The Netanyahu era is coming to an end. There is no question today that the prime minister’s days in office are numbered. The only pertinent questions are when this will happen and how. The answers are in Mr. Netanyahu’s hands: he can either drag Israelis through a long, drawn-out series of investigations and trials or he can bow out of his own volition now, giving the country a chance to put itself together again. The choice is in his hands; its repercussions will affect us all.
One year into his fourth term in office, Binyamin Netanyahu is grappling with the cumulative effects of his own excesses. The latest set of investigations on possible charges of graft and breach of trust has come hard on the exposure of potential favoritism of associates involved in navy contracts. Indeed, for Bibi-watchers, there is nothing new here: in 2000, he was the first Israeli prime minister to be investigated for corruption. A cloud of improprieties — documented not only in the press but in successive reports of the state ombudsman — has followed him consistently since.
The heated debate currently taking place around Netanyahu’s legal culpability in no way absolves him of accountability to the Israeli public. And on this count, it is slowly dawning on him that he is fast losing the remaining vestiges of that (elusive, yet all so necessary) trust needed to remain in power, along with the legitimacy upon which it rests. Even within his own party, he is hard-pressed to garner verbal support from those who gladly rode on his coattails for years and owe their positions in large measure to his superior political skills. They too, if quietly, are distancing themselves from the leader whom they vocally hailed until recently as “The Magician,” and now fear will prove their comeuppance — leaving him with scarcely a handful of loyalists willing to prop him up at all cost.
The broader public — across the political spectrum from left to right — has been wary of Binyamin Netanyahu for quite some time. Many condoned the prime minister and his family’s ostentatious lifestyle as long as they felt that he managed the affairs of state both at home and abroad to their benefit. Now, however, regardless of ongoing disputes over Netanyahu’s policy preferences — and these abound — an increasing number are questioning not only his personal comportment, but also the ramifications of his rule for Israel’s robustness and long-term viability.
In stark contrast to his own prescription for dealing with the failures of his predecessors during the first decade of the 21st century (“The two important ingredients for fighting corruption are decentralization of power and establishing transparency in policy processes”), the three most striking features of Binyamin Netanyahu’s tenure have been state centralization, state privatization and state personalization. These concurrent and intertwining characteristics are directly responsible for the pernicious proliferation of corrupt practices and the widespread disillusion they engender.
Upon his return to the prime minister’s office in 2009, Netanyahu set out to systematically bring key institutions under his direct control either through dismantlement, fragmentation, emasculation or cooptation. In these ways, he has constantly sought to challenge the independence of the judiciary, to undermine the opposition, to weaken the power of key ministries and ministers, to ensure his predominance in the Likud party and — through the establishment of his own news outlet, Israel Hayom and direct supervision over the media as minister of communications — to control the press. These moves have rendered key office-holders even more dependent on the goodwill of the prime minister for their position and standing; they have also enhanced his dominance not only on domestic matters, but also in the areas of defense and foreign affairs.
Institutional tampering has come together with a unique kind of privatization. At first, Netanyahu — a staunch advocate of extreme neo-liberal economic principles — oversaw the divestment of key state corporations (thereby contributing directly to the expansion of a small moneyed clique, which has come to dominate the Israeli economy and enjoy the rewards of intimate proximity to those in power). At the same time, the prime minister downsized state services to the bulk of the population, delegating of these to private or voluntary groups who have barely been able to keep up with a rising demand stemming from growing income inequality.
The little the state has provided has been distributed disproportionately to political allies who, with the help of the patronage they disperse, continue to enjoy prominence in the halls of government. Residents of the settlements and ultra-Orthodox groups have been (at least somewhat) coopted by these handouts; Arabs and “the left” (never clearly defined) have been purposely excluded from these rewards. A culture of inequitable separation, backed by a discriminatory discourse that differentiates between government loyalists and all others, has come to dominate the public sphere. The notion of an overriding public interest has been the obvious victim of this dynamic.
The dual processes of centralization and skewed privatization have been manipulated to fulfill Netanyahu’s most obvious goal: to retain power. The pattern of power personalization (of which corruption in high places is its most obvious manifestation) breeds arrogance, a sense of entitlement and — most dangerously — erratic policy directions.
Nothing makes this clearer than the two latest investigations against the prime minister. The mere fact that the Netanyahu family has received regular gifts from close associates suggests that several rich cronies (some foreign nationals) have undue access to the prime minister’s inner circle and might hold more sway over his actions than many of his own ministers. The recordings of his conversations with the publisher of Israel’s second largest daily (and the largest competitor to his own leading newspaper) raise the specter of information and thought manipulation that citizens of free countries simply cannot countenance.
Whether these allegations can be proven in a court of law or not, they do not pass muster in the far more important tribunal of the public. When the fundamental precepts of the rule of law are sidestepped, the delicate set of checks and balances that enable democratic governance are purposefully violated, and the normative rules of the game are constantly and flagrantly ignored, then it is but a short step to internal implosion. Bluntly put, it is not only Israel’s democratic regime which is at risk; it is also its state capacities and hence cohesion.
Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel has run his course. Too many years in office have blinded him to his leadership responsibilities. He no longer enjoys the confidence of the bulk of Israel’s citizenry. He no longer is steering the country with a steady hand. He no longer has the capacity to distinguish between his own best interests and those of the country he leads. He does not have the ability to rehabilitate the faltering institutions he enfeebled; he cannot at this stage detach himself from the web of private interests that surround him; and he, of all people, cannot restore the waning trust in his person or in his leadership. All these formidable tasks — along with the mechanisms needed to rectify abuses of power, establish term limits for elected officials and increase government oversight — should be left to his successor (who probably will be of his own political ilk).
If Binyamin Netanyahu wants to salvage some parts of his legacy beyond his now cynical mantra “there wasn’t anything, because there is nothing,” if he really cares about Israel and still has an ounce of decency, then he does have a clear choice. The best he can do for himself, for Israelis and for the future of the country is to resign immediately.