Deja vu all over again

This amusing “Yogi-ism” aptly describes where we find ourselves.  Yet another likely inconclusive election which will maintain the status quo: the State of Israel held hostage by a discredited Prime Minister on trial for serious crimes involving dishonesty and moral turpitude and focused solely on self-preservation, even at the expense of national interest.

Leaders overstaying their welcome are not new.  Plato once observed: “The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness…this and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs.”  Netanyahu’s record-breaking tenure is largely attributable to (a) the cult-like loyalty of around 25% of voters apparently blinded by Netanyahu’s demagoguery and/or blind loyalty to the Likud, (b) the protection of the two Haredi parties which Netanyahu pays off at the expense (and recently the health) of taxpayers, (c) an electoral system that keeps the incumbent in power unless the election is decisive, and (d) crucially, for the recent past and present, a center-left seemingly focused on internecine conflict and self-destruction – the polar opposite of the Likud.

The approaching fourth election within two years is also likely to be inconclusive, thereby further extending Netanyahu’s control.  The third election in March 2020 (like the prior two) was not decisive and produced only unattractive options.  Those focused primarily on the recurring hope of decisively defeating Netanyahu preferred to hold a fourth election during a mushrooming and increasingly destructive pandemic.  They believed that yet another election would somehow produce a better result than the prior three.  In fact, the data then available persuasively predicted that any different result would favor Netanyahu.  For example, towards the end of March 2020 polls indicated that the Likud would increase its mandates into the low 40’s, enabling Netanyahu to form a coalition and remain Prime Minister for another four years; an unmitigated disaster.  To make matters worse, he may even have been able to muster a majority sufficient to achieve his goals of passing the “French Law” to immunize himself from prosecution while in office, restricting the independence of the judiciary, annexing all or significant parts of the West Bank, and appointing “friendly,” instead of qualified, senior officials including attorney general, state prosecutor and police chief.  A fourth election was, at best, likely to be indecisive, thereby continuing Netanyahu’s hold on power and relegating Kachol Lavan to the limited effectiveness of opposition.

A theoretical option, to which some unrealistically clung, was to form a minority government.  This was explored but was not viable due to potential defections sufficient to hand Netanyahu an unfettered coalition.  This unfortunate situation presented Benny Gantz with the “Hobson’s choice” of proceeding with a fourth (or maybe fifth) election during a growing pandemic which was likely to extend Netanyahu’s tenure, perhaps even for another four years, or to “swallow his pride” (and then some) in the national interest and enter into a coalition with a goal of removing Netanyahu in eighteen months.  This coalition option succeeded in securing control of, or at least substantial influence over, important instrumentalities of government to prevent or mitigate further abuse by Netanyahu.  These include controlling many important ministries such as defense, justice and foreign affairs, holding a virtual veto over crucial appointments, preserving the independence of the judiciary, preventing annexation of all or part of the West Bank, a major red flag for much of the world including the Biden Administration and the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress.  The coalition also preserved the State’s credit rating which was under threat if no government was formed.  This unpopular choice required enormous courage, risk and self-sacrifice by Kachol Lavan and particularly its leader, Benny Gantz.  Approximately half the party’s leadership had the courage to make this sacrifice in the national interest.  Regrettably, the others refused substantially diminishing Kachol Lavan’s negotiating leverage.

Despite its diminished negotiating power, Kachol Lavan was able to achieve, albeit temporarily, many major goals.  Importantly, it avoided more futile elections during the worst time of the Corona War.  The duration and consequences of this pandemic have been worse than most anticipated a year ago.  In addition to tragic personal losses, Israel has suffered massive unemployment and underemployment felt by the majority of families.  The loss of businesses and livelihoods, for many representing a lifetime’s work and devotion, will continue to be soul-destroying.

As bad as is the current situation, it would have been worse if a fourth (and perhaps fifth) election were held during the worst time of the pandemic.  If Benny Gantz obstinately refused to deviate from the myopic and then unattainable goal of removing Netanyahu and had taken the “easy way out” by maintaining the status quo, he would have been justifiably criticized for aggravating the serious consequences of the pandemic.  Instead, he chose the courageous, statesmanlike and selfless path of compromise, an important Jewish value, even if it would cost him his political future.  Regrettably, instead of giving Benny Gantz and Kachol Lavan the benefit of the doubt or at least pausing to evaluate the situation, many switched allegiance without adequately considering whether positive results could be achieved.  In fact, harsh and premature attacks from many former allies and elements of the center-left media appeared to be focused on causing the coalition to fail.  One may ask who benefited by this self-destructive behavior?  Not the State of Israel.  Certainly not the bereaved, unemployed and impoverished. And certainly not the young people who will become increasingly disillusioned by the hopeless status quo and be more likely to leave.  The only beneficiary was and remains Netanyahu.  Therefore, those vociferous critics of Benny Gantz and Kachol Lavan should be asking themselves whether it is appropriate or prudent to punish the righteous, courageous and selfless statesmanship of Benny Gantz and thereby unwittingly reward Netanyahu with greater power and a further extension of his interminable tenure.

During this time of disturbing divisiveness, even many of Benny Gantz’s harshest critics concede that he is a decent, honest and ethical leader who has a long record of courageous and devoted service to the State of Israel and that his decisions were motivated solely by the sincere belief that he was acting in the best interests of the State.  Shouldn’t that be a most compelling reason to support Gantz and Kachol Lavan?  Even if one were convinced that Kachol Lavan erred by entering a Netanyahu-led government, is it appropriate to punish decency, honesty, integrity, statesmanship and selfless devotion?  Some of our most admired and accomplished leaders like Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon only really excelled after receiving a second chance in their political lives.  Our country has for too long endured dishonest, manipulative and egocentric governmental leadership.  If values and decency are important to us, then surely it is time for the pendulum of values to swing in the opposite direction.  Because we have for too long tolerated and become conditioned to Netanyahu’s negative characteristics, it is time to follow the Rambam’s admonition of leaning heavily to the opposite characteristics of decency, honesty and integrity.  Center-left voters should therefore give Benny Gantz and Kachol Lavan the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to exemplify and hold the government to the values we cherish and admire.

About the Author
Norman Smith is an attorney licensed to practice in California and South Africa. He is a fellow of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, serves on the National Board of the Friends of the IDF and is the founder and immediate past Chairman of the San Diego Chapter of the Friends of the IDF. Mr. Smith recently made Aliyah joining his daughter, Danielle, who served in the IDF as a Lone Soldier 14 years ago, his son-in-law and granddaughter.
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