Before there was President Donald Trump there was Bibi Netanyahu. I first covered him in 1996 when he was running for prime minister of Israel. He was in his mid-40s then, a not-yet-proven leader, not considered in the same class with the grand old men of the nation, such as his opponent, Shimon Peres, or Yitzhak Rabin, who had recently been assassinated, or Gen. Ariel Sharon.
Netanyahu was callow and undertested; his main claims to electability were his smooth, CNN-ready English and his monomaniacal focus on a single issue that was increasingly worrying Israelis: security.
Who knew during that first campaign that Netanyahu would not only win but would go on to dominate Israeli politics for the next 25 years? Today, after losing and regaining power a few times, he has surpassed David Ben-Gurion as the country’s longest serving prime minister. He has presided over tectonic shifts in Israeli politics, undermining the peace process with the Palestinians, neutering the left (which had held power through much of Israel’s prior history). He has fought Hamas; he has challenged Iran; he has stubbornly maintained the occupation of the West Bank over the world’s objections.
Over the years, I have lost count of how many political obituaries I have written about Netanyahu — and how many resurrection stories. Today’s column falls in the resurrection category.
Israel’s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Netanyahu, who is currently the country’s prime minister, may indeed form a new unity government, despite the fact that he is under indictment in three separate corruption cases. Opponents had hoped to see him disqualified, but this clears the way for Netanyahu and his chief rival, Benny Gantz, to enter into an unusual power-sharing agreement. Israel has held three inconclusive elections in recent months; the decision to join forces was attributed to the coronavirus pandemic.
Putting aside the legal merits of the court’s decision, the bottom line is this: More Netanyahu is bad for the country. Not because Israel’s security isn’t important. Certainly it is. A country that sits eyeball to eyeball with millions of people who oppose its very existence, and which has been at war repeatedly with its neighbors since 1948, must be concerned about its safety.
But Netanyahu has always played on fear to his own advantage, emphasizing insecurity and summarily rejecting the steps toward peace that might have had a better chance in the long run of bringing lasting security. He is certainly aware that his popularity climbs when voters are especially worried about Hamas bombs or Hezbollah missiles or fiery rhetoric from Iran.
At the moment, he’s weakened by the ongoing corruption cases, the most serious of which accuses him of trading official favors in return for positive news coverage.
The key issue before Netanyahu (and Gantz) in the months ahead — other than the immediate threat of COVID-19 — is “annexation”: whether or not to push forward with Netanyahu’s campaign promise to annex much of the West Bank, including not just the Israeli settlements but also parts of the Jordan Valley, and claim them as part of Israel’s territory.
This is an awful idea. The land Netanyahu hopes to claim does not belong to Israel; it is land that was seized during the Six-Day War in 1967 and which is believed by almost all the world to have been illegally occupied ever since.
Annexation would make the pursuit of a two-state solution far more difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish. Geographically, there would be less and less space to create a contiguous Palestinian state. Violence would be a not-unlikely outcome of annexation.
The much-maligned two-state solution — which, it is hoped, would allow a safe and secure Israel to live side by side with an independent Palestinian state — is nearly moribund even without this. But annexation would continue the century-old conflict between Palestinians and Israelis into the indefinite future.
And perhaps that’s the point. For his whole career, Netanyahu has stood for one key proposition: that peace is not to be trusted; it is a pipe dream pushed by starry-eyed doves who fell hard for the likes of Yasser Arafat. According to Netanyahu, only battening down, fighting back hard, building walls and rejecting compromise protects the country.
Annexation could be a death blow to what’s left of the two-state solution, which remains, until someone comes up with something better, the only realistic hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.