As Israel plunges toward it’s March 23 election — the fourth in two years — the first thing to remember is that voters choose members of the legislature, the Knesset, rather than an individual to lead the country. Yet, as at any time during the tenure of the current prime minister, the election’s Issue One is simple: Bibi, yea or nay.
Mr. Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history, marking 11 straight years since a coalition led by his Likud party gathered a Knesset majority in March 2009. Earlier he served in the same role between 1996 and 1999. If ever there were a case for American-style term limits, this would be it.
Mr. Netanyahu came in as an outsider, a fresh face and an exceptional communicator, but by now his shtick has worn thin on large chunks of Israel’s population. He rarely gives interviews for the Israeli press, but in the last few weeks he’s flooded the zone with television, radio, and print interviews.
The press, admittedly, is far from enamored with Mr. Netanyahu, a rightist figure, but even some of his admirers viewing these interviews were wondering whether he’s finally lost it. Mr. Netanyahu rudely accused interviewers of raising unsubstantiated accusations. As he put it in crass, impossible to translate Hebrew pejoratives, they were just attacking him with some “nana-nana-nana,” “paka-paka,” and “shasha-shasha.”
Meanwhile, what about those accusations? Can a man lead a country while facing serious court cases against him? Mr. Netanyahu has been indicted in three cases involving alleged bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Wouldn’t he be more concerned with staying out of jail than with the welfare and safety of Israeli citizens?
The courts several times last year postponed hearings in these cases. The pandemic was the main reason, but Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents accuse him of pushing election rounds — there were three of them so far in little more than a year, not including this month’s vote — to detract from, delay, and perhaps put to bed investigations against him. In 2020, detractors noticed how Covid-related complete national lockdowns were ordered just when the courts were about to start trial.
While Mr. Netayahu dismisses the three case trials as vindictive, frivolous, and nothing more than nitpicking by his political enemies, the one case for which he’s so far escaped indictment is potentially most damning.
Known as “File 3000,” it involves the purchase, as of 2012, of three German submarines for the Israeli navy. After police concluded its investigation with a recommendation to put Mr. Netanyahu in the dock, Attorney General Avichai Mandblit nevertheless declined to indict. Several of the Prime Minister’s closest allies and family members, however, were snared in the complex dealings and were indicted on corruption and bribery counts.
Beyond the iffy submarine procurements from the German shipbuilder, ThyssenKrupp, the prime minister had green-lighted a sale of similar subs, from the same company, to Israel’s neighbor Egypt. The Premier made that decision by himself, bypassing consultation with security brass and government officials charged with assessing such decisions.
Mr. Netanyahu claims he didn’t share his decision for secret reasons he can’t yet reveal, precipitating a new round of rat-smelling by his opponents. Mr. Netanyahu is reportedly now increasingly wary of revelations in the submarine affair, fearing it more than all other allegations against him.
That's because it involves the country’s most sensitive governing issue. Can Bibi continue to be “Mr. Security” if it turns out that decisions surrounding procurement in Israel’s highest budgetary item, national defense, are made according to criteria involving any consideration other than the good of the country?
To all that, add Mr. Netanyahu’s new political bedfellows. As the election neared, the prime minister orchestrated a unity deal between two far right factions. Their new party, Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish might”), is led by Betzalel Smotrich and Itamat Ben Gvir and is widely considered a scion of the late Meir Kahane, who was assassinated in New York in 1990.
Soon after emigrating to Israel, the American-born Kahane was shunned for extreme anti-Arab views. Prime Minister Begin, himself a right of center leader, said about Kahane that he had “nothing to do with that man.” The radical rabbi was expelled from Knesset in 1987, when an “anti racism” law was enacted specifically to keep him out.
Mr. Ben Gvir is widely seen as the most outspoken Kahane successor. His living room is adorned with a poster of Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 opened fire in Hebron’s ancient Cave of the Patriarchs, massacring 29 Arab worshippers. Mr. Ben Gvir has advocated expelling all Arabs from the land.
Naftali Bennett, the leader of the New Right, a party to Mr. Netanyahu’s right, refused to merge with Otzma Yehudit, citing Mr. Ben Gvir’s racism. Yet, the Prime Minister said he’d seek Mr. Ben Gvir’s support in forming a ruling coalition.
True, Mr. Netanyahu also vowed to keep Mr. Ben Gvir out of power and would not include him in a future cabinet. Giving a political hechsher to a faction considered too odious for most Israelis, though, looks too cynical for even some of Mr. Netayahu’s most avid supporters.
So yes, it’s difficult to make a case for a man who clings to power while facing allegations that could land him in prison. Mr. Netanyahu would stop at nothing, including alliances with Israel’s worst elements, to achieve that goal. Why would anyone even consider voting for him? For the answer, please read part two, coming next week.