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Bibi, King of Israel

The most talented politician in Israeli history cracks his demented foes like walnuts

by
Liel Leibovitz
March 27, 2020
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

After 24 hours that would have filled several seasons of a great Netflix political drama, the once and future prime minister of the State of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has struck a coalition deal with former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White political party immediately disintegrated, thus dealing a lethal blow to the Never Netanyahu alliance that has spent the last year and a half feverishly and fruitlessly trying to unseat King Bibi.

If you’ve been otherwise preoccupied, here’s a very brief summary of Israel’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad month:

After Netanyahu won Israel’s third and most recent round of elections, Blue and White maneuvered to create a narrow coalition that could finally dethrone him. Their only path to power was a partnership with the Arab-Israeli Joint List, a move many of the party’s supporters—as well as some of its senior Members of Knesset—opposed. To rise on the shoulders of an anti-Zionist party whose members frequently cheer on Palestinian terrorists, went their logic, would be unthinkable.

Still, with the Joint List’s support, Blue and White could at least make Bibi’s life miserable: With a narrow majority of 61 MKs, Blue and White’s leaders demanded that the speaker of the Knesset, Likud’s Yuli Edelstein, resign. They also insisted on securing for themselves the chairmanship of all of the Knesset’s most prominent committees, even though that privilege is traditionally reserved to the party with the most Knesset seats, which is Likud.

These demands incensed Edelstein. The venerable refusnik has been serving as the Knesset’s speaker for the past seven years, and is widely regarded as a fair arbiter who frequently transcends partisan considerations and upholds the letter of the law. And the law, he reminded his colleagues, was on his side: According to the Israel’s “Basic Law: The Knesset,” in the event of an election, the Knesset has to elect a new speaker prior to approving a new government. Nothing, however, indicates or requires that this be done any sooner than the moment of approval. With no putative government on the horizon, Edelstein said, there was no reason, precedent, or law that required him to step down.

Blue and White appealed to the Supreme Court. Edelstein submitted his written defense, which was rejected less than an hour later—which some Israeli legal commentators I spoke with saw as a sign that the court had written its brief well in advance. The court’s order was clear: Edelstein must immediately hold a vote and select his successor.

Rather than obey what he considered a blatant violation of the separation of powers, Edelstein resigned. In an uncharacteristically fiery speech, he accused the court’s decision of being rooted in “a partisan and extreme interpretation” that constitutes “arrogant interference by the judicial branch in the workings of the legislative branch.” The decision, Edelstein concluded, “undermines the foundations of Israeli democracy.”

With Edelstein gone, the Knesset was thrown into turmoil, with the Supreme Court apparently usurping another one of the legislature’s own functions by appointing Labor’s Amir Peretz as interim speaker. But just as Netanyahu’s opponents were celebrating their victory, Gantz delivered a shocking twist, accepting Bibi’s offer to become the Knesset’s new speaker and join him as second in command in a national unity government. According to the reported arrangement, Gantz will serve as foreign minister until September of 2021, and then replace Bibi as prime minister.

What can we learn from all this Bibi drama?

The first, and least profound, insight is this: Bibi is the unquestioned sovereign of Israel; a leader whose command of the political arts only grows more sure with age. Twenty years ago, as a young Likud princeling, Bibi ascended temporarily to the throne, only to be dislodged a mere three years later. It would take him an arduous 10 years, beginning in 1999, to climb his way back up, first by toiling in the salt mines as Ariel Sharon’s minister of finance, then resigning over Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza, then taking over the husk of the Likud party from which Sharon had withdrawn to form the now-forgotten Kadima, and then by sitting in fruitless opposition in the Knesset after coming in a humiliating third behind Kadima and Labor. When he finally formed a government in 2009, a decade after his fall, it was only by the skin of his teeth, in a close contest with Tzipi Livni—a forgotten politician with very little talent, who actually led Kadima to a one-seat victory over Likud. Since that time, Israel has never had another prime minister.

The second insight, which is equally clear but more profound, is that Bibi’s opponents are deranged, driven mad by his longevity and his success, and deluding themselves into believing, in the face of enormous mountains of evidence to the contrary, that the seat of power rightfully belongs to them.

If you’re so inclined, there’s a lot not to love about Bibi, Israel’s indispensable man. He’s been in power for 11 years, which is Hapsburg emperor territory in a modern Western democracy. He is about to go on trial for corruption and has an undoubted taste for luxuries like fine watches and cigars. He pals around with cats like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán—the bane of liberals everywhere. When speaking about Israel’s Arab citizens, he’s sometimes quick with phrases that sound to many like good, old-fashioned bigotry and incitement. His fanboy-like son trolls lefties on Twitter. His wife is widely believed to be a witch. And yet, an overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis can’t imagine life without him.

Why? Easy: Because his opponents seem nuts.

