Netanyahu’s downfall is nothing to celebrate

Netanyahu needs to go, but progressives are mistaken if they think that the end of his rule will halt Israel’s rightward march. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo: Kobi Gideon / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo: Kobi Gideon / GPO)

The myriad corruption scandals engulfing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have, on a near daily basis, been growing and spreading like cracks in a windshield. True or not, the question of if King Bibi’s reign is coming to an end feels like it has officially been supplanted by predictions about when the house of cards will come crashing down.

Even more dizzying is how we are becoming privy to corruption, attempts to corrupt, and general malfeasance in nearly all of the institutions that comprise a democratic state as we know it.

In the past few weeks and months we have learned how politicians, regulators, and oligarchs conspired to shape the news we are fed by the biggest and most influential news outlets, confirming our worst fears about the state of journalism in Israel. The accusations range from negotiating favorable coverage in exchange for regulatory changes to the prime minister literally dictating the front-page headlines of Israel’s most-read newspaper.

We learned how, on top of attempts to defang the judiciary in Israel, the Netanyahu entourage allegedly tried to sell a shockingly corrupt quid pro quo to a judge shortlisted to be the next attorney general: agree to close a criminal case against the prime minister’s wife, and become attorney general. Even more astounding is that even after that judge told Israel’s now-chief justice of the Supreme Court about the indecent proposal, neither did anything about it.

We learned that someone hired private investigators to dig up dirt on the police detectives tasked with investigating Netanyahu and his cronies. When that news broke, likely leaked by Netanyahu himself, the prime minister put out a face-palm-inducing statement pondering whether investigators who believe the person they are investigating sent somebody to investigate them can be impartial in their investigation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony marking his appointment of Israel National Police Chief Roni Alsheikh, December 3, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony marking his appointment of Israel National Police Chief Roni Alsheikh, December 3, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The accusations go on and on, and the list is guaranteed to grow in the coming days and weeks as more and more suspects, some of whom have been in Netanyahu’s inner-most circles, turn state’s witnesses and give police even more to work with.

Casting aside Netanyahu’s uncanny political survival skills and recalling that his predecessor left office  to stand trial and ultimately spent time in prison, it’s no longer unfathomable that Israel’s second-longest-serving prime minister may never become its longest serving premier.

Many progressives in Israel, but particularly around the world, who have come to associate Netanyahu with everything they loathe about Israel — believing on some level that if only Netanyahu were to go away, it would be easier to unflinchingly support the Jewish state again — may even be celebrating what appears to be his impending downfall.

That would be a mistake.

We have already witnessed how, as the corruption scandals swell, the prime minister lowered the floodgates that once held back extreme right-wing legislation and policies, placating his right-wing base and coalition partners to ensure their support. That will likely get worse in the months to come. New settlements? Sure. Muffle the Muslim call to prayer? Why not. Deport tens of thousands of asylum seekers? Who’s going to stop it.

Yet there is an even scarier reason why progressives shouldn’t celebrate Netanyahu’s downfall. Once he is gone, it will become impossible to deny that despite his vain attempts to control everything we know and think of him, Benjamin Netanyahu is just a politician — a politician whose policies are more or less in line with the views and beliefs of most Israelis.

Support for a two-state solution is lower than it has been in years. Most Jewish Israelis support the deportation of African asylum seekers. Nobody else in government cares about religious pluralism enough to seriously challenge the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on Judaism in Israel. And the idea of a liberal democracy, of an Israel that belongs to all of its citizens, is supported by a grand total of nobody.

The leaders who could plausibly replace Netanyahu, should he be forced out of office, aren’t anybody to look forward to. Those who could replace him from within the Likud would have a hard time reigning in the annexationist fervor unleashed in recent years, even if they wanted to.

Head of the Zionist Union party Avi Gabbay with Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Head of the Zionist Union Avi Gabbay, alongside opposition leader Isaac Herzog. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The new head of the Labor Party doesn’t think that any settlements need to be removed in order to make peace with the Palestinians, not that he or anyone in his party is in a rush to do any such thing. He also supports the plan to deport African asylum seekers. Yair Lapid’s policies aren’t all that distinguishable from Labor leader Gabbay’s, or Netanyahu’s for that matter.

None of this is to say that Benjamin Netanyahu is the lesser evil, or the least worst alternative. Netanyahu needs to go. The future of Israeli democracy will require repairing the damage he and his cronies have wreaked on this country.

But the suggestion that Netanyahu’s brand of corruption is even in the same league as Israel’s 50-year military dictatorship over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians is simply detached from reality. Getting rid of Netanyahu isn’t going to bring us any closer to ending a half-century of undemocratic rule. It won’t change how the state treats its own Arab-Palestinian citizens — who comprise one in five Israelis — as less than equal, as if they don’t belong, as if their homeland doesn’t belong to them.