Less than three months ago, on 20th July 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu marked a total of thirteen years and four months in power, overtaking the record of Israel’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, as its longest serving prime minister. In two weeks, he will reach another milestone while still in office: his seventieth birthday.
Back in 1996, when he first ran for prime minister at the age of 46, ‘Bibi’ for many Israelis was a byword for callowness and inexperience. He had never held a ministerial position and was running against Israel’s elder statesman Shimon Peres who was twenty-six years his senior and had spent half a century at the center of power. To lend himself an air of age and gravitas, Netanyahu’s campaign videos were produced in faux office lined with books and his prematurely graying hair was highlighted. In the end it was a vicious smear campaign against Peres, falsely accusing him of seeking to deliver half of Jerusalem to the Palestinians, that helped Netanyahu carve out a sliver-thin victory.
Fast-forward twenty-three years, and its fascinating to compare the footage of Netanyahu from that campaign with the way he looks today, just as he’s about to enter his eighth decade. He doesn’t seem to have changed. While many leaders visibly age and wilt as they buckle under the burdens of high office, power seems to have kept Netanyahu in his prime permanently.
On 17th September – Election Day – Netanyahu kept up an almost constant online presence, cajoling, wheedling and towards the end of voting hours, almost begging Israelis to go out and vote for his Likud party. It was bravura, and sometimes bizarre performance, but was certainly not indicative of a man who feels his age. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, he can go on leading Israel for years, even decades. After all, his father Professor Benzion Netanyahu lived to the age of 102 and was still researching and writing well into his nineties.
But by now, almost everyone but Netanyahu and his most diehard supporters know it’s almost over. He failed to win a majority for his coalition in two consecutive elections in 2019. He is holding onto power as a caretaker prime minister only because the opposition has yet to muster a majority of its own. And in recent days his lawyers have attended a pre-trial hearing with the attorney general in a last-ditch attempt to try and save him from indictments of bribery and fraud. It now seems impossible that he can hold on for much longer; it seems probable that he will soon be spending his days on trial for his fraudulent dealings with greedy businessmen.
Surely it would make more sense for him to try and cut his losses, use the power he still has to seal a plea bargain and save himself from the fate of his predecessor Ehud Olmert, who ended up in prison for bribery. But that is not how Netanyahu thinks. He remains convinced that no one can replace him as Israel’s leader and that as long as he perseveres, the nation will not remove him from office.
Ultimately, this is what has kept him there for so long – not his powers of persuasion as a political mega-performer, or his statesmanship, or the fact that he has delivered for Israelis a decade of economic prosperity and relative calm in the surrounding chaos of the Middle East. Netanyahu has remained in power above all due to a burning belief in the inevitability of his own rule. He has beaten all his would-be rivals because he wanted to be in power more than them and was prepared to cross any line to get there.
Netanyahu is preparing to crash both the political and legal systems simultaneously. With the current Knesset (Israel’s parliament) split down the middle, and the fact that neither side is capable of forming a coalition, he is using his ultimatum that he must head any national-unity government to stymie negotiations, in the hope of forcing a third election, while he remains intact as Israel’s prime minister. Meanwhile, as the attorney general prepares his final announcement on criminal indictments, he is orchestrating protests against ‘the witch-hunt’ and the selective leaking of evidence to prevent journalists from helping to bring about any decision besides a full exoneration. He believes that if necessary, he can bring hundreds of thousands out on to the streets to intimidate any prosecution – but he will probably fail.
A majority will somehow be cobbled together to form an alternative government. The masses will not take to the streets to protect Netanyahu. But that won’t stop him trying. Because he never stops. He won’t go out without a fight. The only question is what damage he will do to Israel before he goes.
by Anshel Pfeffer
Paperback | January 2020 | £12.99 | 9781787383272 | 432pp