April 2, 2020

Israel on the Edge

Benjamin Netanyahu and Avichai Mandelblit. Photo by Ronen Svulun-Pool/Getty Images

It’s crazy to think about it. With a predatory regime like Iran on its doorstep and more than 100,000 terror missiles pointed at its citizens, Israel still can’t put together a government. The country has been without a government for almost a year — how long can this continue?

As I write this on Dec. 3, Israel still has until Dec. 11 to make this Hanukkah miracle happen and avoid yet another election. Right now, though, it looks as if Startup Nation has turned into Shut Down Nation.

Journalism doesn’t do well with stalemates. We like to cover real news, real events, real policy decisions. This never-ending spectacle of Israeli politicians who can’t get their act together and build a governing coalition is not just dangerous for the state and a shame for the country, it’s also exceedingly tedious.

I’ve been following Israeli news for months, virtually on the hour, and every day feels like the movie “Groundhog Day.” For a country known for its restlessness and creative energy, this paralysis must be painful to watch.

The optimist will argue it’s a sign of strength that a country can function even with a paralyzed government. The pessimist will give up in despair and call for radical changes to “the system.”

For a country known for its restlessness and creative energy, this paralysis must be painful to watch.

The realist will sigh and try to make sense of an impossible mess. That realist is our political editor Shmuel Rosner.

In his cover story this week, Rosner lays out the perfect storm of six fateful decisions that created this epic stalemate.

Each decision on its own makes sense. The first one, for example, was the decision by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid to form the Blue and White Party and present itself as an alternative to Likud.

“Had the center-left remained fractured,” Rosner writes, “Netanyahu could probably convince one party to join his coalition.”

Another fateful decision was Avigdor Lieberman’s stubborn refusal to join a right-wing coalition with Charedi parties. “Had Lieberman agreed, in April or September, to join the right-religious bloc, there would be a coalition,” Rosner writes.

Yet another crucial decision was the refusal by Gantz and other leaders on the center-left (including Labor’s Amir Peretz) to join a coalition headed by Netanyahu, who has been embroiled in legal troubles. “Had Gantz or Peretz agreed to sit under Netanyahu,” Rosner writes, “he would have a government.”

Perhaps the most fateful of all moves was Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision to indict Netanyahu on several corruption charges, including the especially serious one of bribery. “Had Netanyahu not been indicted,” Rosner writes, “he might have had a chance to still form a coalition with both his bloc and Blue and White.”

Which brings me to the crux of the crisis: “Bibi” Netanyahu. However one may feel about him, Bibi is the only person in Israel who can resolve the crisis in five minutes — by stepping down. All he has to do is respect his own sentiments, which he expressed in 2008 regarding embattled former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: 

“A prime minister steeped up to his neck in investigations doesn’t have a moral or public mandate to make such fateful decisions regarding the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said. “There is a real, not unfounded fear that he will make decisions based on his own interests of political survivability rather than the national interest.”

If those sentiments were for a leader who was not yet indicted, how much more applicable they must be for a leader who has been indicted. 

In the end, like a Greek tragedy, the man who has led Israel for the past decade continues to be the main story. The great survivor is not giving up.

But let’s say you have no time for philosophy and want to think practically. Let’s say you’re a member of Bibi’s Likud party. If your leader could not put together a coalition before being indicted, what’s the likelihood he will do so after being indicted?

In other words, all roads lead to Bibi.

You’ll get a lot more analysis in Rosner’s story, including possible scenarios moving forward and the likelihood that Israel will have another election.

In the end, like a Greek tragedy, the man who has led Israel for the past decade continues to be the main story. The great survivor is not giving up. He wants to stay on top for as long as possible to delay and possibly disrupt his legal reckoning, even if it means many more months of political paralysis. 

But if Bibi is serious about putting the “national interest” first, he should do one more thing for his country, something that must be excruciatingly difficult for him — allow someone else to take over.