Recent events have put the political future of Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in jeopardy. Several criminal probes have been opened against him on corruption allegations, and he and those close to him have been questioned by police on several occasions. These charges include accusations that he received hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal gifts from foreign and domestic tycoons, and that he urged the purchase of what the Israeli Defense Forces termed “unnecessary submarines” from Thyssenkrupp, a German company advised by a firm whose board members include Netanyahu’s attorney, David Shimron. The latest bombshell is that Netanyahu colluded with Israeli media tycoon, Arnon Mozes, owner of the newspaper, Yediot Ahronot. Tapes in possession of the police show the two attempting to arrive at a deal where Mozes would ensure favorable coverage for Netanyahu in return for Netanyahu backing a law that would hamstring a rival newspaper owned by American casino magnate, Sheldon Adelson.
These revelations have had a rippling effect on the Israeli political arena. Polls indicate that if an election were held today, Netanyahu’s Likud party would sink from 30 seats in parliament to the low 20s, and would be surpassed by Yes Atid, the party of former journalist and finance minister, Yair Lapid. Furthermore, many younger Likud Knesset members are impatient to abandon Netanyahu, viewing him as a drag on the party.
What does all of this mean for us, as politically engaged American Jews? Most importantly, it seems possible, even likely, that Benjamin Netanyahu will not be the Israeli Prime Minister for much longer, whether of his own accord or not. If this happens, it will herald a new Israeli era for those of us too young to remember an Israel before Netanyahu. Thus, it seems relevant to reflect on the effect Bibi has had on Israel-related discussions in the diaspora.
More than almost any other world leader, Netanyahu has painted himself — and has been painted by admirers and critics alike — as the face of Israel. To many in the Jewish community, he is the human embodiment of Jewish national determination and Israeli security. Unfortunately, this has led some to be unable to distinguish Bibi, the face of Israel, from Bibi, the politician and man. This has led some otherwise liberal and left-wing Jewish Democrats to give him what I consider to be unnecessary and undeserved deference. To consider why, let us look at Israel’s political history:
The majority of Israel’s prime ministers (Ben-Gurion, Sharett, Eshkol, Meir, Rabin) have come from the left. They were of the socialist Mapai (later Labor) party and largely adhered to social democratic principles.
Israel has seen four prime ministers of the right-wing Likud party. One of them, Ariel Sharon, was previously a member of Mapai and then shifted rightward. Two other previous prime ministers, Menachem Begin and Yitzchak Shamir, cut their political teeth in the Irgun and the Lehi; while their experiences left them as right-wingers for the rest of their lives, they were interested in maintaining a culture of social welfare for the betterment of the nation. With regards to foreign affairs, they were cool or outright hostile to foreign right-wing leaders (particularly, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and United States President Reagan).
This leaves Benjamin Netanyahu. The son of a prominent historian and Revisionist Zionist close to Begin, he spent much of his childhood and young adulthood in America during the 1980s and under Reagan. This can be seen in his particular brand of rightism; he has been ruthless in destroying the social welfare state established in 1948, as well as appeasing religious extremists. In many ways, while he is far from Israel’s first right-wing president, he is the first ‘Republican president.’ Many center-left supporters of his forget that he is at heart a right-winger, with views on almost every issue diametrically opposed to their own. They forget that he is a Republican who speaks Hebrew and does not hide the fact that he is a Republican.
This brings me to my next point, which is Netanyahu’s legacy. This includes:
- The highest levels of poverty among developed countries — almost one in three children. And let us not forget levels of income inequality higher even than the United States. This in a country founded on the socialist ideals of equality.
- Being a “security president” who is hated by almost all the current and former Israeli security chiefs, including former allies.
- As we have learned recently but suspected for a long time, he has likely spent years enriching himself and his cronies at the expense of Israelis of all backgrounds.
These observations should not be conflated with debates over Zionism, boycotts or any other such distraction. Being Zionists or pro-Israel should not hamper our ability to develop our own views on Israeli leaders based on how their actions coincide or clash with our views and values. Furthermore, even those on the right, who might approve of Bibi’s political ideas, both at the institutional and the grassroots level, should be honest with themselves and the rest of us: do they think that this level of venal corruption undermines the Zionist goal itself?
Ultimately, the greatest upside to Israel electing a new prime minister will not be the airing out of the current political scene (though this will be nice). It will be that we will gain a new “face of Israel,” of whom we will likely know little about. Thus, we will have an opportunity to judge him not by who he represents, but by his own merits (or perhaps, more likely, lack thereof).