Bibi Netanyahu is the strongest prime minister Israel has had since David Ben-Gurion. He has been in office continuously since 2009. He is the undisputed leader of his party, Likud. He has the unwavering support of Israel’s most widely read newspaper, Israel Hayom. Polls steadily show that Israelis consider him to be the most qualified person to hold the prime minister’s post today.
Yet Bibi Netanyahu faces problems on multiple fronts. In some ways, his position today seems to be the most precarious it has been since 2009.
What problems is Bibi facing?
Personal Dislike Among the General Public
Bibi is not well liked. He is respected. He is perceived to be a safe choice for premier. But personally, he suffers from a bad image.
Much of this is self-inflicted. Bibi is hedonistic. He likes the good life. He drinks expensive alcohol and smokes pricey cigars. He lives in a villa in Caesarea, where some of Israel’s richest families reside. He has close ties to wealthy businessman, both in Israel and abroad. This is not appreciated by Israelis.
Israel is not a poor country. It has a thriving economy. It enjoys a high level of exports. Its currency is strong, some say too strong. Many Israelis today enjoy a high standard of living. Yet this doesn’t change the way the country perceives itself.
Israelis wrinkle their noses at those who flaunt their wealth. Especially if they’re politicians. Politicians are supposed to lead by example. They are expected to live modestly. Many of Israel’s prime ministers — David Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin, Golda Meir, Levi Eshkol, Yitzhak Shamir — lived modestly and did not acquire wealth. When Menachem Begin, the legendary leader of Likud, died, he lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Tel Aviv, and his finances were far from enviable. He is the most admired figure among Likudniks.
Bibi Netanyahu is not the first Israeli prime minister who got rich on the job, or due to the connections and experience he acquired while on the job, but he is the one now in power, so he draws the fire.
Bibi’s wife, Sara, is a national figure in Israel. This is unprecedented. Unlike in America, in Israel the prime minister’s spouse plays no social or national role. Most people would be hard-pressed to name more than a couple of former “first ladies”. (The prime minister’s wife is actually the Second Lady, the first being the president’s wife.)
Sara Netanyahu is in the limelight. This is a conscious choice. She accompanies Bibi on many of his formal travels. She is said to have a say in policy matters. It is also rumored that she can bring about the dismissal of high-level clerks and officials. A number of former employees in the Netanyahu household have told unflattering stories about her. At least one of them sued her in court for damages.
The media loves to publish Sara stories. The public devours them. Some of these stories are undoubtedly exaggerations, if not fabrications, but they besmirch Sara Netanyahu’s character, and through her, her husband’s as well.
The police is conducting a number of criminal investigations, at various levels and stages, that involve, directly and indirectly, Bibi Netanyahu.
Some of them revolve around expensive gifts — champagne and cigars and jewelry — that Bibi and his family have received from various millionaires and billionaires. These gifts are worth cumulatively hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bibi’s critics say this is tantamount to bribery. His supporters claim they are mere gifts among friends. These scandals tarnish Bibi’s reputation and may lead to an indictment.
Another scandal involves a taped conversation between Bibi and Arnon Moses, the publisher of Yedioth Aharonot, one of Israel’s leading dailies. In that conversation Bibi and Moses are heard conspiring to advance legislation that would have made life difficult for Israel Hayom, Yedioth Aharanot‘s largest competitor, in exchange for favorable coverage by the latter newspaper and other media outlets controlled by Moses.
The third scandal involves the purchase of submarines from Germany for Israel’s small but developing navy. These submarines cost upward of one billion dollars each. There are suspicions of impropriety in this purchase deal. A good deal of money seems to have found its way into the pockets of friends of Bibi’s, some of whom acted as agents of sorts between Israel and Germany, and between Israel the German company who built the submarines. It is unclear why any agents were needed, as this deal was hammered out directly between the two governments.
It should also be noted that some in the military establishment were opposed to this deal, but Bibi pushed to have it signed.
Each of these scandals may end up in nothing. Each of them may bring about an indictment and force Bibi to resign.
Dislike Among Politicians, including Likud
The segment of Israeli society who seem to like Bibi the least are politicians. These naturally include members of opposition parties. But it also includes members of Likud. It is the latter camp which may bring about Bibi’s downfall.
Bibi is a man fearful of his position. He dislikes having rivals. This has led to him having thorny relations with many popular Likud and right-wing politicians, in particular those who were seen as potential candidates for the prime ministry.
During Bibi’s reign, a number of leading Likud politicians have resigned their posts and left the party, leaving a leadership vacuum. On the one hand, Bibi is seen as the Likud’s only viable candidate for prime minister. On the other, he is resented as a man who weakens the party overall by forcing out its most capable and popular members, and who, it seems, is intent on remaining in power indefinitely.
There are no term limits in Israel. Bibi can continue to rule as long as he keeps on winning elections. Other Likud ministers and members would like to one day run for prime minister as well. They have to get rid of Bibi to do so.
Media and Culture Figures Hatred of Bibi
Bibi is widely disliked among the intelligentsia and elites in academia and media. He has craftily used this antagonism, which often manifests in crudely biased articles, columns and reports, to greatly neutralize the effect these elites have on public opinion, but he has not negated their power entirely.
Media antagonism in particular is something that may lead to Bibi’s downfall, as many reporters are doing their utmost to dig up and uncover any grain of wrongdoing by the prime ministers and his close circle. The submarine scandal is an example of such a report.
Is Bibi’s Reign Coming to an End?
Bibi is hurt, he may even be reeling, but he is far from out. He is entrenched in the prime minister’s post. He is the favorite to win the national elections, if they were held today. The right wing section of Israeli politics, which he leads, enjoys a greater level of support than the left wing. But storm clouds hover in Bibi’s sky. Whether they will unleash a torrent which will sweep Bibi from power remains to be seen.