“ … [T]ake for example the vaccinations. Today, he [Netanyahu] holds a press conference and declares there are vaccines. 27 countries, in Europe alone, signed with Pfizer, and there are other countries like Australia—we are in 35th place [but] he holds a press conference and deceives the public. He [Netanyahu] claims that they will arrive in January. Maybe a box of 5 vaccines, at most, will arrive—the rest will arrive after all the other countries receive them … This is how to lose public trust by lying to the public on matters of life and death.” —Yair Lapid in “How Yair Lapid become the Best PR for the Likud,” Channel 12, Nov. 13, 2020
“I should like to direct a question to Prime Minister Netanyahu: ‘Mr. Netanyahu, I would like an answer to one question: Why don’t you tell the truth about the vaccines? We are mature grown-ups. Even if the truth is unpleasant, we will be able to deal with it. We can deal with disappointments, with difficulties—as long as we are told the truth. We understand that it is hard to obtain vaccines. There is no reason to lie! When you say something, the citizens of Israel want to believe you. So they will wait for the vaccines in January … and they will not arrive.” — Yair Lapid in “Yair Lapid was right; the vaccines did not arrive in January (2021); they arrived in December (2020),” Facebook, Dec. 9, 2020
Israeli voters have just gone to the polls for the fourth time in two years. As in the previous three rounds, these elections were conducted less over substantive ideological differences on domestic or foreign policy, and more over the political fate of incumbent Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
As the pre-election polls predicted, the electorate proved to be almost equally divided between two irreconcilably inimical factions—virulent “anyone-but-Bibi” opponents of Netanyahu on the one hand, and ardent “only-Bibi” proponents, on the other.
An impressive, if not unblemished, record
There are, of course, several substantive reasons for calling for the replacement of Netanyahu—as there might well be for any democratically elected leader, in office for an unbroken spell of over a decade. None of them, however, has any compelling merit with regard to the formation of the next government.
This is not to say that Netanyahu’s premiership has been devoid of blemishes. He has to his own detriment shied away from robustly implementing a much-needed reform of Israel’s justice system; he avoided effectively addressing the thorny problem of the rampant lawlessness of the Bedouin gangs in the South; he allotted hopelessly inadequate resources for Israel’s diplomatic battle in the international theater; and he was far from sufficiently resolute in pushing the expansion of Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria (aka the “West Bank”).
However, despite any criticism that can be leveled at him, it is undeniable that, in many ways, Netanyahu has been a truly transformative leader.
Under his stewardship, Israel has become one of the best performing economies in the world, with GDP per capita breaching the $40,000 mark for the first time ever in 2017, up sharply by almost 45 percent since 2009, when he was first reelected after losing power in 1999.
Significant success at home and abroad
He has drastically reduced Palestinian terror from the horrific levels he “inherited” from the Rabin-Peres era — and, despite occasional flare-ups, he has largely managed to contain it to barely perceptible proportions — certainly nowhere near the grisly scale that prevailed under his predecessors.
In terms of foreign policy, he has produced remarkable success. He managed to wait out the inclement incumbency of former U.S. President Barack Obama, emerging largely unscathed, despite the undisguised antipathy between the two men.
His views on Iran and its menacing nuclear ambitions were embraced by the Trump administration, whose renewed sanctions brought the Iranian economy to the brink of disaster. He has managed to initiate far-reaching changes in Middle East politics, with increasingly amicable relations with important Arab states, culminating in the widely feted Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates, as well treaties with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco—something inconceivable several years ago—while sidelining , or at least significantly reducing, the centrality of the intractable “Palestinian problem.”
He has overseen Israel’s “pivot” eastwards and burgeoning relationships with the ascendant economies of India and China, increasingly offsetting Israel’s commercial dependence on the oft less-than-benign European Union. He also has scored remarkable diplomatic successes in Africa and South America.
Moreover, in the face of the innate animosity of several western European countries, he managed to foster increasingly warm relations and understanding with those in Central and Eastern Europe, thus effectively neutralizing the imposition of E.U. sanctions against Israel—which, under current rules, requires a unanimous decision by all member-states.
