Why King Bibi’s return is bad news for Israel
Israel’s oldest leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is back. His return once again confirms an iron rule of Israeli politics: never deregister Bibi. A few years ago, his opponents briefly thought they had defeated him for good.
Netanyahu lost an election in 2021 and two big American supporters, late media mogul Sheldon Adelson and former President Donald Trump, were gone. Netanyahu was being investigated for corruption in a wide-ranging criminal investigation he sought unsuccessfully to undermine. It looked like Bibi might soon be trading the prime minister’s residence for prison, and the TV makeup and dark suits he always wears for prison uniform. But that’s not what happened.
Netanyahu has clung to the pulpit of Likud, the party he leads, with his famous pugnacity and tenacity. He saw conspiracies against him everywhere. He made new friends on the extreme right in his country; these friends have become useful.
He published memoirs and continued a frantic pace of appearances on American television. In many ways, Netayanhu never stopped acting like Israel’s prime minister, even as the leader of the opposition. He had the same objective, at least when speaking to the American public, about the wickedness of Iran, its leaders, its nuclear bomb plans.
But the return of Netanyahu, who calls himself “Mr. Security,” as prime minister does not necessarily mean stability or security for Israel.
The personal problems faced by the former and future Prime Minister are always important. He’s still under criminal investigation, after all. The plea bargains appear, from the outside, to be going nowhere fast. It is not exactly impossible that Netanyahu could be found criminally responsible for corruption. If so, he may simply have to pay back large sums of money; as an outside chance, he can even be sentenced to prison while in office.
These are problems big enough for an individual to deal with. Yet there are also political obstacles.
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One of them is of Netanyahu’s own making, and something he should be condemned for. He has empowered some rather nasty parties to his right: carriers of violent sectarian rhetoric, which could spark major intercommunal violence at the snap of a finger. Soon they will be in government.
And Israel and its surroundings are hardly at peace. The West Bank and Gaza remain turbulent; we had a war earlier this year, after all. And Netanyahu, who himself has made a right turn and helped deeply disagreeable people, is not the man to make the settlement issue less hot and with less risk of general conflagration.
But even forgetting all this, there remains the problem of Israel’s neighbors and Netanyahu’s particular vision on international relations. He hates US presidents who happen to be Democrats, for example – and while there is justice in that hatred, it does little to help relations between Israel and its most important ally.
Above all is Iran. In Netanyahu’s mind and reality, Iran is of the utmost importance. Netanyahu has spent five decades convincing everyone that he – a soldier that he was – is a badass; finally, that he alone knows Iran and can beat it.
But despite Netanyahu’s claimed credentials in the fight against Iran, the Iranian empire has become stronger, more entrenched and better armed, during his previous long period in power.
Netanyahu rightly opposed the nuclear deal which gave Iran money and time to build its network of proxies and militias across the Middle East. But he did little to use the deal’s demise to fight Iran’s proxies. They are more entrenched than ever in Syria and Lebanon – from where they launch missile and drone attacks on Israel.
Today, after years of rampant nuclear enrichment, some international observers indicate that Iran is in a position to have it all: the regional empire and the nuclear bomb. This is a dangerous time for Israel, and Mr. Security must assume his share of responsibility.
Netanyahu is also responsible for his inability to distance himself from Russia and its belligerent president. Ukraine is miles away from Israel, but Russia’s invasion should galvanize Israel and its defenders. Ukraine is a paradise for Jewish life. It has a Jewish president and many Jews in its upper echelons. Holocaust survivors killed by Russian soldiers; Jewish monuments and relics have been defaced.
Yet Israeli leaders in general, and Netanyahu in particular, remain oddly close to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This is madness. Russia and Iran are as close as two fingers crossed. Iran is now arming Russia’s war in Ukraine. But before that, Russian air forces supported Iran’s takeover of Syria and fought alongside the carnival of militias that now threaten Israel.
Yet Netanyahu cannot criticize Putin because, he says, Israeli fighters share the skies above Syria with the Russians. It was he who made it necessary. If he were the man he claims to be, Netanyahu would understand that Putin is terminally weak, that Russia is Iran’s deepest and dearest friend, and that Israel’s security would get a big boost from the defeat of Russia and Iran in Ukraine.
But don’t expect King Bibi to get that.