From 1996 to 2007 John Howard served as prime minister of Australia. Although Howard’s conservative politics were anathema to the country’s vocal left wing, the country flourished under Howard’s leadership in away it never had previously. Economically the country flourished. On the international stage Howard forged close ties with two US presidents, Clinton and George W. Bush, and he asserted Canberra as a regional power in southeast Asia, and as a second-tier world power, one rung under the United States, England and France in global forums such as the United Nations.
Ultimately, however, Howard’s political successes proved to short lived. Throughout his in office -both as prime minister and as head of the Liberal Party, Howard stiffly resisted repeated attempts to establish a number two personality in the party that could assume the reigns of power when the time came for Howard to retire. When Howard was elected prime minister in 1996 the event was barely noted on the world stage; in contrast, as the result of his successes, his electoral defeat in November 2007 garnered international news coverage.
But his unplanned departure from the political stage left Australia in turmoil. Labour prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard quickly showed themselves to be unprepared for the task at hand: the Labour Party has a long history of fierce infighting, something that ultimately Rudd and Gillard proved unable to overcome. Rudd enjoyed widespread popularity for a limited period of time, but a serious of unpopular tax initiatives and foreign relations gaffes prepared fertile ground for a blindside attack by Gillard two years later that was described as a “midnight knock on the door, followed by midnight execution”.
Gillard proved no better: One commentator said she “dug an enormous political hole for the Australian Labour Party” and added that “it is really difficult to draw up a list of achievements of her time in office”. Eventually, current Prime Minister Tony Abbott returned the Liberal Party to office in 2013, but Abbott cannot compete with the towering shadow left by Howard nearly a decade ago.
From Canberra to Jerusalem
The Australian example is relevant as Israel prepares to go to the polls next Tuesday. Binyamin Netanyahu, already the longest-nerving prime minister in Israeli history, is seeking an unprecedented fourth term in office. Like Howard, Netanyahu has moved repeatedly to sideline potential successors, most recently Gidon Sa’ar and Moshe Kahlon, viewing them instead as potential threats. As a result, Netanyahu is not wrong in his assertion that there is not one left i the Likud that could reasonably claim to be “prime ministerial material.”
The Australia comparison is relevant, too, to the Zionist Camp, the current incarnation of the historic Labour Party. Here, too, there is no Labour leader with the leadership qualities to lead the country, and party infighting threatens to derail any Labour-led government sooner rather than later.
It is on this point that Netanyahu has rolled the dice – he is betting hat the lack of seasoned leadership personalities in other parties – Zionist Camp leaders Yitzhak (Boogie) Herzog and Tzipi Livni hardly inspire confidence or excitement, even amongst their own voters – will push voters to select the Likud on March 17. With little to show for six years in government, on the economic, domestic or diplomatic fronts, Likud ads say simply “it’s either us or them,” with the threat of a left-wing camp clear.
(Significantly, the Zionist Camp has adopted the identical campaign strategy. In an apparent admission that Israelis will simply not get excited about Boogie or Tzipi, the Zionist Camp campaign message goes no further than “at least we’re not him.”)
But there are growing signs that like John Howard, Netanyahu may have run one race too many. In traditional Likud strongholds such as Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda outdoor market, shopkeepers who run stalls adorned with posters of mythical Likud prime minister Menachem Begin spit derisively at the mention of Netanyahu’s name. In national religious communities such as Efrat, Raanana, Netanya and elsewhere, voters who have supported right-wing politics for years say they will cast their ballots for Naftali Bennett or Moshe Kahlon (not for the “Jewish Home” or “Kulanu’ parties, mind you, but for the compelling personalities that head those groups). There, sighs of frustration are common when people are faced with the prospect of four more years of Netanyahu’s “just do nothing” policies.
There are clear reasons for this. Like most Israelis, double-salary right-wing and centre-right voters are frustrated by their inability to meet their monthly expenses. Like left-wing Tel Avivians, they line up for treatment in the hallways of overcrowded Israeli hospitals an send their children to under-funded schools that cannot address the needs of 21st century students, thanks both to a debilitating bureaucracy and outmoded thinking throughout the ministry of education.
Like most people, potential Likud voters understand that the current Palestinian leadership will not sign any deal with Israeli, no matter what party is in power nor what potential deal is put on the table. In short, the minimal Palestinian demands are far in excess of Israel’s maximum ability to compromise, regardless of who is sitting in the prime minister’s chair. Given that reality, the issue of “concessions” to the PLO are irrelevant, meaning that one of the two central elements of Netanyahu’s scare campaigns is irrelevant.
On Iran, too, Netanyahu’s fear mongering has begun to wear thin after 20-plus years. While the notion of a nuclear Iran is indeed the blackest of nightmares for Israel – and while few Israelis doubt the veracity of Netanyahu’s analysis – it is equally clear that that situation is one that Israel will eventually have to deal with, like it or not. If Israel had had the ability, either militarily or politically, to eliminate the program Osirak-style, it would have been accomplished a decade ago or more. Ditto for Washington: Had the United States viewed Iran’s nuclear program as a strategic threat in the 1990s, or even after September 11, the issue would not be a topic for discussion any longer.
Given these realities, there is reason to believe that Netanyahu’s scare tactic s vis-à-vis the Palestinians or Iran have lost their potency. Yes, the threats are real, but after two undecided mini-wars with Hamas in Gaza – operations that were not fought to bring about Hamas’ unconditional surrender, but rather with the evasive goal of “restoring security to the citizens of Israel,” as the prime minister’s spokesman told this reporter in 2012 and again in 2014 – Netanyahu’s self-portrayal as Mr Security has little validity.
If non-scientific discussions and observations are any indication – at Shabbat kiddushes and coffee shops in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and on line at the bank – a strong majority of Israelis feel that a Herzog/Livni-led government would indeed be terrible for Israel, but a smaller disaster than a redux of Netanyahu. Livni – she of the Likud-Kadima-Hatnua-Labour Party – is the ultimate political opportunist, committed only to remaining in politics at any cost, regardless of the principles that must be shed in order to do so. As for Herzog, it is difficult to imagine a more un-statesman like politician representing Israel on the international stage. Domestically, it is hard to see how a man who made a career as one of Israel’s leading corporate lawyers can serve the people as the Great Hope of the middle class.
But one gets the feeling that Netanyahu’s rhetorical, sneering question – “heh, what – do you want to vote for them?” – is losing currency, and fast. For whatever disaster a Herzog/Livni government creates, Netanyahu’s repeated clashes with world leaders and his uncanny ability to alienate friends of Israel – think California Senator Diane Feinstein and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – have rendered his astute analysis of Middle East politics irrelevant. In short, his objectionable personality and inability to act within global and regional political realities has silenced his voice in Europe and the White House.
In that light, the threat of European boycotts and international censure is far more of an immediate threat to average Israelis than the very real political and military challenges Israel is sure to contend with in the coming decade.