But perhaps one of the most remarkable (and poll-pertinent) accomplishment was Netanyahu’s success in providing the Israeli population unrivaled access to the COVID-19 vaccines at a speed scoffed at by his political adversaries. This was an achievement that won world acclaim and international esteem for Israel as a leader in the battle against the global pandemic.
Puzzling and perturbing
Given his impressive record, the incandescent political animosity toward Netanyahu is both puzzling and perturbing, as is the virulent personal aversion to him, and the unbridled urge to belittle his successes.
After all, although Netanyahu has held office longer than any previous prime minister, he is still by far the most popular political persona in the country, consistently polling well above any rival as the candidate most suited to fulfill the role of head of government.
Curiously, none of his immediate challengers—with perhaps the exception of Naftali Bennett—even attempts to make a compelling claim that he or she would perform better than Netanyahu. Indeed, the major argument for his replacement focuses on the criminal indictments against him (which legally preclude him neither from holding office nor from competing for office).
Others, who might perhaps grudgingly acknowledge Netanyahu’s exceptional acumen, ability and achievement, raise the argument that he has been at the helm too long, and the dictates of good governance demand that someone else take over the reins of power. Given the harrowing conditions with which Israel is compelled to contend, both these arguments have a decidedly hollow ring to them.
A desperate attempt at a legalistic coup
The true scandal surrounding the current legal aberration is not that Israel has an incumbent prime minister in office while criminal indictments are being pursued against him, but rather that the indictments were ever filed in the first place. Despairing of being unable to unseat him via standard democratic means, his implacable political foes turned to (ab)use of the legal system.
As I have pointed out repeatedly elsewhere (see for example here), ever since his unexpected, razor-thin 1996 victory over Shimon Peres (then the left-leaning liberal-establishment candidate for the premiership), Netanyahu has been hounded and harassed by his political rivals within Israel’s entrenched civil-society elites and subjected to a maelstrom of allegations that range from the petty to the preposterous.
For two decades, he has been assailed by the self-appointed bon-ton set, who saw him as an impudent upstart usurper of their “divinely ordained right” to govern.
As their astonished disbelief morphed into visceral rage, a cavalcade of charges was unleashed, admonishing him (and/or his spouse) for irregular use of garden furniture, the employment of an electrician, the proceeds from the sale of recycled bottles, payments to a moving contractor, an inflated ice-cream bill (no kidding), the cost of his wife’s coiffure, meals ordered for the official residence from restaurants and expenses involving the care of his ailing 96-year-old father-in-law.
Significantly, the recriminations against him rarely, if ever, related to the way he discharged the duties of the office to which he was elected.
Criminalizing the political process
Finally, in November 2019, Netanyahu was indicted on three counts of breach of trust and one count of bribery. As I have underscored previously, the charges seem anything but compelling. Indeed, they have been excoriated by an impressive array of internationally renowned legal experts as being wildly inappropriate. Indeed, they cautioned that pressing these charges may well pose a serious danger for democratic governance in the future—even calling for them to be annulled.
But not only legal experts appear dubious as to the substantive merit of the indictments. As the continuing widespread support for Netanyahu underscores, many in the general public remain unconvinced on this matter.
Understandably, for a layman, one’s sense of puzzlement and skepticism is inevitably increased by the fact that the state prosecution has as good as admitted that Netanyahu could not be indicted on the basis of well-established legal practice—and to do so, new legal precedents needed to be invoked. In other words, new crimes had to be invented in order to indict him.
Adding to the sense of unease is the fact that the entire investigation has been accompanied by disturbing reports of misconduct by the police and shoddy work by the prosecution, including:
- blatant selective enforcement;
- harassment and extortion of witnesses;
- prosecution of invented infractions;
- persistent purposeful and prejudicial leaks of investigatory material prohibited by law;
- disregard of formal prosecutorial procedures laid down by the law;
- belated post-arraignment amendment of the charges ordered by the court.
