Bibi, the forever PM?

Netanyahu has been dominant for so long that superstition may be the only way to imagine his departure — but those who want him gone should be careful what they wish for, writes Jonathan Freedland


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as he opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on February 1, 2015. AFP PHOTO / POOL / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP via Getty Images)

March 11, 2021 15:58

What thoughts crossed your mind during the Harry and Meghan interview? Did you find yourself guessing which royal it was who saw fit to speculate on the as-yet-unborn royal’s skin colour? Were you wondering who would play the Duchess when they come to re-enact the interview in The Crown, and whether it might actually be Meghan herself? In my case, and perhaps yours, the answers are yes and yes. But I suspect I am almost alone in the other train of thought that trundled through my head as Oprah ended her first hour of questions and dug into her second. 

I found myself remembering the last time I had witnessed such a high-stakes royal interview. Not the one with the sweatless Andrew, but rather the Panorama conversation with Princess Diana in 1995. I pictured where I was when I watched it, in my one room apartment in Washington, DC, a reporter in his twenties, just starting out. 

I thought of that time and the year that followed it, marvelling at how much the world has changed. It was Bill Clinton’s first term in office, Tony Blair was yet to win an election and no one had heard of Google. 

My mental eye scanned the landscape, looking for some part of the mid-90s universe that was familiar. Finally, it found it. 

In 1996, the prime minister of Israel was Benjamin Netanyahu.  A person can have moved from exuberant youth to deep middle age and have had Bibi in the background the whole time. 

Last year I made a radio documentary about the Rabin assassination a quarter century earlier. Whose voice do you hear on the archive recordings, as the then leader of the opposition? Why, Netanyahu’s of course. He’s become a permanent, apparently immovable fixture. 

Of course, there are other players who’ve been around longer, not least Harry’s grandmother. Among heads of government, Vladimir Putin has held power for 20 years, while Viktor Orban first became prime minister of Hungary in 1998. But Bibi got to the seat of power before both of them. 

The choice of examples is telling, because usually such epic longevity of tenure is a sign of democratic ill health, indicating that those in charge are competing on an electoral playing field tilted in their favour. And yet even Israel’s most trenchant critics would concede that its elections are robust and unfettered, with a proportional system that could fairly be described as hyper-democratic. 

I mention all this because Netanyahu is up for re-election yet again on March 23. Israel has a chance to prove that it is not Russia or Hungary, that the result is not pre-ordained and that those in power can lose. As tradition demands, I am following the ins and outs, scanning each poll, totting up the likely seats of the pro- and anti-Bibi camps. But all of that is overridden by a feeling that owes less to political analysis than it does to a fatalism born of weary experience. It’s the sense that, whatever happens, whatever the numerical permutations and political twists and turns, it is a law of nature that, just as the sun comes up tomorrow, Netanyahu will remain in the PM’s chair whose leather he must, by now, have worn to a smooth shine.

Over the years, I’ve invested my hopes in Ashkenazi former generals and in Mizrachi trade unionists, slick former TV hosts and lawyerly backroom operators, each time hoping they might be the ones to dislodge the forever PM. Maybe it would require several opponents at once? Blue and White tried that and failed. Perhaps a woman? Tzipi Livni came close but it was not enough. 

Now, like a football fan who thinks that if he watches the game from a different chair it might sway the result, I’m resorting to superstition. Maybe my past mistake was wanting it too much. So now I’m trying an experiment, imagining what it would be like if Netanyahu actually loses — by which I mean a defeat as it would be in any other country, where the loser does not simply re-emerge as the head of a new coalition or as “caretaker” prime minister a few weeks later but finally exits the stage. 

Is it possible that it would be…worse? Possible replacements for Bibi include Naftali Bennett, who once said no Palestinian state is foreseeable “for the next 200 years,” and Gideon Sa’ar, who wants to annex the West Bank and “formally abandon the idea of two states” and who reckons “the most urgent and important national task” facing the country is building more Jewish settlements in Jerusalem. I try to contemplate these two succeeding Netanyahu and tell myself that I should be careful what I wish for. 

Perhaps that will do the trick. If I go into this next round of Israeli elections trying to believe that I’ll miss Bibi when he’s gone, that he’s the devil we know, maybe the stars will move into a new alignment. Either that or Netanyahu will win again —  and he’ll still be there in another 25 years, when young Archie Windsor is on the sofa, pouring his heart out about a callously cold monarchy that, like the prime minister of Israel, cannot be budged. 

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian

March 11, 2021 15:58

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