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Op-eds

Bibi’s sun is setting fast

  • ZvikaOpEd
The results of the second Israeli election this year are still fresh and undetermined. It seems like a deadlock. None of the major parties can easily form a government – neither Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud, nor Benny Gantz and Blue and White.
by BIKO ARRAN | Sep 19, 2019

Avigdor Lieberman, the former defense chief and the leader of Israel Beitenu (the secular, right-wing party started for Russian immigrants) is the kingmaker, but still insists on a unity government of both Likud and Blue and White. The two big parties’ supporters were not popping champagne at their headquarters on Tuesday night. Lieberman probably was toasting, but with vodka.

What’s clear is that Bibi’s gamble of a second round of elections was the wrong choice for him. Likud is going to be smaller, and without a 60-seat block of right-wing and haredi parties. The long-lasting, strong, and charismatic magician (Bibi) is coming out of this campaign wounded and beaten. His wounds make him black and blue versus Blue and White – and the latter is in much better form.

Bibi now has fewer cards to play. He can look forward to a long political process in which his only tool is to try to prevent others from taking leadership. And, we haven’t said anything about his legal problems. Netanyahu’s best advocate was the support he enjoyed among the electorate in spite of allegations of corruption. No more!

Netanyahu from a long distance seems like a superhero. He’s a Sabra (born in Israel), the son of a prominent intellectual, the former captain of an elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and the brother of the late Yoni, the glorious fighter who died while rescuing survivors of Operation Entebbe. Good looking, telegenic, a great English orator. A well-rooted ideologist. An intelligent, charming person. A bright politician. All of those compliments and superlatives can be seen in Israel. They are the reason he managed to overtake David Ben-Gurion in the duration of his 13-year term in one of the most sensitive and complicated leadership positions in the world.

But over the past few years, the price of him staying in power became unbearable for Israel. Netanyahu was inspired by Trump, and other populist leaders in Eastern Europe like Viktor Orbán of Hungary. He caused dissent between Arab and Jewish citizens. He made deals with right-wing racist extremists. He attacked the press and the legal system. He appointed “yes men” as high officials. He broke the across-the-board American support for Israel in order to get photo opportunities and headlines. With lots of poison, he attacked his opponents and politically eliminated any successor or sign of opposition, even among party colleagues. He lied with fake-news, and misled and patronised common people. Last week, he was even close to sending Israel into a politically motivated war in Gaza, ignoring the legal need for cabinet hearing.

And we haven’t said a word about his upcoming criminal charges, the allegations of people around him, and the behaviour and acts of his close family.

Netanyahu was always a sophisticated poker player, but in order to stay prime minister, he crossed the line a long time ago. He started his career as a hardline but hawkish and democratic, open-minded figure. He was a revolutionary finance minister who broke up monopolies. He was even a calm leader on military issues. His international experience and time in office also made him a well-recognised global leader.

But there is a good reason for the 22nd American constitutional amendment preventing a person from running for president for more than two terms. The same restrictions exist in South Africa. A long time in office makes a person lose focus. It can contaminate them. Drain them. And these are just the natural positive scenarios. In fact, remaining in power too long usually has far worse effects.

Rabbi Shai Piron wrote on his first day as Israeli education minister a few years ago, “Hasidism has an interesting tradition that claims that whoever rises to greatness needs a stone in their shoes. A stone, to remind him of where he came from. A stone that will hurt him so much, he doesn’t forget that many people are in pain, and many need help. So, too, I put ‘a stone in the shoe’. Small, but painful.”

Bibi lost his stone a long, long time ago. The only agenda was and – still is – his survival on Balfour Street, the premier’s residence in Jerusalem. That’s not right or left-wing policy. It’s an agenda that’s only about Bibi’s well-being.

This week, with the election of the 22nd Knesset (parliament), the era of the monolithic, hands-on rule of Netanyahu is about to end. Any new government (even with Bibi in it) headed by another Likud leader or by Gantz is going to be a government of reconciliation. When the elections ended this week, it left bloody wounds and social ruptures in Israel. This has had an impact on ultra-Orthodox people. Arabs. Settlers. Left-wing supporters. The discourse in Israel is so polarised, that any new administration will have to address the problems Bibi left.

And there are the other challenges every other country has: an economy with a humongous deficit, and collapsing health and education systems. Bibi won’t be remembered as a prime minister with a unique footprint. He will be remembered as a confused trainer dealing with ‘the elephant in the room’. He will be remembered for signing agreements with Arafat, giving away Hebron, and talking about a two-state-solution but doing the opposite, with no clear direction.

  • Biko Arran is an Israeli social entrepreneur, lawyer, policy advisor, and ex-journalist. He has been living in South Africa since his wife, Liat, took up her position as director of the Israel Centre.

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