King Bibi Returns

It is an immense irony, as the great orientalist Bernard Lewis was fond of remarking, that Israel – the most vibrant and enthusiastic democracy in the Middle East – has to put up with the world’s worst electoral system. Its governments frequently collapse. Perhaps they do it philanthropically, to allow citizens once again the pleasure of going to the polls. 

Israel’s longest serving leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is back. His return confirms once again an iron clad rule of Israeli politics: never write Bibi off. A few years ago, his opponents briefly thought they had vanquished him for good.   

Netanyahu lost an election in 2021 and two great American supporters, the late media tycoon Sheldon Adelson and former president Donald Trump, were gone. Netanyahu was under investigation for corruption in a wide-ranging criminal probe which he sought unsuccessfully to undermine. It seemed as if Bibi could soon exchange the prime minister’s residence for jail, and the TV make-up and dark suits he always wears for prison uniform.  But that is not what happened.   

Netanyahu clung on to the pulpit within Likud, the party he leads, with his famous pugnacity and tenaciousness. He saw conspiracies against him everywhere. He made new friends in the far-right of his country; those friends have come in handy.  

He published a memoir and kept up a ferocious pace of appearances on American television. In many ways, Netayanhu never stopped acting like Israel’s prime minister, even as he served as the leader of the opposition. He had the same focus, at least when he spoke to American audiences, about the nefariousness of Iran, its leaders, its plans for a nuclear bomb.   

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 once and future prime minister are still significant. He’s still under criminal investigation, after all. Plea deal negotiations seem, from the outside, to be going nowhere fast. It is not exactly impossible that Netanyahu could be found criminally liable for corruption. If so, he may just have to pay back big sums of money; as an outside chance, he may even be sentenced to time in prison while in office.  

One of them is of Netanyahu’s own making, and something for which he should be condemned. He has empowered some rather nasty parties to his right: wielders of violent sectarian rhetoric, who could begin major intercommunal violence at the click of the fingers. Soon they will be in government.  

And Israel and its surrounds are hardly at peace. The West Bank and Gaza remain restive; we had a war earlier this year, after all. And Netanyahu, who has made a rightward turn himself and aided some deeply unpleasant people, is hardly the man to make the settlement issue burn less brightly and with less chance of general conflagration.   

But even forgetting all of that, there is still the problem of Israel’s neighbours, and Netanyahu’s peculiar view of international relations. He hates American presidents who happen to be Democrats, for example – and even if there’s justice in that hatred, it hardly helps relations between Israel and its most important ally.  

Above everything stands Iran. In both Netanyahu’s mind and reality, Iran is of the most vital importance. Netanyahu has spent five decades convincing everyone that he – soldier that he was – is a tough guy; latterly, that he alone knows Iran and can beat it.   

But despite Netanyahu’s claimed Iran-fighting credentials, Iran’s empire became stronger and more entrenched, and better armed, during his previous long period in office.   

Netanyahu rightly opposed the nuclear deal which gave Iran cash 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 combat Iran’s proxies. They’re more entrenched than ever in Syria and Lebanon – from which they launch missile and drone attacks at Israel.   

Now, after years of breakneck 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 take his share of the blame.  

Netanyahu is also at fault for his failure to distance himself from Russia and its war-mongering president. Ukraine is far away from Israel in miles, but Russia’s invasion ought to galvanise Israel and its defenders. Ukraine is a haven for Jewish life. It has a Jewish president and many Jews in its upper echelons. Holocaust survivors have been killed by Russian soldiers; Jewish monuments and relics have been defaced.   

Yet Israel’s leaders in general, and Netanyahu in particular, remain bizarrely close to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. That is insanity. Russia and Iran are as close as two crossed fingers. Iran is now arming Russia’s war in Ukraine. But before that, Russian air forces underwrote Iran’s take-over of Syria, and fought alongside the carnival of militias which now threaten Israel.   

Still, though, Netanyahu cannot criticise Putin, because, he says, Israeli fighters share the sky over Syria with Russians. It was him who made that necessary. If he was 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 receive quite a boost from Russia’s, and Iran’s, defeat in Ukraine.  

But don’t expect King Bibi to get that. 

This piece was originally published in The Spectator.

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