You could tell just how loopy the Never Netanyahus truly are by watching them fume at Gantz—the man who, until a few hours earlier, was their sweet prince. Uri Misgav, for example—a senior columnist for Israel’s most prestigious newspaper, Haaretz, who in recent weeks led a series of demonstrations that defied recommendations to shelter in place so as not to spread the coronavirus, and instead marched around waving black flags and calling Bibi a dictator. Misgav needed no more than a few breaths to describe his former champion in the same hysterical terms usually reserved for Bibi. Gantz, he wrote on his Facebook page, wasn’t only “a coward, a loser, a schlimazel, and a nobody,” but also “a corrupt crook who banded together with other corrupt crooks who forcefully rose up to subdue democracy.” OK. Except yesterday, you were telling everyone how handsome he is, and what a great dancer.

The campaign to topple Bibi has subjected Israelis to a year and a half of such nonstop shrill nonsense. Rather than wrestle with the hard questions that Israel confronts and come up with worthy and principled alternatives that might be accepted or rejected by the public, Bibi’s detractors, taking a page from the worst of their American resistance brethren, preached a single, simple slogan: Rak Lo Bibi—anyone but Bibi. They offered no policy proposals, no profound ideological disagreements, no vision for a different Israel. All they offered was their irrational hatred and their thirst for power, which they arrogantly assumed was theirs by right, and had been somehow usurped by the man whom Israelis had democratically elected over and over again for 11 years running.

In what Freud might have analyzed as a classic case of the narcissistic wound run amok, the Never Netanyahus fell victim to a kind of collective insanity rooted in their own sense of virtuous entitlement. They ritually demonized the man who “stole” what was rightfully theirs, stewing in a toxic brew of rage and resentment whose flipside was incessant and empty proclamations of their own superiority. While such unpleasant behavior is a normal part of adolescence, it’s both bizarre and pathetic for grown-ups, many of them in their 60s and 70s—an age which Pirkei Avot gently describes as “fullness of years.”

The madness of the Bibi-haters did little to inspire confidence in normal Israelis. Neither did Benny Gantz. Three election campaigns in the space of 18 months had revealed the truth of the man to his fellow Israelis: The Bibi-haters’ chosen champion was a tongue-tied general with a sad history of mismanaging businesses and an inability to master basic political chores like giving an interview or speaking at a rally. Gantz was a placeholder for the idea of a candidate, dreamed up by a gaggle of political operators—hey, Yitzhak Rabin wasn’t such a hot orator either! Despite Israel’s many imperfections, the idea that Gantz could magically do what Netanyahu could not or would not didn’t wash.

Without concrete proposals to counter the Netanyahu government’s clear and outstanding achievements—a booming economy, warming relations with a number of Arab countries, and unprecedented support from the White House that included U.S.-approved titles to the Golan Heights and Jerusalem—the Never Netanyahus turned instead to the Deep Shtetl—where Israel’s police bureaucracy, judiciary, and political operatives and schemers meet. The offer there was a chance for unelected bureaucrats and judges to taste power and gain some additional validation of their self-importance in exchange for indicting Bibi on a parade of mostly empty legalisms, even after more than a dozen similar attempts had proved unsuccessful.

The weapon they chose to kill Bibi was made of paper. The king won. They lost.

The next weapon they seized on was more dangerous: The Joint List—the coalition of Arab parties whose common ideological bond is fierce opposition to Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state. While there are Arab parliamentarians on the lists of Likud, the Labor and Meretz coalition, and Blue and White, the Joint List is a sectarian mashup whose noxious agenda has been lionized by sheep-brained commentators in the woke New York Times and the woke New Yorker, even though, or perhaps because, the party has rightly been considered beyond the pale in Israeli coalition politics.

Anyone who needed a reminder that the Joint List is not made up of carbon copies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, and other brave fighters for human equality and justice got it this week: In an interview with an Israeli news site, Mansour Abbas, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and the fourth most senior member of the Joint List, advocated polygamy, said he supported gay conversion therapy, and refused to promise that he will call on his supporters to refrain from violently attacking gay pride parades. Not to be outdone, his colleague, Aida Touma-Suleiman, called for the repeal of the Law of Return, which guarantees every Jew who moves to Israel immediate citizenship. Hiba Yazbek, another Joint Lister, expressed praise for Samir Kuntar, a terrorist who shot an Israeli man as his 4-year-old daughter was watching before smashing the child’s head against a rock, killing both. After Yazbek called violence against Israeli soldiers a legitimate form of resistance to “the occupation,” she was in fact barred from running for the Knesset. The Supreme Court, however, stepped in and overturned the decision, again with a questionable legal mandate, allowing Yazbek to run while barring right-wing Jews who had similarly insinuated that they condoned violence against Arabs, in the apparent hopes of boosting the Arab bigot vote above the Jewish bigot vote, to Bibi’s detriment.

And yet, as Bibi’s recent triumph shows, the Deep Shtetl never wins. The courts, the press, former generals—all are mighty opponents, but none are mightier than the millions of Israelis who continue to trust and love King Bibi, or at least reluctantly tolerate him. And love him or not, they jeer at anyone who purports to know better than they do who to trust with decisions that affect their lives and the lives of their sons and daughters. Shouting simplistic slogans, demonizing opponents, stamping your feet, indulging in narcissistic hate rituals, and then relying on the press and the courts to steamroll your political foes—these are not particularly good paths to power in a democracy. Thankfully, Israel chose another path, and finally has a government. And thankfully, that government is led by the man most Israelis consider the best choice for the job.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.

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