The Economist takes a look at Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, sometimes, the article says, described by “the ultimate accolade—melekh yisrael, “King of Israel”.” The portrait is important because “He is his country’s second-longest-serving prime minister and, if he wins his fifth election on April 9th … [today] … may beat the record of the country’s founding father, David Ben Gurion.” The Economist says that he “stands tall in today’s chaotic Middle East. He matters because he embodied the politics of muscular nationalism, chauvinism and the resentment of elites long before such populism became a global force. Mr Netanyahu counts among his friends and allies such nationalists as Donald Trump and Narendra Modi, not to mention European ones from Viktor Orban in Hungary to Matteo Salvini in Italy.“
“Little Israel,” the article explains “commands attention because it has a big history: biblical romance and technological talent; the slaughter of the Holocaust and military prowess; energetic democracy and the long occupation of land claimed and inhabited by Palestinians … [but, within Israel and in our chaotic and dangerous times] … Mr Netanyahu is a big figure in his own right (see article). He is more intelligent and capable than many populists, and can claim plenty of successes. By shrinking the bloated state he has helped Israel’s economy flourish, particularly its tech startups. With deft use of diplomacy and the mostly cautious use of military force, he has boosted security without being sucked into disastrous wars. Thanks to that and a shared hostility to Iran, relations with many Arab rulers are better than at any time in Israel’s history.“
Israel is, without a shadow of a doubt, isolated and surrounded by very real, well armed enemies. Prime Minister Netanyahu plays on Israel’s very real fears and on Western guilt and Arab hostility to avoid making a peace that he doesn’t think benefits Israel, but, equally, to avoid going to (a costly) war. He was a soldier, like his older brother Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu who was something of a soldier-poet and the hero of the Entebbe raid, and, some said, the smart brother who could go ‘all the way‘ and a great prime minister. Both Yoni and Bibi served in Sayeret Matkal (סיירת מטכ”ל), one of the world’s finest special forces units and Yoni was killed in action (1976) Bibi was wounded in action in 1972, so he knows the price of war well enough.
But, despite the very serious security crises (the plural matters) that bedevil all of the Middle East, The Economist says that “the greatest threat from Bibi’s reign has been at home. He has kept power not just on the strength of his record but also by seeking political advantage at the cost of eroding Israel’s democratic norms. In claiming that no peace with Palestinians is possible (or desirable), members of his right-wing coalition outbid each other to pass measures asserting Jewish supremacy. Mr Netanyahu pushed for an electoral pact with the hitherto untouchable far-right Jewish Power group, which wants to annex all the occupied territories and “encourage” Arabs, including Israeli citizens, to leave. He has played us-and-them politics for so long that he has exacerbated the country’s many schisms—between Jews and Arabs, diaspora Jews and Israelis, western Ashkenazi and eastern Mizrahi Jews, and secular and religious ones. By casting himself as uniquely able to protect Israel against its enemies, he often treats those who say otherwise as wimps or traitors .. [and] … Mr Netanyahu and his friends denounce as backstabbers any Jews who stand in their way. The free press peddles fake news. Political opponents, even the generals who pack the new Blue and White opposition party, are in cahoots with the Arabs. Bibi has flirted with the conspiracy theory beloved of anti-Semites that George Soros, a Jewish billionaire, is plotting to undermine nationalist governments around the world.” Shades of Donald Trump … and of some of my fairly hard right conservative friends.
The Economist concludes by saying that “Israel is an outlier among Western democracies. It was born as the state of the Jews; Zionism and Palestinian nationalism claim the same land. Israel must contend with a genuine “other” and existential threats, not the bogeymen invented by populists elsewhere. The left, in disarray in many countries, suffered a body-blow in Israel because its attempt to negotiate a land-for-peace deal with Palestinians collapsed into bloodshed … [but] … precisely because of these pressures, Israel offers an important test of the resilience of democracy. On April 9th Israeli voters face a fateful choice. Re-elect Mr Netanyahu and reward him for subverting the independence of Israel’s institutions. Or turf him out in the hope of rebuilding trust in democracy—and aspiring to be “a light unto the nations”.“