Israel is by no means unique on the world stage in instituting policies that are wreaking economic and social havoc to fight the invisible enemy. What makes the country’s experience uniquely sad, however, is the fact that the man arguably largely responsible for liberalizing Israel’s economy with sweeping reforms is now, with undeterred determination, destroying the country’s economy and bringing many small-business owners to their knees, as well as setting back a generation of children by closing schools.
The evening protests taking place at highway intersections around the country, culminating in a weekly Saturday-night demonstration at Balfour Street near the Prime Minister’s Residence, are fast becoming a ubiquitous phenomenon in the Israeli political scene. The protesters who call for Netanyahu’s resignation over corruption allegations comprise mostly supporters of political parties from the center-left, including voters of the now-dwindling Blue and White and the main opposition party, Yesh Atid.
While the anger towards the country’s lockdown policies has created some seemingly strange bedfellows, namely Tel Aviv’s left-leaning urban populations and struggling small business owners—many of whom are Likud supporters—the Balfour protestors are first and foremost animated by their hatred of Netanyahu, with some taking the opportunity voice anger towards the government’s management of the COVID-19 crisis.
However, the protest movement is by and large an extension of the cultural and political reality created in the minds of the Israeli left in the mid-’90s following Rabin’s assassination. Netanyahu, at the time, leader of the opposition party Likud, and the movement that vehemently opposed the Oslo Accords, was accused of fostering a climate of hate, which led to the assassination.
Fast-forward to 2020, and the left has become a marginal faction in the Israeli political arena, with the Labor Party battered into insignificance by the electorate—currently holding three seats in the 120-member Knesset—and its remnants now obediently sitting in the current government led by Netanyahu and his Likud Party.
Recent history is a brutal testament to the left’s failures. Since early 2001, when Israel saw its last Labor government, the country’s economic growth has been stupendous, with the exception of two years of recession in 2001-2003.
Much of Israel’s past 15 years of growth can be attributed to Netanyahu who, before his reign as longest-serving Israeli prime minister, served as finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s government from 2003 to 2006. As finance minister, Netanyahu introduced and rammed through far-ranging reforms in an attempt to modernize the Israeli economy and free it from its socialist shackles.
Under Netanyahu’s tutelage, the top individual tax rate was cut from 64 percent to 44 percent, and corporate taxes decreased from 36 percent to 18 percent with government spending capped for three years. As a result, unemployment dropped and the tax rate went from 35.6 percent of GDP in 2000 to 30.5 percent in 2015.
Netanyahu is arguably the single most powerful force responsible for Israel’s economic boom of the past decades and the eventual rise of the country’s technology sector.
In foreign policy, the failures of the Oslo Accords and the consequent wave of terrorist attacks in Israel are associated with a majority of the electorate on the left and its political representative, the Labor Party. Organizations that grew from Labor, namely Peace Now, have disappeared from the consciousness of the public and are at best marginal, with some in the old guard still screaming about Oslo on the pages of Haaretz, Israel’s leading left-wing daily.
Under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel largely abandoned the often romanticized past of socialist ideals and the peace industry, viewed by the majority of Israelis—not without merit—as a total failure. On matters of economy and peace, Netanyahu has historically been on the right side of history.
So, what happened?
With numerous political victories, as evidenced by his ability to retain the premiership for 12 years during which he has marginalized or altogether destroyed his political opponents, Netanyahu is perhaps uniquely determined, stubborn and successful in pursuing policy objectives.
He seldom loses a battle and almost always wins the war. He has crafted Israel’s political map in his image to the extent of running circles around his dumbfounded opponents. For strategic mastery, he is without a doubt in a league of his own, to borrow from his own election campaign slogans.
This grit and perseverance have served the country well considering that many of his past achievements have made the country wealthier, more prosperous, and yes, freer.
These same qualities are visible today, perhaps more than ever in the way Netanyahu is handling COVID-19—with one exception. With the free-market reforms and policies to modernize the economy, evidence was always there and Netanyahu was staunchly on the right side of the debate.
Dragging a socialist country from malaise to riches is no easy feat, and Israelis owe him much of what the country has become: a tech hub and an incubator of talent, an OECD member state and regional superpower, as evidenced by the Abraham Accords and many other close relationships Netanyahu has forged and tirelessly cultivated.
Today, Netanyahu’s stubbornness and determination are visible in three areas, two of which are directly harmful to Israelis. First, he is pursuing a failed COVID-19 policy without any sign of a change in strategy. Second, he is preoccupied with personal legal matters, taking much of his attention. Third, he is carefully forging new peace agreements and strategic alliances, mainly, but only, tailored to contain Iran.
Without attempting to deconstruct Netyahahu’s psychological makeup, it’s clear that he has a deep desire to bring honor, not shame, to Israel. Being driven by a desire—and fear of shame—to bring Israel to the 20th century through economic reforms won him accolades in America’s halls of power, and he is similarly motivated to make sure Israel is not the laughing stock of the world when it comes to the coronavirus.
Today, global leaders are measured solely in terms of how well they deal with the pandemic, but unfortunately, success is defined according to the number of active daily cases. When Israel emerged “victorious” from the first wave, Netanyahu was proudly educating foreign leaders on how to beat the pandemic. When the so-called second wave hit and Israel started reeling, he was forced to accept the taste of shame as case numbers climbed.
Perhaps the fear of shame is what has accelerated and amplified Netanyahu’s pursuit of a destructive—and stubborn—COVID strategy. The many transcripts leaked from Cabinet meetings reveal an obstinate, undeterred prime minister, not to be reasoned with.
The obsession with which Netanyahu is pursuing policies that are destroying the Israeli economy and deeply harming the future of a generation of children are made from the same cloth as the obsession that helped give rise to a modern market economy.
Today, sadly, the Israeli public is held captive by one man’s quest for victory, even when that victory is neither attainable or desirable.