Gantz has already
indicated he will address American Jews' concerns about
egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem -- a move that will
help defuse tensions from the Netanyahu years.
Netanyahu or Trump, won't be a divider. He will likely strive to heal political
rifts, end corruption, reinstate respect for rule of law and restore civility
and amity in Israeli political discourse. These are galactic challenges. And
whether Gantz can succeed in any of this remains to be seen.
doubtless believes that the Netanyahu years have put Israel in a big hole. And
that in such circumstances the first order of business is to stop digging.
Hopefully, Gantz will do that -- and who knows, perhaps much more.