Why I No Longer Trust Netanyahu to Lead Israel

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- One evening, in the autumn of 1995, I ran into Benjamin Netanyahu at a popular restaurant in downtown Jerusalem. On my way out, I stopped at his table. There was something I wanted to say to him.

Bibi was the recently chosen leader of the Likud, Israel's party of the right. For months, his party had been staging demonstrations against the Oslo Accords, the peace agreement between Israel and Palestinian Liberation Organization. Some of these events had been ugly. Crowds waved incendiary banners and chanted that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was a traitor.

Netanyahu himself was careful. He refrained from personally calling for Rabin’s head. But he didn’t really try to cleanse the poisoned public atmosphere. I thought he was acting irresponsibly and said so. “You’re riding on the back of the tiger,” I told him. He assured me that he knew what he was doing, that he had things under control.

A month or so later, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing fanatic. The tiger got him. Not long after, Netanyahu was elected prime minister.

Bibi and I share a Likud background, but under the circumstances, I didn’t vote for him in 1996 and I have never voted for him since. This year, as the April 9 election approaches, I was reconsidering. Netanyahu has now served four terms as prime minister. He has presided over a period of prosperity, diplomatic successes and relative national security. I have reservations about his character (embodied by the corruption charges hanging over him) but I slowly concluded that his talent and experience qualified him for a second chance.

That changed last week, when Netanyahu brokered a deal that will enable a member or two of the Jewish Power Party (Otzma Yehudit in Hebrew) to enter the Knesset and support the coalition Bibi hopes to form. The party is the spawn of Kach, an outlawed movement founded by Meir Kahane in the 1970s. The leaders of the party venerate Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Muslims in a West Bank mosque in 1994. One of the Jewish Power leaders has a portrait of Goldstein hanging in his living room. The party wants a ban on mixed marriages between Jews and non-Jews, an echo of the Nazi Nuremberg laws. It would like to expel Israeli Arabs, although it couches this aspiration in talk of “extremists.” Its ultimate goal is to replace Israeli democracy with a theocratic dictatorship, by force if necessary.

Netanyahu doesn’t want to overthrow Israeli democracy any more than he wanted the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. He justifies adding the Jewish Power party to his next coalition as a matter of politics. A “technical move” he calls it. But it is far from that.

Netanyahu’s legal troubles are coming to a head, perhaps this week. He has already said he won’t step down no matter what, and will fight the case in court. That fight will be much easier for him if he is re-elected in April. No judge, no matter how independent, will lightly convict a newly elected prime minister. If the price of Bibi’s personal freedom is establishing a coalition with Jewish Power, it is a price Bibi is evidently willing to pay.

Of course, Netanyahu could lose the election, or win a plurality without being able to form a government. Polls show that this is possible. If so, he would wind up facing charges without the protection of prime ministerial prestige and leverage. This is what happened to Bibi’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who went to prison on crimes of corruption. Olmert was especially vulnerable because he had lost the support of his party.

Bibi still has his party's support. Not long ago, Likud’s Parliamentary Chairman David Amsalem warned that millions of Israelis would refuse to accept an indictment of their leader.

If this is Bibi’s Plan B, it doesn’t require mobilizing a million protesters. The majority of Likud voters, like the rest of the country, will stay home and watch the action on television. But it won’t take vast crowds to create post-indictment (or post-election) havoc. Netanyahu, a former officer in Sayeret Matkal, one of the Israeli Defense Forces’ elite commando units, knows the power of a small band of battle-ready shock troops. In a street fight, the bullies of Jewish Power, backed by the same fanatical rabbis who blessed the murder of Rabin, would be like a vigilante special forces unit.    

Should this nightmare scenario come to pass, Netanyahu will certainly denounce the Jewish Power violence. But deniability will be harder this time. His fingerprints are on the agreement that grants thugs a role in whatever comes next.  

Bibi is older but, I’m afraid, not wiser than he was in 1995. He is once more ready to ride the tiger and take his chances that it will not devour him – or the rest of us. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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