Prison or the History Books?
Some suggestions from a friend in Bibi’s Washington days.
Lord Acton, the English moralist, famously proclaimed in 1887, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This is a fitting take on Benjamin Netanyahu, whom this author befriended when “Bibi” was no. 2 in Israel’s Washington embassy—decades before power could corrupt him. Though eager and ambitious, he was a witty, curious, and simpatico fellow who liked hitting the movies after a hard day at the office and in the TV studio.
His then-wife Fleur Cates, a well-bred Englishwoman who had converted to Judaism, must have helped to curb his darker instincts. Unlike his third wife Sara, Fleur might have encouraged the “better angels,” to quote Abraham Lincoln, of Netanyahu’s nature. Now, he has been indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Acton was right: Power does corrupt.
Since his Washington days, Netanyahu has assembled a well-documented record of cynicism, disloyalty, and power-mongering—anything to stay on top. This longest-tenured prime minister in Israel’s history is flailing in a sea of sorrows. If convicted, he faces several years in prison, but he is safe for the time being. Just four weeks ago, the Knesset passed a law that only a supermajority of the Cabinet and Parliament can declare him “unfit” for office.
That will not happen because the opposition cannot even muster a simple counter-majority. But the price of protection is steep. Bibi is being held hostage by his two ultra-right coalition partners, the Religious Zionists led by Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), which is even farther out on the right. Their message to the PM: If you betray us, we will kill the coalition and throw you to the wolves. Dare us!
If these extremists prevail, their messianic authoritarianism might well end, or at least severely damage, Israel’s shiny though chaotic democratic career. They want to emasculate the Supreme Court and lodge untrammeled power in Parliament—goodbye tripartite government that is the hallmark of any liberal democracy. They want to “Judaize” public policy and education by coddling the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, who add up to only 13 percent of the population. If they prevail, Israel might turn not into a “church,” but a “synagogue state.”
The darkest threat is Ben-Gvir’s pet project of an always ready, highly-armed national guard under his command. Rammed through the Knesset on April 2, it will be a publicly funded militia potentially at Ben-Gvir’s beck and call, though the lines of authority have yet to be fully delineated. An army outside the national army is what totalitarian governments have—a mini version of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
A historical note: David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister dissolved the Palmach, a heroic fighting unit, after the 1948–49 War of Independence. Its three brigades might pose a threat to civilian supremacy. Unlike Ben-Gvir’s troopers-to-be, they were not a bunch of Praetorians but good democratic leftists who had sacrificed for the nation. And yet, they had to be submerged in the Israel Defense Forces.
In our days, the power-grabbing shenanigans of the ultra-Right pose a real threat to the Mideast’s only democracy. But keep hysteria in check. Hundreds of thousands are thronging Israel’s cities to reverse the government’s march into a kind of “garrison state,” which would unhinge the separation of powers and civil rights in the name of God and a not-so-pious clergy akin to Iran’s Khomeinists. Nor does turmoil end at the water’s edge.
Abroad, the horizon is darkening. Those wondrous Abraham Accords—which limned an informal Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran, the greatest regional breakthrough since the Egypt-Israel peace of 1979—are wilting as we speak. Sniffing the new geopolitical winds, the Gulfies are edging away from Israel and sidling up to Iran. Joe Biden is not amused by the Israeli government’s rightward lunge, nor are the Europeans. Israel now has a prime minister who is not welcome in Washington or other Western capitals. A majority of American Jews are taking their distance.
Hezbollah and Hamas, egged on by Tehran, are escalating their missile attacks against the Jewish state. Palestinian terrorism within will not abate as long as the country looks weak and isolated. So, substrategic warfare may—just may—degenerate into the real thing unless Netanyahu curbs his far-right tormentors.
This is not a feverish take. A sober look at Israel’s convulsions does reveal mounting challenges. In mid-April, Moody’s downgraded Israel’s credit outlook by citing the “deterioration of governance.” Right now, Israel practically stands alone in a shifting Middle East where a presumptive partner like Saudi Arabia is loosening its ties to the United States while cozying up to Iran, re-embracing Syria, and flirting with Russia and China. Diplomatic historians call this “reversal of alliances.” Israel’s friends in the West won’t abandon the nation, but they are pulling back. To paraphrase Churchill: Never before has such a tenuous coalition done so much damage to Israel in so short a time.
What could be done? Let’s dream a little. Imagine Bibi were a real statesman, which he was as finance minister in the early 2000s when he liberated the economy from the yoke of statism. (Israel’s per-capita GDP now exceeds France’s and Germany’s—not bad for a country that once lived off potash and oranges.) If he were so today, he might do what the French call a fuite en avant, a headlong flight forward to escape from the cage the ultras in his own camp have set up for him.
