On Monday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a nationally televised address in which he outlined the reasons that he believes the investigations currently being conducted against him are flawed, pleading with the nation to believe him over state prosecutors.
He may well be right. In the two most serious cases against him, he is accused of attempting to pass legislation and regulations, in exchange for better coverage in the media. In Case 2000, the legislation was never passed. In Case 4000, Netanyahu argues that the regulations were to the benefit of the nation. By all accounts in both cases, better media coverage by a news media that has always disliked the prime minister—and vice versa—never arrived.
As a prime minister, it’s Netanyahu’s job to advance legislations and create or relax regulations accordingly, as well as to achieve positive media coverage for his policies. If Netanyahu is ultimately guilty, it’s rather likely that numerous other Israeli politicians would be found guilty of similar crimes if the same standards are applied.
And while Netanyahu may be charged bribery, even prosecutors recognize that he never pocketed any cash.
However, if Netanyahu believes that these critical elections are about the merits of the criminal cases now being carried out against him, then he is severely belittling the serious issues Israel faces in the coming years.
Worse yet, he is belittling the case for why Israelis should vote for him in April.
Prior to the self-termed “dramatic announcement” Netanyahu issued on Monday evening, polls indicated that Netanyahu’s Likud Party stood to receive as many as twice the mandates in the next Knesset as any other registered party. For the first time in his political career, there is no credible challenger that Israelis believe has the skills and experience to hold together a coalition government and lead the nation.
Now seeking a record-setting fifth term as prime minister, Netanyahu has led the State of Israel through an unprecedented era of financial growth, relative security, improved diplomatic relations, and development of key infrastructure that will benefit the country long after his reign eventually ends. His command of all facets of governance are second to none, and his presence in the international arena is greatly respected—even by those who dislike him (see Western Europe).
And Netanyahu, unlike his previous five predecessors, has not led the nation towards dangerous diplomatic initiatives with the Palestinians that would cede territories critical to Israel’s well-being and historical narrative while further imperiling Israel’s sensitive security needs.
None of the candidates—with the possible exceptions of ex-generals Benny Gantz or Moshe Ya’alon—have the security credentials that Netanyahu possesses. More than that, the Israeli public has no indications of either candidate’s political leanings vis-à-vis the Palestinians and the now-failed peace process. And there have been little indications thus far early in the election cycle that Gantz or Ya’alon have the skill set needed to lead Israel on any of the other fronts that Netanyahu has adeptly managed.
Other candidates on the left, including former television personality Yair Lapid and former Labor Union leader Avi Gabbai have done little to impress Israel’s electorate, following Lapid’s failed stint as finance minister and Gabbai’s unceremonious divorce of Tzipi Livni, herself a divisive political figure.
Candidates on the right, including Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, have demonstrated that they cannot unify even the members of their own political camp and are far from ready to lead a coalition government.
Through holding together successive governments for more than 10 consecutive years, Israel’s strategic position has changed dramatically during Netanyahu’s leadership. Israel is now a regional military superpower and an emerging economic powerhouse.
Still, that doesn’t mean that the challenges Israel faces today are any less serious than in prior years.
Serious decisions need to be made regarding the failed Oslo paradigm. Today many Israelis, even those who supported the Oslo peace process, now recognize that ceding territory in Judea and Samaria for the creation of yet another Arab state would lead to the creation of a new Syria-like entity right on the edge of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
With aging autocrat Mahmoud Abbas in poor health, there is a strong likelihood that the corrupt Palestinian Authority, which continually incites its constituents to murder Jews while financing those who commit murderous acts, will collapse—and it may well be in Israel’s best interests that it does. Yet Israel needs to be prepared for the day after.
While Israel’s firepower and defense capabilities are among the world’s most advanced and most readily deployed, the country may quickly find itself engaged in a multi-front conflict, the likes of which have not been seen since the major wars in 1948, 1967 and 1973.
Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon is stocked with as many as 150,000 rockets that can reach anywhere in Israel. Hamas-run Gaza has displayed its willingness to shoot thousands of short-range missiles into Israeli territory. Southern Syria has been invaded by Iranian forces and is armed with Russian-made air defenses. Jerusalem and the West Bank are filled with thousands of terrorists-in-waiting, armed with locally made guns, vehicles that become tools for car-rammings and knives. And Iran has an entire network of nuclear weapon and ballistic-missile facilities that threaten Israel’s very existence.
Economically, while trillions of dollars have poured into the country’s private sector, the middle class is in growing consumer debt, and housing prices have more than doubled. In the land of milk and honey, food prices including dairy have skyrocketed, often more expensive than the prices of the same items in Europe.
The stakes are as high as ever. The cost of poor leadership in the coming years could be extremely difficult to bear, while the rewards for strong leadership could be immense.
If Netanyahu wants the 2019 Israeli elections to be about the merits or demerits of the potentially dubious corruption indictments he now faces, then he may not be the man to lead the State of Israel moving forward.
On the other hand, if Netanyahu wants this election to be about the serious security, international and domestic and challenges that Israel faces, and the need for skillful and experienced national leadership, then he may be the only suitable candidate to win the election.
And in that case, the electorate will be more likely to back him over a legal establishment that is intent on ending his reign.
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of Jewish News Syndicate.