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Friday Feature - The Knock on Bibi

Friday Feature

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22 Nov 2019
Friday Feature - The Knock on Bibi
Israel entered the most uncharted waters recently when, for the first time ever, a sitting prime minister was indicted on criminal charges, even while the nation – again for the first time – is entering an unprecedented 21-day free-for-all in parliament to form a new government or face an unparalleled third national elections in a row.

Benjamin Netanyahu – still clinging to power as interim prime minister since last November – came out swinging last night against the indictments for fraud, breach of public trust and bribery announced by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. Denouncing the charges as a “coup” cooked up by the Left, the biased media and corrupt police elements, Netanyahu also blasted the timing of the indictments. Indeed, they came just as the Knesset begins a untried three-week process in which any MK can present the president with a list of 61-members willing to join his coalition and thereby avoid a third round of elections.

Until now, Netanyahu was still holding out hope he could lean on a united bloc of 55 nationalist and religious MKs to ensure him immunity from prosecution and somehow find a way to stay in office. But that option may no longer be workable, as the state’s top prosecutor contended last night that Israeli law does not allow a Knesset member under indictment to receive a mandate from the president to head a coalition government.

It may take a few days for the new reality to set in, but it does look like Benjamin Netanyahu’s ten-year reign as Israel’s premier is coming to an end. He has a decent chance to eventually fend off the charges and could make yet another political comeback one day. But petitions to the Supreme Court are already being drafted to force him to resign, and even within his own Likud party the jockeying to replace him as chairman has begun.

The Bane of Bad Press

How did ‘Bibi’ get here? There are three criminal cases against him. One involves the ‘improper gifts’ (expensive cigars, pink champagne) he received from wealthy friends allegedly in return for favors. The other two are centered around his efforts to get better press: the Yediot/Israel Hayom affair and the case involving Bezeq/Walla, which carries the most serious charge of bribery and presents the biggest evidentiary challenge to Netanyahu.

Now I strongly believe it is a slippery slope to start criminalizing attempts by anyone to get better media coverage. The press is unelected, unaccountable, elitist, increasingly partisan, and abusive of its own powers. All too often, they are the ones selling ‘access’ for profits. But it is clear that Netanyahu (and his family) had grown extremely frustrated with the continual sniping against them in the Israeli press, and he was looking for ways to change that which he must now answer for in court.

The current scandals came to a head amidst an atmosphere in Israel where Netanyahu was widely portrayed as corrupted by his many years in power, as feeling entitled to privileges as if he were a hereditary king. Over the past decade, the Israeli Left has been reeling, devoid of a leader who could capture the Center again by offering the public a viable peace agenda with the Palestinians. Instead, it was an anti-Bibi agenda that gained traction, leading to the rise of Blue & White and his present predicament. The media played a major role in the piling on of Netanyahu.

In retrospect, Benjamin Netanyahu has always faced certain unfair criticisms and misperceptions that he has had to overcome during his rise to the top and prolonged stay there. Here are some of the more potent (though often hidden) examples which contributed to the poisoned atmosphere against him in recent years.

The Shadow of Yoni

Growing up, Benjamin Netanyahu and his brother Yonathan were grouped among the ‘young princes’ of Likud – the sons of the party’s founding generation who were destined for positions of national leadership (along with Benny Begin, Dan and Sallai Meridor, and Ehud and Yossi Olmert). But Yoni Netanyahu’s date with destiny was cut short when he fell in battle as the commanding officer during the epic Entebbe raid in July 1976.

“Yoni” instantly became a national hero. He had already shown such promise as a natural leader. Bright, handsome and courageous – a philosopher/warrior whose men would follow him anywhere. That romanticized view of Yoni Netanyahu remains undiminished by the years, as evidenced by the recent Netflix film Follow Me! And by all accounts, that lionization of Yoni is well placed.

