On August 4, 2003, finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared before the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, together with two other former prime ministers, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, to speak about Israel’s governability problems, and the prospect of introducing a presidential system in Israel. The committee, chaired by MK Michael Eitan (Likud), was working on a draft constitution.
Of the three, Netanyahu’s presentation was the most impressive. Unlike his appearance before the Knesset Economics Committee 12 years later on the natural gas outline agreement, on this occasion he answered all questions presented to him graciously, without evasive wisecracks, and offered a coherent description of his beliefs regarding how Israel ought to be governed.
His physical appearance was also more natural – no visible makeup, and natural-looking hair which though already combed over was slightly wavy, without appearing to be glued to his scalp. Though the press even then wasn’t always kind to him and his family, on occasion even Haaretz published positive reports on him, and he hadn’t yet developed the paranoia regarding the media that characterizes him today.
What Netanyahu described in his exposé to the committee was a belief in “small government,” with services being provided privately (“it will reduce prices”), though under government supervision. His believed in the need to limit the quantity of new legislation, and in the advantages that would accrue to Israel from a presidential system. One of the reasons Netanyahu supported the introduction of a presidential system was the difficulty of adopting decisions and getting things done within the existing system, with its complicated and incoherent coalitions.
What of all this has actually happened since 2009 when Netanyahu was reelected as prime minister after 10 years out of Balfour Street? No serious effort was made to introduce a presidential system after the direct election of the prime minister was eliminated by Ariel Sharon in 2001. Privatization has continued, but prices have not fallen, and the inequality between the rich and the poor has grown. Effective gatekeepers, who according to Netanyahu were to have supervised the process, have been eliminated one by one.
Private legislation has not fallen in quantity, not least because the government does not have a coherent, well managed legislation program, while the government’s Economic Arrangements Law – a vast omnibus law attached to the state budget – continues to increase in size. Furthermore, from government to government Netanyahu is forced to pay an ever growing price to his coalition partners, in the form of vast financial allocations, which each of them spends on its particular hobby horses. He has apparently given up on the idea of simply putting a stop to this aberrant practice, which was unheard of in the more distant past.
What is most astounding is that Netanyahu doesn’t even seem to be trying to introduce major reforms in Israel’s government system on the basis of the ideological beliefs he described back in 2003, though he is actively trying to reshape the media while supporting efforts to weaken the Supreme Court, in the service of his own political survival.
Instead of introducing significant reforms, he appears to be preoccupied with bypassing his ministers and the Knesset to the best of his ability. His insistence on holding the ministries of foreign affairs and communications, in addition to the Prime Minister’s Office, and his use of the services of his personal attorneys to carry out state business in accordance with his own desires and whims, seem to have grown out of despair about getting anything done by other means. With regard to the recent negotiations to purchase three additional submarines from Germany, his modus operandi has apparently gone a little too far, even in the eyes of the attorney general he himself appointed.
There is no doubt Netanyahu believes he is the only political personality in Israel today capable of navigating the ship of state, and a majority of the voters still appear to agree with him.
Back in 2003, as finance minister, Netanyahu certainly believed in his own capabilities, but had not yet adopted the arrogance of someone convinced he is invincible. It is interesting to compare what Netanyahu said last week to the Likud parliamentary group in connection with the submarine affair, and what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week in an interview to Channel 2 reporter Ilana Dayan, when she asked him whether he believed he would still be around in 2023, when Turkey will celebrate its hundredth anniversary as a republic. Erdogan answered meekly that it was up to the Creator, for no one but him knows when we shall depart. Netanyahu said: “Don’t worry, I shall still be around for a long time.”
He either believes blindly that God is with him, or has no God.
The real problem seems to be, in the case of both Erdogan and Netanyahu, that when elected leaders remain in power for too long, and most of their efforts are invested in perpetuating their leadership positions, democracy suffers, progress and innovation suffer, wrong-doing – petty or major – thrives and heads roll (metaphorically or physically).
A friend of mine, who has always voted for the Likud, compares Netanyahu to an old lion, instinctively fighting to remain in control of his pride. But a young lion will inevitably arrive and replace him, she says. At the moment she is betting on Yair Lapid.
The writer is a political scientist.