Vindicated in the court of public opinion
The widespread public endorsement of Netanyahu’s leadership—despite the indictments—clearly demonstrates that he has been vindicated in the court of public opinion. Even more significantly, this endorsement represents a massive majority in that portion of the electorate that subscribes to the vision of Israel based on the principles on which it was founded, as set out in the Declaration of Independence—namely, as the nation-state of the Jewish people, in which non-Jewish minorities have full equality with regard to their civil rights, but in which national rights are reserved for Jews, and Jews alone.
Consequently, many in Israel would concur with Alan Dershowitz’s withering criticism of the legal action taken against Netanyahu. He asserts: “The issue at the center of these investigations seems trivial against the background of the existential crises Israel is facing … The first probe, also known as Case 1000, involves gifts of cigars and champagne Netanyahu received from close friends … I strongly believe that the appropriate criteria for criminal prosecution have not been met in the cigar and champagne case against Netanyahu … The other investigations (dubbed 2000 and 4000) pose even greater dangers to democratic governance and civil liberties … In both cases, the prime minister is essentially being investigated for allegedly trying to push the media—with long histories of attacking him and his family—to be fairer.”
Dershowitz is right, both with regard to the substantive triviality of the charges against Netanyahu and to the gravity of the threats facing Israel.
With regard to Case 1000, it is a little difficult to grasp why gifts of perishable goods from well-heeled acquaintances, even if inappropriately excessive, should be grounds for removing an incumbent prime minister from office—particularly as it is not at all clear what benefits were provided in exchanges for the perhaps overly generous gifts of wine and tobacco. Indeed, even if punitive measures are called for, it would seem far more appropriate to impose administrative measures such as monetary penalties, rather than criminal ones.
With regard to Case 2000, involving a discussion between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, owner of Yediot Achronot, regarding the possibility of boosting Mozes’s distribution at the expense of his main competitor, it seems more than a little puzzling as to why any legal action is at all merited because of a meeting that produced no concrete result or even concrete action towards achieving that result—especially when more than 40 other MKs did, in fact, comply with Mozes’s behest, while Netanyahu opposed it. Perversely, no charges have been—or will be—filed against the 43 members of Knesset who actually attempted to give Mozes what he asked for.
Case 4000 is a little more abstruse, involving Netanyahu’s actions in his role of Minister of Communications, and in which he is alleged to have bestowed on Shaul Elovitch, owner of the popular Walla news outlet, commercial benefits in exchange for improved coverage of him and his family. However, not only did Netanyahu’s actions fall well within the bounds of his role as Minister of Communications, but as, others have noted, nowhere in the democratic world has any prosecutor ever indicted—or even investigated—a politician or media organization of bribery for receiving/providing positive coverage, even when such coverage came in direct exchange for legislation.
It is difficult to improve on Dershowitz’s astute assessment of the legal measure against Netanyahu: “…[T]he police and prosecutors should not intrude on this complex, messy and nuanced relationship between politics and the media, except in cases of clear and unambiguous financial corruption well beyond what is alleged in the current cases … [T]o criminalize these political differences is to endanger democracy and freedom of the press…”
Indeed, they do indeed pose such danger—and portend a future in which every public figure who is given positive press coverage will risk interrogation by the police as to what untoward benefits were given or pledged in return.
Distorting democracy; denigrating Israel
By their incessant drive to besmirch Netanyahu in their hitherto forlorn hope to remove him from office, his purportedly Zionist adversaries are playing—unconsciously or uncaringly—into the hands of Israel’s most vehement detractors. After all, these venomous vilifiers of Israel need no more ammunition for their anti-Israel arsenal than to quote the maelstrom of bitter barbs that the motley assortment of obsessive Bibi-phobes hurl continuously at him to prove their contention that Israel is a bigoted and biased country, run by a racist regime, inexorably sliding into ethnocratic despotism—indeed, on the cusp of fascism.
