With elections coming up in Israel, “Bibi” Netanyahu is under special scrutiny. Often, I find the scrutiny to be superficial.
When I first came to Israel, I saw Israeli politics in black and white. Netanyahu was part of the black. At the time, the leading political issue here was whether Israel should withdraw all of the Jews, including the soldiers, from Gaza. Both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, hardly a liberal, and Netanyahu were members of Likud. Sharon proposed withdrawal from Gaza; Netanyahu, in contrast, argued that, if Israel did so, the Palestinians would use it as a base from which to attack Israel. We liberals poo pooed Netanyahu and supported Sharon, who left Likud, forming a new party, Kadima. Many members of Likud followed him. In the next election, Kadima prevailed; Sharon remained the Prime Minister.
In 2005, Sharon’s Gaza policy was implemented, but Netanyahu had been correct. In 2008 Hamas began to fire rockets from Gaza into Israel, something it has continued to do off and on ever since. This is highly significant to understanding how Netanyahu views the West Bank today. He has pointed out that the West Bank is 50 times the size of Gaza and asked, “Do you want 50 more Gazas?” Having been correct about Gaza, he has little reason not to see the West Bank occupation as he does.
Once I realized that I had been wrong about Gaza, I understood that seeing Netanyahu as part of the black was simplistic. He is a nuanced combination of shades of gray.
The American politician of whom he reminds me most is Lyndon Johnson. By 1968, Johnson was despised by most liberals because of his Vietnam-war policy. It was easy to forget that as a Senator he, a political magician, had managed to get the 1957 civil rights act passed. It was also easy to forget that as President, he was responsible for the passage of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In order to understand what makes Netanyahu tick, it is important to understand that by Israeli standards, he is “secular”. (As a Reform Jew who believes in God and prays, I am considered “religious” in the United States. In Israel, I am considered “secular.”) This is critical to understanding Israeli politics. While many people view Israeli politics in terms of “left and “right”, as politics are viewed in the United States, I find it more helpful to view them as “secular” v. “religious.” Many of the “religious” voters believe deep in their hearts that God promised Jews all the land between the Jordan and the Sea. Consequently, they view West Bank Arabs as interlopers – democracy be damned.
Following the 2013 election, which Likud won, Netanyahu, like Johnson a political magician, was able to form a government which was almost completely secular. The Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) parties were out. The only significant “religious” person in the new coalition was Neftali Bennett, but even he was part of a bargaining unit with the far-more-liberal, “secular” Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid).
Netanyahu’s critics had to make a choice. They could have congratulated Bibi for putting together a secular coalition and encouraged him to keep up the good work, or they could have continued to bash him. They chose the latter. Netanyahu, who appeared to be highly vulnerable, was attacked from within his own cabinet by Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni (Kadima), and Finance Minister, Lapid, Consequently, in 2015, Netanyahu again called for new elections, elections which everybody expected him to lose.
Netanyahu surprised us all: he won the election. That began Bibi’s move to the “religious” right. Since he could no longer trust the “secular”, moderates Livni and Lapid, he was forced to turn to the religious for support. Bennett had remained loyal and was rewarded with three ministries. The two Haredi parties (UJT and Shas) were back in. With their support, Netanyahu was able to form a government and remain as Prime Minister.
The Bibi bashers only increased their attacks on him, forcing him more and more to depend on the “religious” right. Ever the shrewd politician, last year Netanyahu decided that his best route to victory was to put together something he called “the coalition of the right.” He almost pulled it off: Likud won the election and “the coalition of the right” came within a few votes of being able to form a government, but could not. After three elections, Netanyahu was able to form a government and remain Prime Minister by joining with the “secular” Bennie Gantz (Blue and White), who had been his principle opponent in the elections. He could only do so by dumping Bennett along with his right-wing, “religious” crew. Bennett claimed that he had been double-crossed, which was true. I cheered. The new government proved unworkable and Netanyahu forced the elections which are to be held in March. Bennett is likely to be Netanyahu’s chief opponent.
Although I had supported Netanyahu for some time, I could not bring myself to vote for him in the recent elections. I am convinced that even more than most politicians, Netanyahu, to a fault, will do whatever it takes to win. In forming his “coalition of the right”, I felt that he had sold his soul to the “religious” right and had run an overtly racist, anti-Arab campaign. By joining with Gantz and dumping Bennett, Netanyahu was able to form a far-more moderate and “secular” government than Israel has had in years. Both Bennett and Lapid are now in the opposition.
Netanyahu seems more comfortable in a moderate government. There are several reasons for this. First, he is “secular.” Second, he is a first-rate diplomat. It was largely because of his diplomatic skills that Israel was able to enter into the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain, in my opinion the biggest step towards peace for Israel in 40 years. Third, he is very smart and well educated (with an M.B.A. from M.I.T.). Fourth, he is very knowledgeable about how to defend Israel, not surprising, as he spent years as an Israeli commando, being wounded numerous times in the process. Even so, he has always been a force of moderation within the security cabinet keeping the hawks Bennett and Lieberman under control. Fifth, while economically he is a Ronald Reagan/George Shultz free-market type, his economic policies have worked well in developing Israel into the start-up capital of the world.
In the upcoming election, Bibi is being attacked both from the “religious” right and the “secular” left. Running in between them, he is even trying to attract Arab votes. I expect him to pull off another miracle, win again, and remain Prime Minister. If he does, I hope that the Bibi bashers will finally discover that it is easier to affect behavior with honey than with vinegar and say “way to go Bibi”, encouraging him to keep following his more moderate instincts.