However, it also meant his younger brother Benjamin would always be dogged by the hugely unfair perception that he is a lesser man. From the start of his public career as a gifted young Israeli diplomat at the UN, the ‘knock’ on Bibi was that Yoni would have been a truly great leader and the nation got stuck with second best. Sure, Benjamin Netanyahu has proven over time to be amazingly articulate and highly competent in geo-strategic and economic affairs – to the point of being widely admired as a generational statesman for the entire Western democratic world. But inside Israel, many still see him as standing in his brother’s shadow, or even worse of exploiting Yoni’s popularity and tragic death to advance his own career. This has been an immensely unjust and personally painful hurdle for him to overcome.

The Shadow of Rabin

As Netanyahu quickly rose within the Likud ranks, he became party chairman and Opposition leader in 1995, just as the Oslo process became a bitterly divisive issue in Israel. When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was cruelly assassinated by a Right-wing extremist, the Left blamed Bibi for fueling the incitement that led to his death. They cited the chants of “traitor” and posters of Rabin in Yasser Arafat’s keffiyeh at the Right’s anti-Oslo rallies. The accusations were unfair and he has spent many years denying them. But the Left’s loathing of Netanyahu over Rabin’s death has lingered to this day.

At the recent official memorial ceremony on the anniversary of Rabin’s passing, Netanyahu was probably as forthcoming and contrite as he has ever been on the subject. He conceded that there indeed was a lot of hateful incitement against Rabin in those days and he should have done more to confront it, but he insisted that he never called Rabin a “traitor” and that he always rejected the notion that Oslo was an act of treason.  

Nevertheless, lurking in the background of the present drive to oust Bibi is this odious claim that Rabin’s blood is on his hands – yet another immensely unjust and personally painful hurdle for him to overcome.

The Shadow of Ben-Gurion

The Left did manage to drive Netanyahu from power once before, in 1999, using some very underhanded tactics. Humbled, he took a time out from politics and then staged a comeback in 2005 when Ariel Sharon abandoned Likud to form the centrist Kadima faction ahead of the Disengagement from Gaza. It took a few more years, but Netanyahu returned to the premiership in 2009 and has stayed in office for over a decade now. This remarkable achievement means that he has now eclipsed founding father David Ben-Gurion as modern Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. The Left has resented this and had hoped to oust him before it happened. Their efforts fell a few months short but they now look to be finally carrying the day.

This particular ‘knock’ on Bibi runs deeper than most realize. Ben-Gurion, more than any other single person, shaped Israel into a nation built on the model of European socialism. The kibbutzim are testimonies to the utopian idealism of those days, that Israel would be this egalitarian society where everyone would share in its success and seeking individual wealth was seen as taboo. Ben-Gurion himself lived an austere lifestyle and never wore a tie.

Over recent decades, Israel has transformed itself into the innovative ‘Start-Up Nation” modeled more on American capitalism. Israeli entrepreneurs are inventing cutting-edge paywalls and traffic apps and then cashing out in the billions – something which would have been frowned upon here in the 1950s and 60s. Netanyahu, more than any other single person, has overseen this socio-economic transition by his championing of free markets and Israel’s hi-tech wizardry.

With their dream of Israel as an ideal model of socialism gone, many in Israel’s Left and even the Center are now striving to preserve a sense of Israel as a model of pure, upright democracy. That is an honorable goal! But they believe Bibi has tarnished Israeli democracy with his corruption and constant maneuvering to retain power. Whether those criticisms are accurate will now be tried out in a court of law. But when you add everything up, he does have a legitimate point that he is being unfairly run out of office.

The legacy of Benjamin Netanyahu is still being written. But it cannot be disputed that he already stands on rarefied grounds as an orator and statesman, is profoundly competent in geo-strategic and economic affairs, and also has mastered the rough-and-tumble of Israeli politics. The fact that he has managed to retain his seat as prime minister over the turbulent course of the past year is testament to all of these extraordinary skills.

But if the Israeli people want to change the way politics is done here and offer the world a truly pure model of democracy, then a lot more has to change than simply ditching Netanyahu. And the nation needs to examine whether the current push to oust him is really rooted in petty jealousies and unwarranted ‘knocks’ on a truly great leader.


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