Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is tough to love. Hell, he’s tough to like. This is not just true for lefties like me, who think he stands in the way of reaching a modus vivendi with Palestinians and uses the country’s resources to service the rich rather than help the poor. Even those who share Netanyahu’s deep distrust of Palestinians, Europeans and progressive Americans (among a long list of others) and his reverence for free markets recognize in him something churlish and disagreeable.
Indeed, the list is long of things about our Prime Minister that most Israelis, left, right, and center, deplore. We all disapprove of how he schemes (like Scar or Stalin) to destroy the careers of young and talented politicians like Moshe Kahlon, Gideon Sa’ar and Moshe Ya’alon, for fear that they might try to replace him before he is ready to be replaced. We hate how he magnifies and manipulates our worst prejudices, with alarmed election-day videos about how Israeli Arabs are being bussed by leftists “in droves” as he so elegantly put it to polling places. We’re sick of his rap-star ostentation and excess, as when he used sixteen hundred taxpayer dollars for a haircut, and ran up a room service bill of two thousand bucks for wine that he shared over a quiet night with his wife Sara.
But it is precisely because Netanyahu is so universally disliked that we on the left must take care not to rejoice at his current troubles.
Let me explain. Netanyahu has long been embroiled in suspicions of corruption. But news leaked this week that his one-time chief of staff, Ari Harow, agreed to be a state’s witness, spurring speculation that an indictment of the prime minister for corruption is imminent. An assortment of charges against Netanyahu are under investigation, including that he used his sway to extend the American visa of Hollywood producer Arnon Milchen, in exchange for which he and his wife Sara demanded regular shipments of champagne, cigars and jewelry. He is also accused of initiating similar swag-of-the-month arrangements with other rich foreigners, as well as promising the editor of the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot to pass legislation squelching its biggest competitor in exchange for more admiring coverage of his administration.
With the news that Harow would testify against his former boss, opposition leaders were quick to tell reporters and post to Facebook and Twitter that Netanyahu must resign if an indictment comes. A buzzing excitement took hold of Israeli politics, as the papers, TV, radio and the internet speculated that Netanyahu’s long reign was nearing its end.
And of course, many of us on the left felt the lightheaded intoxication of schadenfreude and the pleasure of seeing a man of towering arrogance laid low by appetites, tinctured with hope that Netanyahu’s fall might harbinger the beginning of a new and better time for Israeli politics. Having been beaten four times at the polls by Netanyahu, we began to reckon that our only chance to prevail would come not through the ballot box but through the courts.
In fact, lately, lots of us on the left have seen in Netanyahu’s corruption our greatest hope for the change we seek. Over the past several weeks, weekly demonstrations have been held in Petach Tikva, protesting Netanyahu’s alleged influence peddling. One of the organizers, a man named Abie Binyamin, had this message:
“To topple him from government is terribly hard. The only way to topple him is by way of the corruption that he surely committed. Gentlemen, you want to topple Bibi, it will be hard to topple him in elections. We don’t have the Russians, we don’t have people who bear our standard, we don’t have Mizrahim, we don’t have the periphery [living outside the big cities]. We are in trouble. We have a demographic problem. You want to topple him. Let’s topple him by way of corruption.”
There was a crassness to Binyamin’s words – Netanyahu quoted them himself, at a rally of his own, to illustrate the perfidy of the left – but they explain why so many of us on the left hope with gleeful fervor that Netanyahu’s indictment will be quick and devastating.
But this conclusion is twice wrong. It is wrong once because if the courts remove Netanyahu from office for taking champagne and cigars from a rich Hollywood producer, it is not support for the left that will grow but resentment. Likud voters know that Israel’s judicial system, in which sitting judges have a great deal of say about new judicial appointments, is one of the last bastions of a male, Ashkenazi and mostly leftist elite. If a panel of judges unseats the elected prime minister, it will seem to many, and for good reason, like a leftist putsch.
More importantly, the conclusion that only the courts can topple Netanyahu is wrong because it underestimates the support that leftist positions, if not politicians, have among Israeli voters. Poll after poll show that most Israelis support a two-state solution, and that they oppose Netanyahu’s free-marketeerism, and that they are frankly tired, after a decade, of Likud rule. In the last election, held during a tear of terrorist knifings, the center and left made gains against the religious parties and the right. The newly-elected head of the Labor Party is a Mizrahi rags-to-riches pragmatist admired by many who in the past voted for the Likud. The notion that the center-left has no chance to beat Netanyahu and the right is defeatist nonsense. It is just plain wrong.
But this defeatism is also perversely self-fulfilling: Convinced that we can never win-over a majority of Israelis, we stop trying. Convinced that the courts are our only avenue to power, we alienate the voters who are the only avenue to power that would allow us to govern with a legitimate mandate.
All Israelis should hope that Prime Minister Netanyahu is innocent or, at the very least, that the police and the courts will conclude that his crimes are petty and unworthy of prosecution.
But leftists should hope this most of all. When we are again given the chance to guide the country in a new direction, it should be not because Netanyahu was a scoundrel, but because most of our fellow citizens have come to share our vision of our common future.
The only way forward in Israel is through politics, and the debate and persuasion that create political change. Like the few thousand supporters who cheered Netanyahu at his rally this week, it is my wish that Netanyahu emerge from his corruption investigations vindicated and emboldened.
Then, that we beat the bastard at the polls.
Noah Efron is the host of TLV1’s “The Promised Podcast” and a professor of History & Philosophy of Science at Bar Ilan University. He has served on the City Council of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.