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Keir Starmer vs. Benjamin Netanyahu: “Country First, Party Second”

This is the grim reality of today's Israel: an extraordinary population led by less than ordinary men.
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July 5, 2024
Labour Leader Keir Starmer (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images); Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo by Jack Guez-Pool/Getty Images)

Virtually everyone I’ve spoken to in Israel, from the left to the middle to the right, can’t stand or has an issue with their prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s not that they don’t share his calls to crush the evil Hamas; it’s more that they don’t really trust him.

Israelis are connecting the dots—Bibi needs to stay in power to stay out of possible jail from his corruption trial—and drawing the obvious conclusions. To keep his 64-seat majority, he has no choice but to placate his extremist partners. From one end, he must appease National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has threatened to bolt the coalition if Bibi agrees to a ceasefire in exchange for the release of hostages.

From the other end, he must placate Haredi parties who have also threatened to bolt if Bibi honors the Supreme Court’s widely popular ruling that after decades of interminable delays, Haredim must join the IDF like everyone else.

This longtime political magician has managed to keep his coalition breathing by constantly coming up with clever maneuvers to buy time and kick the can down the road. Now he’s hoping to run out the clock until the Knesset summer recess begins on July 28.

In the meantime, the hostages are still languishing in Gaza hell and Bibi’s war against Hamas has been mired in a weird game of optics. Is Israel winning? Is Hamas winning? How does one even define winning? All we know is that if Bibi winds down the war– if for no other reason than to shift precious resources to the more dangerous north– his partners on the far right will bolt.

Maybe that’s why he set out from the start this grandiose, nebulous goal of “total victory”– he could always claim “we’re not done yet” and buy more and more time. As far as the goal itself, let’s be real: Yes, the IDF has fought valiantly and dealt severe blows to Hamas, but when you’re dealing with tens of thousands of wily terrorists hiding behind civilians while using hundreds of miles of sophisticated tunnels to set up ambushes, the notion of a “total” victory is meaningless, if not delusional, and Bibi knows it.

What matters most to him, however, is his coalition, and the longer the war drags on, the longer his coalition survives, the longer he stays on the throne.

I couldn’t help contrast this party and power obsession with the resounding victory of Britain’s Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. There are several explanations for this historic victory—not least the incompetence and self-destruction of the ruling Tory party—but this one caught my eye:

“We must return politics to service,” Starmer said repeatedly during the campaign, promising to put “country first, party second.”

“Country first, party second” is one of those unifying ideas that evidently resonated with a great many British voters, and we can only hope Starmer will be able to deliver. Here in Israel, it’d be like announcing the messianic arrival. No one would believe it. Especially under Netanyahu, it is more the opposite that has become the norm: “Party first, country second” is what most people expect from this coalition. Hence the pessimism and the cynicism.

No leader as sharp as Netanyahu, of course, would ever hint of putting anything before the national interest. But Israelis are not friers (suckers). They know all the tricks. They can read between the lines.

I suspect this is why the massive campaign to “Bring Them Home” has been so pervasive and relentless. Many Israelis sense that the reason no deal has been reached to free the hostages is that Bibi is afraid to jeopardize his coalition. They don’t even need to read between the lines: Ben Gvir has been quite explicit that any hostage–ceasefire deal would be cause to bolt the coalition.

Now that there seems to be genuine hope for the hostages, it hurts to think that those poor hostages are at the mercy of self-absorbed politicians who are very good at putting their parties first. But this is the grim reality of today’s Israel: an extraordinary population led by less than ordinary men.

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