Israel’s Biden Moment

Dan Perry photo

Some political leaders are defined by big ideas and others by outcomes, even if prosaic. But with truly special ones, the zeitgeist is the legacy. That’s Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.

The country should feel very different after Sunday’s swearing-in of a new government even if co-leaders Naftali Bennett (slated to go first as prime minister) and Yair Lapid (succeeding him in 2023) never do an actual thing. It will feel different because of the change in behavior at the top.

Understanding how might help outsiders fathom the radical polarization Netanyahu has inspired. Like Donald Trump, Netanyahu is opposed by a small (and disjointed) majority of the people (and Knesset), about half of whom loathe him; and he is supported by an unmovable base of perhaps 40 percent, about half of whom adore him as a Machiavellian Messiah.

Like Trump, Netanyahu has dominated the discourse with whiplash-inducing jackhammer agitprop, and his exit might usher in a period of calm. May 13th is Israel’s Biden moment: a little like the new U.S. president, the Bennett-Lapid duo might be boring in a way that is a balm.

Some may marvel at Netanyahu’s failure to win reelection after Israel became the first country to basically vaccinate its way out of Covid-19 (indeed, he suffered four non-victories over a bizarre two-year non-stop campaign that only has found its inevitably odd conclusion).

After all, anyone following Israel knows that personal security has been quite good under Bibi, with suicide bombings all but gone, and that he started no wars (other than the flareups involving Gaza, a conundrum no prominent Israeli politician has a solution for — though there are better ideas). The country is also quite prosperous owing to technology superpowerdom.

Moreover, Netanyahu as an individual wows observers not only with flawless English (fruit of a Philadelphia youth and MIT education) but also with powers of persuasion rarely encountered on the world stage: where the Trump analogy fails is that Netanyahu may be the most eloquent and quick-thinking world leader alive.

For his defenestration to have happened, then, he must have had a downside. And so he did. An epic, Shakespearean, Greek tragedy of a downside.

To begin with, because it cannot be ignored, his actual policies threaten no less than national destruction. By cementing the West Bank occupation he brought Israel to the brink of a one-state outcome that will not be Jewish, cannot be described as democratic, and will likely come to resemble Yugoslavia more than Switzerland (see details here). And by refusing to upset his indispensable Haredi allies, he has furthered a dynamic that yields a fantastically expanding proportion of hyper-religious Israelis who are medieval in their mores, unemployable in a modern economy, and wards of the state (see details here).

Yet these issues are complicated, they confuse the public, and the incoming government may not do any better. Bennett is a nationalist yet to disengage from religious reveries about the West Bank (unlike Lapid); and while the coalition includes key players who seek to address the Haredi disaster, as a group they project weakness and indecision.

No — the main expected difference lies in the realm of zeitgeist.

It is hard to describe Netanyahu’s comportment and retain credibility, because it is quite literally unbelievable. The expenses and ethical scandals that have surrounded him know few equals in my experience covering dozens of democratic countries around the world.

The ignominy goes well beyond the three episodes that have landed him in the dock on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu has yet to be investigated for a shady stock deal that reportedly netted him millions of dollars channeled through a cousin and involving a German company indirectly benefitting from official Israeli business — and he scraped through an array of domestic expense outrages with only his wife Sara convicted. The complaints and lawsuits by former workers of the prime minister’s residence claiming abuse, especially at the hands of Sara, is astounding.

Netanyahu in 2008 said then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should resign merely for being under police investigation — and Olmert did. Now himself on trial, Netanyahu has hung on with supervillain tenacity, gaslighting the more credulous into believing a loophole that enables a prime minister to continue serving while facing charges (unlike any other minister or even the proverbial dog-catcher) actually requires that he stay on.

Moreover, he has whipped members of his base into a frenzy against the police, the prosecution and the courts , constantly amplifying the aggrievement narrative of deep-state conspiracy against not only him but all right-wingers.

He has incited dangerously against the Israeli Arabs who are a fifth of the population and whom the country needs to embrace, in order to deter the opposition from allying with Arab parties to dislodge him (as is now occurring).

Driven by an egomania that far exceeds even the normal level in politics, he has sidelined and alienated almost all talented potential rivals in the Likud. He is now surrounded with a motley collection of such sycophants, petty larcenists and evident mediocrities that one suspects Israel’s continued plausibility derives from either systemic autopilot or the talented premier operating entirely on his own.

In the recent years, as the situation spun out of control, he deployed a series of creative tricks to repeatedly call new elections (including by not passing a budget, during the pandemic of all times), which through another loophole left him in power indefinitely as a caretaker.

Most damagingly to a young democracy, he has used his prolonged period in power to brainwash the impressionable into believing the center-left is dangerous and perhaps traitorous — and that at the same time that only he could be entrusted to lead the right (for if he stepped down, as anyone else would, Likud would probably still be the party of power).

This has conceived a personality cult rivalling Trump’s that is as dangerous and infantile in equal measure. Key legal and political figures are under protection, and it is not for fear of the mafia. The Shin Bet chief last weekend issued a public warning against the violence that can result from wild incitement, and it was for fear of rampaging peaceniks.

The expected change, therefore, is that Israel will cease to experience a relentless assault by its prime minister. Israelis can hope for competent governance, a respect for norms, and the absence of a personality cult. They might be even spared the background buzz of feverish scheming in a never-ending campaign.

Except, or course, from the direction of the opposition, which at least in the short term will continue to be led by Netanyahu; the Likud does not turn on fallen idols. Here, despite different systems of government, the Trump analogy holds as well. Expect the new Israeli opposition, like Biden’s, to swerve swiftly off the rails.

Author, entrepreneur and technologist who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Working on solutions to help media thrive.