Perhaps one of the most paradoxical and perplexing aspects of the conduct of the “anyone-but-Bibi” adherents is their insistence on distorting, even totally disregarding, the results of the democratic process—despite the profound concern that they profess to have for the fate of democracy in Israel. After all, they obdurately demand precluding the candidate who received the highest number of votes, yet have no qualms in ensconcing candidates with far lower levels of electoral support—in some cases four to five times less.
This is particularly grave given the fact that the public was fully aware of the charges against Netanyahu when votes were cast. Indeed, he polled almost 80 percent higher than his nearest rival, Yair Lapid, head of the center-Left Yesh Atid faction, while support for his major right-wing opponents hovered around a mere 5 percent of the vote.
These results in themselves reflect a massive indictment of Israel’s law enforcement establishment—and a resounding vote of no-confidence in an investigation that has drained far more public funds than any conceivable amount that might be attributed to Netanyahu’s alleged malfeasance.
Israel’s daunting challenges
Few, if any, countries face the truly daunting array of challenges that Israel does. These run the full gamut of security threats—some of that menace its very survival—from an assortment of terrorist organizations and low-intensity warfare, through conventional enemy armies and missile capabilities, to non-conventional weapons including a nascent nuclear arsenal in the hands of a fanatical theocracy, potentially immune to massive civilian casualties of its own.
Exacerbating the hazards confronting Israel is the recent strategic pact between China and Iran, which could not only dramatically boost the dangers in the military realm including the Israel Defense Force’s operations to thwart Tehran’s malevolent designs in Syria, but could have grave implications in the economic sphere, where Beijing is heavily involved in several large-scale infrastructure projects, including port construction. Beijing’s strategic collaboration with Tehran is liable to have grave implications for the future of these enterprises.
It is also liable to impact Israel’s initiative to “pivot East” and reduce economic dependence of an intrinsically antagonistic E.U. Moreover, with the global tensions between the United States—Israel’s greatest strategic ally—and China, Israel will have to tread a very tenuous and narrow path between them.
Furthermore, despite its pre-pandemic robustness, Israel’s economy has been hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak. Reinvigorating economic activity and dealing with unprecedented levels of unemployment will require skill, experience and stature, which Netanyahu’s rivals have yet to demonstrate.
No time for on-the-job training
But arguably the thorniest problem on Israel’s national agenda is the return to the White House of an inherently unsympathetic administration—which, given the rise of the more radical anti-Israel elements in the Democratic party, will be, if anything, even more unbenign towards Jerusalem than the Obama one was.
This bodes ill for Israel for it is likely to impact virtually every aspect of national policy and limit Israeli freedom of actions on important fronts—including the Palestinian, Syrian and Iranian ones. Moreover, Israel can expect far less support in international disputes than was the case with the Trump administration. In particular, Biden is likely to be far more reticent in taking a robust line against either Tehran or Beijing on matters of critical strategic concern for Israel.
These are challenges that do not lend themselves to on-the-job training—and require the experience, the ability and international standing that no one in the political system other than Netanyahu has been shown to possess.
The deadlock created within the Zionist segment of the electorate by the negation of Netanyahu has elevated the significance of dominantly Arab anti-Zionist parties, which reject the founding principles upon which Israel was established as the nation-state of the Jewish people—and which, by Clause 7a(a)1 of the Basic Law: Knesset—should be barred from participation in the elections.
Thus, despite the fact that the right-of-center parties won an overwhelming majority, the “fratricidal” feuding within the right-wing over the fate of Netanyahu has, in effect, given the anti-Zionist parties veto power over the formation of a governing Zionist coalition.
Watching the emergence of these astounding political developments, one is inexorably drawn to the words of the Babylonian Talmud, (Yoma 9:B) on the gravity of the perils of baseless hatred among the Jewish people: “Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three things which prevailed there: idolatry, illicit sexual relations, bloodshed. … But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time they occupied themselves with Torah, mitzvot [religious observance] and acts of charity? Because baseless hatred prevailed. This teaches you that baseless hatred is equal to the three sins of idolatry, illicit sexual relations and murder.”
There seems little more to add.
Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.
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