The New York Times
Feb. 23, 2018
If you follow the news from Israel, you might surmise that Benjamin Netanyahu’s days as prime minister are numbered. The police recommend that he be charged on multiple counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Fresh charges may yet be brought in additional investigations. A former top aide to Netanyahu agreed this week to serve as a witness against him. Press reports suggest a man clinging to power.
Don’t be so sure. If an election were held tomorrow, Bibi — as Netanyahu is universally known in Israel — and his Likud party would likely win, according to recent polls. Roughly half of Israelis think the prime minister should quit, but that’s down from 60 percent in December.
Netanyahu has no intention of resigning, even if the attorney general chooses to indict him. The Likud rank-and-file remain loyal to their leader. His coalition partners may detest him, but for now they see greater political advantage in a wounded prime minister than in a fresh one. Besides, Bibi has been, for Israelis, a pretty good prime minister. Some indicators:
Economy: Since Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, the economy has grown by nearly 30 percent in constant dollars — nearly twice the growth rate of Germany or the United States. Some 3.6 million tourists visited Israel in 2017, a record for the Jewish state. On Monday, Israel announced a $15 billion dollar deal to export natural gas to Egypt from its huge offshore fields.
Diplomacy: Netanyahu’s personal ties to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are exceptionally close, as they are with Japan’s Shinzo Abe. Israel’s relations with African countries and the Arab world are the best they’ve been in decades; reaction in Riyadh and Cairo to the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem amounted to a shrug. Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to Congress opposing the Iran deal, billed as an affront to the Obama administration, turned out to be an inspiration for Israel’s neighbors. And Netanyahu’s arguments against the deal now prevail in the current White House.
Security: In 2002, at the height of the second intifada, Israelis suffered more than 400 terrorism fatalities. In 2017 there were fewer than two dozen. Two wars in and around Gaza, both initiated by Hamas, were devastating for Palestinians but resulted in relatively few Israeli casualties. The Israeli Air Force lost an F-16 after coming under heavy Syrian antiaircraft fire, but that seems to have been a fluke. For the most part, Israel has been able to strike Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah targets at will.
And then there are the Palestinians. The central complaint of Netanyahu’s critics is that he has failed to make good on the promise of his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, where he claimed to accept the principle of a Palestinian state. Subsidiary charges include his refusal to halt settlement construction or give former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad a sufficient political boost.
It should go without saying that a Palestinian state is a terrific idea in principle — assuming, that is, that it resembles the United Arab Emirates. But Israelis have no reason to believe that it will look like anything except the way Gaza does today: militant, despotic, desperate and aggressive. Netanyahu’s foreign critics are demanding that he replicate on a large scale what has failed catastrophically on a smaller scale. It’s an absurd to ask.
It’s also strange that the same people who insist that Israel help create a Palestinian state in order to remain a democracy seem so indifferent to the views of that democracy. Israel’s political left was not destroyed by Netanyahu. It was obliterated one Palestinian suicide bombing, rocket salvo, tunnel attack and rejected statehood offer at a time. Bibi’s long tenure of office is the consequence, not the cause, of this.
Specifically, it is the consequence of Israel’s internalization of the two great lessons of the past 30 years. First, that separation from the Palestinians is essential — in the long term. Second, that peace with the Palestinians is impossible — in the short term. The result is a policy that amounts to a type of indefinite holding pattern, with Israel circling a runway it knows it cannot yet land on even as it fears running out of gas.
The risks here are obvious. But it’s hard to imagine any other sort of approach, which is why any successor to Netanyahu will have to pursue essentially identical policies — policies whose chief art will consist in fending off false promises of salvation.
There’s a long Jewish history of this. For all of his flaws, few have done it as well as Bibi, which is why he has endured, and will probably continue to do so. ☐
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