5 Jun 2023

Bibi the Conquerer

There is a story from the time of Benjamin Netanyahu’s first turn as prime minister of Israel, and it is slightly amusing but highly symbolic of how his political rivals seem to underestimate him, even today.

In the spring of 1996, Netanyahu was an electric, 46-year-old rising star. His education and years in America had blessed him with perfect English, thus making him Israel’s most articulate ambassador abroad, rivaling perhaps the famous Abba Eban, whose erudite bearing served Israel well in the early years.

This one evening in ’96, Netanyahu found himself opposite the wily old socialist, Shimon Peres, in a fight for the premiership. The two were to debate. This came on the heels of the failed Oslo Accords. Netanyahu, schooled in his family’s home for decades on a steady diet of Zionism, was ready for the spotlight. Peres, however, thought himself too clever. He thought Bibi was a lightweight, an empty suit, not ready for the moment.

As the two made uncomfortable small talk backstage, Peres calmly and quietly pointed to Netanyahu’s tie, and told him there was a spot on it. Rattled for a nanosecond, the image-conscious Bibi fiddled with the tie while Peres quietly chuckled. Whether there was truly a stain on his tie is irrelevant. It is instructive though to realize that Peres was not above telling even a small lie in order to rattle his opponent.

In any event, Bibi had the last laugh, narrowly defeating the old political lion by around one percent of the final tally. His subsequent three-year term (before going to early elections and defeat at the hands of former military and political rival Ehud Barak) was tumultuous, as he attempted to slow-walk the Oslo insanity. This caused members of the Left to despise him.

Now, as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Netanyahu is again neck-deep in political intrigue as his rivals attempt to outmaneuver him. Once again, he seems to have outfoxed them for the moment.

Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, once full of warm hugs for each other, are each jockeying for position as the true threat to the prime minister. More than three years ago, the two combined to form “Blue and White,” a new movement that sought to outflank Likud. Such alliances are never secure though, because at this level, there are no true bonds, only pragmatic ones. As soon as one political friend has outlived his usefulness, it’s time to jettison him for someone or something else.

So it is that as the two try to split Netanyahu’s followers over the judicial reform process, they are finding out that much like Donald Trump in America, the Boss has a solid base of true believers. So the question becomes: How do we elevate ourselves in the eyes of the electorate?

On a personal courage level, neither can match Netanyahu’s combat bravery (which, admittedly, he does not shy away from retelling). The photos of a wounded Netanyahu in the aftermath of the Sabeena airline hijacking in 1972 are hard to overcome, especially for a guy like Lapid. Too, Netanyahu immediately flew home from university in America in October, 1973, as Israel faced an unexpected existential war.

Again, like Trump, Netanyahu has to constantly fight-off a corrupt Media. Notice this editorial insertion in a piece in this week’s Jerusalem Post:

“In the world of media images and pollsters, Gantz is a star on a roll, but in the real world, in which no elections are in sight, Lapid is still the leader of the opposition and of the largest party in the anti-Netanyahu bloc, bonding him and his ex-buddy to cooperate and fight together against the judicial overhaul and other menaces of Netanyahu’s extremist and fundamentalist coalition.” [emphasis added]

It’s common to say now that Netanyahu wants judicial reform because he’s on trial for corruption. I happen to believe him when he appeals to it as a clarion call to establish a just judicial community. Various judges and others in Israel’s judicial system are just as politically corrupt as they are in America. Yet his opponents paint him as an equally corrupt guy only intent on sweeping away the legal challenges to his premiership, and to his personal freedom.

The word is today that Lapid and Gantz are just the latest allied duo bent on taking-down Netanyahu…but failing ultimately.

At the moment, Gantz has built a better following (Lapid’s soggy few months as prime minister don’t exactly inspire confidence in him as a better alternative to Netanyahu). His current 12-seat coalition in the Knesset could allegedly grow to double that if new elections were held.

But no such elections are on the horizon, and in Israeli politics, five minutes is an eternity. If, say, elections are called next year, Gantz might turn out to have only a handful of seats.

In fact, it’s almost fun to see Netanyahu’s political rivals talk day and night about his imminent demise and political obituary. Because at a moment they least expect, he wriggles out of danger and ends up more popular than ever.

In the end, Benjamin Netanyahu is a once-in-a-lifetime politician. His current rivals are not.

One cannot shake the feeling that he will be the man in charge as Israel navigates a time of unprecedented trouble, predicted in the Bible. I’d feel better knowing he was in charge in Jerusalem, rather than the pretenders to the throne.

We’ll see.