As if the last few weeks’ worth of accusations weren’t enough of a headache, Prime Minister Netanyahu is now dealing with an eleventh hour coalition crisis between the ultra-orthodox parties and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman regarding a draft exemption law meant to benefit the Haredi community. As of this writing, Lieberman has not compromised on the wording of the document. Netanyahu had initially responded that while he does not feel elections are appropriate at present, he will gladly proceed in that direction in the upcoming months if need be. However, it appears as though elections have been averted for now, as the prime minister fears he will not be able muster the votes necessary in order to dissolve the Knesset. In any case, Netanyahu has a right to be optimistic about any decision he makes regarding the subject. Polls released amid developing scandals and after police recommended indictments in two corruption cases have not dented constituent support; many Israeli voters seem, for the time being, intent on sticking by the prime minister. Thus, calling elections now would allow Netanyahu to metaphorically strike while the iron is hot, and rally his supporters around the banner of an embattled leader.

Netanyahu is no stranger to identity politics, routinely pitting his supporters, and the right-leaning electorate more generally, against sectors of society and institutions normally associated with the left – the media, the arts community, NGOs and human rights groups, the Supreme Court, and academia. This tactic has served him well for many years, but it was also somewhat predictable, given that nationalist governments around the world routinely clash with groups who traditionally take a dim view of majoritarian policies. Yet since the beginning of the prime minister’s latest ordeal, he’s expanded the contours of groups he deems fair game to the police and security services, agencies once thought to have impeccable right-wing credentials and thus above reproach or suspicion.

Reading this description of the events that have so far unfolded, it’s tempting to immediately look towards the U.S. and note President Donald Trump’s success in turning the FBI, long considered a bastion of right-wing sentiment, into a “Deep State” boogeyman in the eyes of many Republicans, nefariously trying to bring down the administration. The routine comparisons between Trump and Netanyahu’s behavior – especially in light of the rising tide of allegations made against both figures, and the backlash they’ve elicited from the accused and many of their constituents – while not specious, fail to adequately understand or address the stark contrasts between each leader’s background and motivations.

Trump’s victory must be understood within the larger wave of populist sentiment pervading Western democracies: the president successfully positioned himself as an outsider to those “left-behind” citizens who seemed content to burn the whole house down and throw in their lot with an untraditional candidate. He brought with him no political experience and, in fact, little knowledge of the inner workings of politics in general. While Democrats and moderate Republicans remain aghast at his rough and tumble manner of communication and the pride he seems to exhibit in not learning the skills necessary to succeed in his position, many of his supporters, whether in defense or with genuine admiration, view his cavalier attitude  as a refreshing change from the behavior of establishment politicians long entrenched in what they saw as a self-serving bureaucracy.

Netanyahu, despite his routinely successful appeals to his base as someone who understands what it means to be on the outs with the establishment, has assiduously risen through the ranks of Israeli politics taking full advantage of the bureaucratic system so reviled by populist leaders and their supporters. After connecting with then Foreign Minister Moshe Arens, he was appointed deputy chief of staff at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC and served in this role from 1982 to 1984. Making a name for himself in the 80’s as an outspoken ambassador to the UN, he officially entered the political arena in 1988, winning control of the Likud’s chairmanship in the 1992 primaries and then moving on to win the premiership in 1996 against Acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Following his defeat by Ehud Barak in 1999, he retired from politics for only a short time and returned to the ranks of Likud as a foreign minister and then finance minister under Ariel Sharon’s successive governments. Sharon’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the subsequent creation of the Kadima party led Netanyahu once again to capture the  party head, a position he held until his reelection nearly a decade ago. If one were to sum up Netanyahu’s rise to the top, it would not be as some insurgent figure trying to destroy and remake a system from which he so greatly benefited and that gave him the skills necessary to succeed as a leader.

Bibi’s plea to his base is not one of shaking up and replacing a rotten system that has failed in its promise to deliver a better and more prosperous life; it’s the maintenance of an already precarious status quo that could risk imploding if he were to suddenly disappear from the political scene. It should therefore be no surprise that in polls conducted asking voters to rank the political figure most competent in the role of prime minister, Netanyahu has routinely come out first, beating his competitors by a wide margin, but also falling well short of a majority. There is no doubt that the image he helped craft over the course of many years has added to his illustriousness as a capable and even irreplaceable leader, but even a decade of this ‘indoctrination’ doesn’t fully explain the fact that a plurality of Israeli voters would continue to vote for Netanyahu if elections were called tomorrow. Disliked and corrupt as he may be perceived by large swathes of the electorate, no one from either side of the political spectrum is viewed as a sufficiently competent successor to inherit the current situation in which Israel finds itself, especially in light of new developments of Iranian encroachment in the north and a possible flare up of violence in Gaza, as conditions continue to deteriorate in the Strip.

Why then would a prime minister whose success is derived from working within the system be so cavalier and antagonistic to the metaphorical hand that has fed him for so long? There are any number of explanations for such behavior. Given his long-standing belief that he and only he is capable of navigating the country through the myriad challenges it now faces, Netanyahu may feel that in maintaining his grip on power, the ends simply justify the means; an Israel or a Likud led by any other figure is either unfathomable or undesirable, and the chaos unleashed by his behavior is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Netanyahu may also genuinely believe that while these attacks are problematic in the short term, the system can withstand these shocks without sustaining permanent damage.

But like Trump’s ongoing denunciations of every individual or institution he finds threatening, the absolute trust that many in his base have imbued him with may lead many of Netanyahu’s constituents to internalize not simply a dislike for the targets of his rage, but an outright hostility for them going forward. What started as skepticism aimed at traditional targets of right-wing ire is now spilling into demonization of security agencies long tasked with guaranteeing the country’s survival, transforming them from the state’s guardians into leftist turncoats. It’s easy to see then what lies further down this path: a hypothetical future coalition led by anyone not considered sufficiently right-wing may be met with incredulousness by the rightist electorate, whose politicians at best will be pressured to forswear forming a coalition with them and at worst will convince right-leaning voters that these so-called leftists have no real mandate to rule. Here, comparisons to Trump are more accurate; recall that before his victory when many in his own camp believed his chances to be slim, his thinly-veiled threat that a Clinton win would likely be marred and viewed as illegitimate due to perceived voting irregularities. Bibi is helping, bit by bit, to undermine and possibly dismantle the very system that propelled him to victory in the first place. It is the prime minister’s right and his prerogative to defend himself against accusations that he believes are false, even if it appears cynical to do so. But severely damaging the infrastructure so necessary to Israel’s already fragile democratic institutions is not simply selfish; it is wildly irresponsible.



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