Binyamin Netanyahu appears comfortably ensconced in the Israeli prime minister’s office after last week’s elections. While his Likud bloc effectively tied for seats with the upstart Blue and White party, the smattering of smaller parties are mostly of the nationalist, religious and right-wing bent, meaning Netanyahu will have a fifth term as leader. If he hangs on until July, he will surpass David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
The likelihood that he will reach that mark seems good. He faces probable criminal charges but that does not necessarily mean the end of his career. Rumours are rife that he is considering a legal escape hatch that would permit him to remain in office even if indicted or, more likely, make it illegal to indict a sitting prime minister. In most democracies, at most times in recent history, such a move would be seen as intolerably corrupt. Times change.
The leaders of democracies today are blazing new trails. The words and actions of the U.S. president confound our capacity for incredulity. Jaw-dropping statements of contempt, bigotry, juvenile pique and lies emanate from his mouth (and Twitter fingers) faster than the outrage can follow. Across Europe, far-right extremist parties are rising, as they did in elections in Finland on the weekend. In Britain, which is convulsing from self-induced Brexit trauma, the leftist Labour party is engulfed in an antisemitism crisis. Positions and statements that would have been unthinkable in the civil discourse of recent decades are suddenly at the centre of public discourse in democracies everywhere.
Israel is no exception. During the recent election campaign, candidates expressed erstwhile unspeakable ideas, including a scheme to ethnically cleanse the West Bank of Arabs and annex the land to Israel. The advocate of that idea was soundly defeated – the Knesset democratically cleansed of his ideology when the party failed to reach the 3.25% minimum vote to enter parliament.
But Netanyahu himself floated some astonishing trial balloons during the campaign. He mooted annexing West Bank settlement blocs into Israel – a concept that is not ludicrously beyond the pale since, if a negotiated settlement ever emerges, it will likely include such a move in exchange for traded land. But he also suggested annexing settlements that are not adjacent to or contiguous with Israel’s recognized boundaries. Such an idea would create a patchwork in the West Bank along the lines that would make an independent Palestine unworkable. The fact that the incumbent prime minister opened this political Pandora’s box is evidence of a new willingness to play with potential fire.
That foot play with extremists is not limited to domestic affairs. If an Israeli Rip Van Winkle fell asleep a couple of decades ago and woke up to Israel’s current diplomatic situation, he would be confused and possibly delighted. If that Van Winkle shared our worldview – an apparently old-fashioned belief in pluralistic, inclusive, universal humanitarian values – he would quickly conclude that the prima facie bonanza of goodwill has a rotting core.
As former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor said Sunday night (see cover story), Israel has open lines of communication with countries that for decades steadfastly rejected its very existence. Likewise, Israel has excellent relations with some of the most populous and powerful countries in the world – India, China, Russia, Brazil and, in different but important ways, a refreshed, familial relationship with the current U.S. administration.
Israel has superb relations with these countries, and with the Philippines, as well as with Hungary and other eastern European states that have traditionally been problematic for the Jewish state. That seemingly good news is tempered by the fact that these good relations are not based on conventional diplomatic alliances. To a large extent – especially in the cases of Hungary, the Philippines, Brazil, Russia and the reinvigorated bonhomie between the leaders of Israel and the United States – these close relations are based on a shared strain of politics that fill us with more nervousness than naches.
These relationships are less between Israel and Brazil or the Philippines or Hungary or Russia than a bromance between Netanyahu and Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin, to say nothing of the continuing lovefest between Bibi and Donald Trump. Each of these figures is a strongman who is, to varying degrees, pushing the limits of their democracies to see how far they can stretch rule of law and diminish respect for human rights. With this in mind, the diplomatic warmth seems less about traditional bilateral relations than about a fraternity of nationalist, populist and authoritarian men leading the world down a path unimagined a decade ago.
With that background, Israel’s unprecedentedly improved relations with so many countries seems less positive a development. Our proverbial sleeper might pull the covers back over his head and hope for better in the decades to come.