Though a practiced cynic, he would present himself as savior of a splintering nation. The precedent of real calamity is a bit long in the tooth, but worth recalling. In the 11th century BCE, the Solomonic Kingdom fell apart, leaving behind two Jewish states, Israel and Judah. This time, it would be two nations in one: secularists vs. true believers, democrats vs. strongmen.
A chastened Netanyahu would act to restore national unity by ditching his tormentors Smotrich and Ben-Gvir in favor of an admittedly motley centrist coalition with the likes of Yair Lapid’s National Unity and Benny Gantz’s Yesh Atid, which fittingly translates as “There Is a Future.” Throw in Aryeh Deri (not the noblest of characters) of “Shas,” the religious conservatives, if he keeps scurrying away from Ben-Gvir and Smotrich. Consider Yisrael Beiteinu (Our House Israel), the party of secularist nationalism representing Russian-speaking Israelis. Try to rope in Israel’s shrunken Labor Party. And don’t ignore the United Arab List, now squeezed by renewed Palestinian terror that tests the loyalty of Israel’s Arab citizens. It shouldn’t be beyond this consummate wheeler and dealer Netanyahu to give the kaleidoscope coalition a whirl. Or even go to the polls for election number five.
Absurd? Why would a new coalition or yet another national vote work this time, especially since fresh polls predict a drop of Likud’s Knesset take of twelve seats, down from thirty-two? Because the facts have changed brutally compared to 2022, the last election. Israel’s superior strategic position as a nuclear-armed regional superpower is not threatened, but it is wobbling while the Middle East sands are shifting against the Jewish state. Beyond the disintegration of the Abraham Accords and alienation of Western partners, there are unending protests in the streets. Reservists threaten to refuse active service even in the air force, Israel’s long arm of defense and deterrence. If the country has to mobilize, the economy will take a hit. After a 9 percent top growth rate in 2020, it is now down to 1.4.
Here is a laundry list for Netanyahu: Keep on hold “judicial reform,” a euphemism for hemming in the Supreme Court. In more tranquil times, reasonable people might agree to limit its activism. Notice that the Bagatz is mightier than the next two judiciary giants, the U.S. Supreme Court and the German Constitutional Court. As powerful as these are, they cannot act at will; they can only take up cases brought to the Bench from lower courts.
Promise reform, but do not give unchecked power to the Knesset. If Netanyahu were wise, he would think ahead. What about a future majority in the Knesset that could steamroll a Likud-led coalition? Leave intact the status quo of “Who is a Jew?” and let cultural change take its course. Reach out to Israel’s Arab citizens, the largest ethnic minority. They enjoy freedoms their brethren in the Islamic world cannot even imagine, but they are not fully equal. Nix Ben-Gvir’s Praetorian Guard, a blatant power grab.
Don’t even blab about annexing the West Bank, or legalize unlawful settlements. Rooted in the West, Israel’s future is in high-tech Herzliya, not in Hebron in the West Bank. Try to hold onto decent relations with your neighbors from Amman to Cairo to Riyadh—and farther out, Rabat. Protect your Western flank, starting with the two heavies, America and the EU’s Germany.
Yes, such a course looks like a voyage into dreamland. But what is the alternative? A deeply divided homeland and isolation abroad? Realistically, what’s in it for Bibi if he were to soothe the not-so-silent majority? A crack at History as a leader who mended a torn nation and called on the “better angels of our nature.” Plus regaining the seats that stand to be lost according to the most recent polls.
Alas, there is a nasty flaw in this line of reasoning. This New Netanyahu would have to turn from Saul into Paul, from mean to mature. He would have to neutralize a part of his own party, especially Yariv Levin, the Likud member of the Knesset who started the campaign against the Court. He would have to separate his callow self-interest from the weal of the country. Bluntly, he would no longer hold the nation hostage to his own fate with ever more desperate maneuvers to evade conviction on criminal charges. Yet there is scant evidence from his past that suggests his willingness to rise to the task and put country before self.
A final consideration, though not a twenty-four-carat pure moral one. President Isaac Herzog could urge him in so many words, “Purge the government of hateful extremists, reunite the land, restore Israel’s rightful place among the nations, and a grateful electoral majority will forgive, or at least ignore, your past transgressions. “
Executing such a flight forward, the PM might allow the president to grant the pardon he has already mooted—an exoneration Herzog will not give. A pardon is not exactly kosher, but the lesser evil in a poisonous brew. Justice may not be served to the fullest by an amnesty, but reason of state will, and the sword hanging over Israel’s liberal democracy will be sheathed. Think again, Mr. Prime Minister: prison or a place of honor in the history books?
Josef Joffe, a member of the American Purpose editorial board, teaches international relations and political thought at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
Image: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and wife Sara Netanyahu visiting the Kigali Memorial Centre, Rwanda, 2016. (Flickr: Paul Kagame)
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