Netanyahu Could Be a Statesman, but He Prefers to Be a Provocateur
Israel’s prime minister has always been Janus-faced. Any hope that his good side would emerge in a unity government is quickly evaporating.
For anyone who wants to get a sense of how Benjamin Netanyahu will lead Israel for at least the next year and a half, his remarks on his way into the courtroom on May 24 for the start of his criminal trial should be cause for alarm. Surrounded by a masked phalanx of his most loyal ministers, Netanyahu made no pretense of proclaiming his innocence or his trust in the court to reach a fair verdict. Instead, he launched a scathing attack on the legal system and the media, accusing it of nothing less than an “attempted political coup.”
These are the same themes he has employed over the last few years as police investigations into bribery, fraud, and breach of trust closed in on him. But their use last month adds a worrying new dimension. Netanyahu is no longer dealing with police investigators or prosecuting attorneys. He is in court facing a panel of three judges, who are supposed to be impartial and above partisan politics. Yet he implied they were no less a part of the cabal. In effect, the prime minister was saying a guilty verdict would be tantamount to a coup.
It didn’t have to be this way. After all, even by the standards of mercurial politicians, Netanyahu always stood out as being remarkably Janus-faced. He has been both good and bad for Israel.
One of his faces belongs to a strategic thinker and statesman when it comes to diplomacy and national security. It’s the face of a skilled political operator at election time and a policy pragmatist when in power.
The other face is that of a demagogue, ready to ride roughshod over institutions and to fan hatreds and resentments when the need arises. The two faces are very different, but they both reflect a deep cynicism, or at least a very Hobbesian view of the world, that Netanyahu has employed for good and for ill.
Netanyahu’s positive side is often ignored by people outside Israel, who tend to dismiss him as a warmonger, racist, enemy of democratic institutions, and oppressor of Palestinians. Even in Israel, media outlets have adopted much the same line. The prime minister’s desperate campaign tactics and his attacks on the judicial system have given them plenty of fodder.
But it’s worth recalling Netanyahu’s accomplishments because they account for much of his political longevity and his remarkable ability to survive the taint of a criminal indictment.
Until the coronavirus struck, the Israeli economy had enjoyed nearly two decades of uninterrupted growth, much of it a legacy of Netanyahu’s term as finance minister in the early 2000s, when he undertook sweeping structural reforms. Before the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment had reached record lows, wages were rising, and consumers were spending. Even lower-income Israelis, who are Netanyahu’s most reliable supporters, had fared well.
Not everyone will agree with Netanyahu’s foreign and defense policy, but measured by the cold standards of realpolitik, it has been an undeniable success. Israel has successfully waged a cold war with Iran. Netanyahu has developed a behind-the-scenes but very real partnership with the Gulf Arab countries. Further afield, he has cultivated strong personal relationships with Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. He has leveraged Israel’s high-tech industry into closer trade and political ties with China and India.
Until the start of the trial, there was some, albeit slight, hope that this statesman would come to the fore. After three inconclusive elections, he had engineered a national unity government and had the premiership in his hands. Under his management, Israel appears to have exited the coronavirus pandemic in relatively good shape. Netanyahu is 70 years old and has been prime minister for more than a decade (14 years if you count his first stint in the 1990s). Many leaders in his place, especially those with an inflated self-image, might be looking to transition to the role of elder statesman and concentrate on their legacy.
Instead, it looks as if Israel is getting the provocateur, and that means a lot more than an unbridled campaign against the judicial system. The aggrieved and angry version of Netanyahu isn’t just mean-spirited; he lacks strategic and pragmatic instincts—and thinks in terms of political survival. The current uproar about annexation of the West Bank is a case in point.
For years, Netanyahu played Israeli settlers with almost perfect precision. He regarded a Palestinian state as a security threat, but he had never shown the least interest in the settlers’ religious claims to what they call the Greater Land of Israel. Thus, for Netanyahu, the status quo of the occupation was a perfectly good compromise that kept all but the most ideological settlers content without risking the diplomatic fallout of annexation.
Then, he suddenly uttered the word last April—just ahead of the first of Israel’s three back-to-back elections. It became more than a campaign slogan after he embarrassingly tried to leapfrog over the Palestinian state part of the Trump peace plan and move ahead with annexing the settlements unilaterally. Nowadays, if you take Netanyahu at his word, Israel will begin to move ahead with the process starting in July.
Netanyahu the statesman wouldn’t be playing with this kind of fire. It offers Israel no strategic benefits, but it does risk upsetting relations with its Arab neighbors and allies and angering a White House and Congress that may well come under control of the Democrats in November. Even the Trump administration hasn’t fully endorsed the idea. Worse still, annexation might even be the catalyst for a Third Intifada.
But Bibi the provocateur only thinks about political survival. A drawn-out annexation process would turn him into Israel’s indispensable leader, the man who will bring it about in the face of opposition from a Democratic administration and his ostensibly leftist coalition partners. It sets the stage for arousing the anger and worry of Israel’s right in the event of a guilty verdict.
Annexation isn’t in Israel’s interest, but it is an insurance policy against threats to Netanyahu’s continued rule—and that means the prime minister’s worst qualities will come to the fore. Israel faces immense challenges in coping with the economic fallout of the coronavirus; it needs a statesman, not a leader whose modus operandi is divide and rule.