Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and author of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.
If Israel were a normal country governed by the normal concerns of voters over issues such as the economy and housing and social tensions, Benjamin Netanyahu would have long since been voted out of office. Even his supporters acknowledge that he is largely indifferent to domestic problems, to the actual lives of Israeli citizens. And then there are the accumulating corruption charges, and his assaults on the legitimacy of the courts, the police, the media, the Arab minority, political opponents.
Yet, Mr. Netanyahu, who failed for the second time in six months to win a majority for his right-wing coalition, clings to power, stalemating the system. Rather than concede political mortality, as any normal politician in his place would do, he has barricaded himself within his diminished coalition, risking the stability of Israel’s democratic system. If he fails to put together a new coalition, he has warned, he will drag us to a third round of national elections, to demoralization and paralysis.
Mr. Netanyahu’s remarkable staying power – this summer, he became Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, outpacing the nation’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, and other beloved leaders such as Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin – owes much to the fact that Israel is not a normal country but one of the world’s most threatened countries, surrounded by terrorist enclaves and by neighbours who, seven decades after Israel’s founding, still refuse to recognize its mere right to exist.
Mr. Netanyahu’s charisma comes from one source: his ability to project power, to embody the Jewish will to survive. As the Middle East convulses, Mr. Netanyahu has kept Israel safe and prosperous. He presided over Israel’s emergence from a relative backwater to a global economic power, from a diplomatically isolated country to one actively courted by world leaders and heads of developing countries. In the midst of an election campaign, which he micromanaged, he commanded a multifront silent war against Iran and its proxies, hitting Iranian bases in Iraq and Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
I confess that, even as I passionately anticipate his imminent departure from office, a part of me hesitates. Who but Mr. Netanyahu can pacify the mad American king and the Russian despot? Who else can protect us from Iran and Syria and other neighbours waiting to do to the Jews what they do to their own people?
There is no small irony in that anxiety. After all, the centrist Blue and White party, which emerged as Mr. Netanyahu’s most formidable opponent, is headed by no less than three former commanders-in-chief of the Israeli army. It is a measure of Mr. Netanyahu’s place in our imagination that not even the cumulative counterweight of our most distinguished generals can entirely assuage our well-founded fears.
But now, a desperate Mr. Netanyahu has exhausted his capacity to protect us. He stumbled on the fatal temptation of rulers who come to see themselves as indispensable. All was permitted because his personal interests and the interests of the state converged. He became careless, allegedly accepting and even demanding gifts from wealthy friends, trade-offs with media moguls.
According to his calculations, he must stay in office to stay out of prison. Although the prospect seems increasingly remote, his goal has been to pass a law granting a serving prime minister immunity from prosecution. Fighting for his life, he waged one of the ugliest election campaigns in Israeli history. No tactic seemed beneath him, from warning against “the danger” of a large Arab vote to legitimizing a racist far-right party that had always been treated by the entire political system as untouchable.
The same tenacity with which Mr. Netanyahu has protected Israel is now absorbed in his war for political survival. It is no longer possible to separate what Mr. Netanyahu does to keep us safe with what he does to keep himself out of prison.
Earlier this month, rockets fired from Gaza forced him off the stage of a campaign rally. It was an embarrassing moment: His political opponents mocked him for his failure to curtail the continuing rocket attacks. Mr. Netanyahu felt his credibility at risk. And so he reportedly convened the security experts and told them to prepare for war against the Hamas regime in Gaza. The army balked and the mad plan – which could have been dubbed Operation Protective Shield for the Prime Minister’s Honour – was shelved.
The old Netanyahu would have never been tempted to risk Israeli lives for political calculations. That, too, was a source of his power. After all, he was part of what Israelis call the extended family of bereavement. His older brother, Yoni Netanyahu, was the fallen hero of Israel’s most heroic moment, when commandos flew thousands of kilometres to rescue hostages at Entebbe airport in 1976. Even Israelis who detested the Prime Minister knew he would not create new bereaved families unless Israel’s interests were truly at risk.
Now, though, he has lost that credibility. An Israeli leader who lacks the moral authority to take this country to war can no longer keep us safe.
Mr. Netanyahu has no real friends or confidants; members of his inner circle have turned state’s evidence against him. He so distrusts the fawning members of his Likud parliamentary faction that he compelled them to sign a personal loyalty oath to him during the elections. Even U.S. President Donald Trump has betrayed him: After the election, Mr. Trump pointedly noted that he hadn’t phoned the Prime Minister, that his relationship with Israel isn’t confined to any one leader. Mr. Trump likes a winner, and Mr. Netanyahu, he senses, has become a loser.
Under different circumstances, a desperate leader such as Mr. Netanyahu might be tempted to draw on the military to maintain power. But one of the blessings of Israel is that its army is a repository of democratic norms.
In truth, Israeli democracy is a miracle. Born in war, the country hasn’t known a day of real peace, living under constant terror assault and political and economic siege and periodically forced to defend its borders. Into this pressure cooker have come waves of impoverished refugees from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, regions lacking democratic traditions. Israel is a laboratory for democracy under extremity. Despite overwhelming threats that might have defeated less vigorous democracies, Israel struggles to remain faithful to its founding principles of decency.
But miracles are a defiance of the laws of nature and must be protected and nurtured. After a decade of uninterrupted rule by Mr. Netanyahu, Israel desperately needs a leader who will treat its democratic institutions as precious assets rather than as obstacles to his goals.
It may take time, but Benjamin Netanyahu will be forced to concede defeat. The only question is how much damage he will do until then. Israel is resilient and the system will endure. But the fall of our most talented and ambitious and ruthless politician will linger in the national psyche, as the tragedy of a Samson blinded and bound to the pillars of power.
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