For those who observe how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu operates, the impression he gives is one of a political chameleon, rather than a person with a well-established system of beliefs and values. He will argue with great conviction and passion for the same cause and policies that he will later argue against with equal fervor and zeal, and this matches the instrumental manner in which he treats his political allies and advisers, whom he discards unceremoniously and with venom whenever their services are no longer required or they are believed to have become a threat to his position.
These are not remotely endearing qualities and they should have seen Netanyahu confined to the history books a long time ago, but instead he is still in power, and has served for more years as Israel’s prime minister than any other.
A further aspect of his striking chameleon-like behavior is the remarkable difference between how he operates as a politician at home, and how he handles himself on the world stage, helped by marshalling the English language skills that he acquired while spending most of his formative years in the US. While internationally he has put a great deal of effort into building himself an image, albeit with scant justification, as a statesman and a strategic thinker, domestically he is one of the most manipulative, heavy-handed, immoral, stop-at-nothing petty politicians.
These traits have become even more distinct ever since the police embarked on investigating his alleged corrupt behavior, and were exacerbated by the indictments that have led him to be currently standing trial for three cases of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. This has tied his survival in power with seeking to stop his trial, which threatens to conclude by putting him behind bars. However, like all self-proclaimed Houdinis, he has had to up his game (while sinking lower and lower) and come up with new tricks to cover his personal flaws and save his career, and he has done this by employing a relentless populism as, with the help of his dangerous acolytes and sycophants, he seeks to weaken Israel’s judiciary beyond recognition and destroy what may be the last bastion of Israeli democracy.
To his surprise, however, his brutal attacks on the checks-and-balances of the democratic system have awoken from their apathy ordinary Israelis, who are flocking to the streets in their tens of thousands every Saturday evening to protest Netanyahu’s actions and intentions, and whose calls have more recently been echoed by some of Israel’s close democratic friends in the international community.
This was very clearly expressed in the space of a very few days by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his recent visit to Israel and Palestine, as well as by France’s President Emmanuel Macron when Netanyahu visited him.
Blinken departed from diplomatic protocol, and in what was a combination of a rebuke and a warning, as part of a joint statement with Netanyahu he listed a host of democratic values and principles that both countries share, at least supposedly, such as respect for human rights, the equal administration of justice for all, the equal rights of minority groups, the rule of law, a free press, and a robust civil society. All of these are under threat from the current Israeli government.
Blinken went on to state that there is “a recognition (in both countries) that building consensus for new proposals is the most effective way to ensure they’re embraced and that they endure,” praising the vibrancy of Israel’s civil society as it has “been on full display of late” – the very civil society that is taking to the streets every week to protest against the government’s proposals to cripple the judiciary.
What Blinken did not offer Netanyahu was something much coveted by all Israeli prime ministers: An invitation to visit the White House. This was a clear indication of Washington keeping the current Israeli government at arm’s length. Similarly, it was reported by the French daily Le Monde that Macron told Netanyahu that if the proposed legislation passes, “France will assume that Israel has disconnected from the two countries’ democratic perception.” This took place during a visit to a major capital, one where the Israeli ambassador had already resigned as soon as the current Israeli government was formed, in protest against what she called a violation of the principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and the vision of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
All this should have been rather uncomfortable for Netanyahu, but in his mind, which is becoming increasingly detached from reality, he believes that he can fend off any international criticism, as he has done throughout his time in office. Moreover, he believes that such global criticism enhances his reputation as standing up for Israel’s interests and independence in the face of a hostile international environment. At this stage of his career, he prefers to grapple daily with challenges abroad rather than dealing with some of the unsavory characters in his government, with whom he shares a mutual contempt, while it is only the thirst for power that holds this coalition together.
In the past he has found international criticism quite useful as long as it was not followed by punitive policies.
It served to boost his image of a tough, patriotic leader who does what is right for the country and its people regardless of what the world is saying, but also as a pretext to drag his feet on policies he is pressed to pursue by more hawkish and belligerent partners in government, including expanding the settlements, annexing the West Bank or even sanctioning massive ground operations in Gaza, hindering such proposals on the grounds that Israel wouldn’t like to fall out with its friends and allies in the world, especially the US.
To an extent, this doublespeak approach has worked for him quite well in the past, but with his new partners and their unquenched anti-democratic and anti-Palestinian appetites, this old trick might not work anymore, particularly as Netanyahu is personally tainted by his corruption trial. In compromising the very democratic, though shaky foundations that helped to forge a strong bond between Israel and the US and Europe, he risks his country’s relations with them.
Netanyahu’s main challenge, one that many of his coalition partners are utterly tone-deaf to, is the intensity with which Israel’s major allies are watching the current situation, fearing what will happen to its society and how it is going to impact relations with the Palestinians and regional stability. Netanyahu could exploit the slap on the wrist he has received from both Blinken and Macron, to dampen his partners’ enthusiasm for sliding down the slippery slope to destroying Israel’s democracy, but he might be too weak a leader to do that.