Binyamin Netanyahu, whether you like him or not, has been one of Israel’s great Prime Ministers. There is no doubt that in many respects he is simply the most competent person that has ever held that position, in foreign affairs, economics, and strategic matters. He, more than anyone else in the government, recognized the strategic threat from Iran and is taking action against it.
And Binyamin Netanyahu has been treated abominably by the press and the legal establishment in Israel. The way bits of the “confidential” contents of his police interrogations were gleefully reported every night on the hostile TV news programs was unforgivable, and the leakers should have been prosecuted. His enemies threw mud at him from the beginning of his term and never stopped. Now it seems that some of it is sticking, but who remembers that they even accused his wife of redeeming deposit bottles paid for by the government, and keeping the money? Has there ever been a more ludicrous and picayune complaint?
The legal, academic, cultural, and media establishments, are all against Netanyahu, sometimes in the most vile ways possible. For a year or more there have been regular demonstrations in front of the home of the Attorney General, calling for his indictment (which that official has been diligently developing for months).
Netanyahu has been accused of “destroying democracy” because he wanted to limit the power of foreign-funded NGOs and of the nepotically appointed Supreme Court, two of the most anti-democratic forces in the political arena. He has been accused of being a “racist” because he supported the Nation-State Law affirming that Israel is a Jewish state. His “racist” government also passed a historic $4 billion program to provide funds for development of Arab communities.
Israeli voters have time and again returned majorities for the Likud and its partners in the right-wing bloc. The Israeli Left, which once dominated Israeli politics, now flirts with the cutoff percentage for entering the Knesset at all.
But Netanyahu is in trouble today. Avigdor Lieberman leads a secular right-wing party, and he has decided that he will no longer support a narrow right-wing coalition with the religious parties. Blue and White, Bibi’s “centrist” electoral competition, is an artificial amalgamation of former generals and a journalist, Yair Lapid, led by a mediocrity, Benny Gantz. They have no consistent ideology except hating Bibi, and they distrust each other so much that Gantz hired a private investigator to keep tabs on his partners. They can’t create a coalition themselves, even with help from the Arab parties. But after Lieberman’s defection and with Bibi’s legal issues draining support, they have enough seats in the Knesset to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government.
Neither side wants to give in. Both sides threaten a third election, which would cost another billion shekels, take a few months, and probably be no more definitive than the last one.
The precise details of how this happened are unimportant. What is important is that if you consider the right-left spectrum on issues like the Nation-State Law, whether or not to annex the Jordan Valley, the posture toward Iran and Hamas, and similar issues, the nation voted strongly for a right-wing platform. If somehow Blue and White manages to form a narrow government, it would lean Left, and be dependent on Arab support. That would be as anti-democratic – and dangerous – a result as you can imagine.
There is only one practical solution, which is a unity government that would include the more centrist elements of both sides. Such a government would be right-wing on the important security issues, and it would not be dependent on support either from the Arab parties or the Haredi ones. The nucleus of the coalition would be the Likud plus Blue and White. It could be beefed up by the addition of Lieberman or with the parties to the immediate right and left: the New Right (Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett) and Labor/Gesher (Amir Peretz and Orly Levy).
Today this can’t happen, and the reasons center around Netanyahu. He has insisted on a “broad unity government” by which he means a government that includes the Haredi parties, probably so he can have a majority for some kind of legislative solution to his legal problems. But that is impossible given the differences between the Haredim and Lieberman, and the anti-Haredi Yair Lapid. At the same time, Gantz insists that he won’t agree to a Prime Ministerial rotation that includes Bibi, if he should be indicted. And it will probably be months before there is a definite decision on the indictment.
We need to move ahead with a unity government, and the way to do that is for Bibi to turn over the reins of the Likud to someone else. There are several possibilities: Gideon Sa’ar and Yuli Edelstein are often mentioned as possible successors. Possibly the Attorney General could offer Bibi a deal in which he would not be indicted in return for giving up his role as head of the party.
Is this unfair and ungrateful to Bibi? Possibly. The legal cases are complicated, but even if he is not indictable, there is certainly an appearance of impropriety in some of his affairs. And he has become progressively less able to deal with the affairs of state as his own situation has become more uncomfortable. For what it’s worth, the leaders of the Haredi parties are more corrupt and more deserving of prosecution, but that doesn’t change Bibi’s situation.
Bibi Netanyahu has been a great Prime Minister and he has been treated badly (David Ben Gurion would have said the same about himself, and both would have been right). But like Ben Gurion, nobody can (or should) be PM forever. As I wrote recently, we don’t have the luxury of time. Our enemies are not sitting quietly and waiting for our political turmoil to end.
I know that nobody cares about the State of Israel and the Jewish people as much as Bibi. But now he has to make the decision that is the hardest one of all for any great leader: even though he believes that nobody can do the job as well as he can, it’s time to let go and become an elder statesman.