In 1982, I came to Israel for a gap year program, like so many other New Jersey Jewish kids have done over the years, after I graduated from the Frisch School in Paramus. My plan was to come back to the United States after the year ended to start college.
I never went back to live in the United States, and my “gap year” is now in its 39th year. I made aliyah, served in the IDF, studied law at Hebrew University, got married to Ruth (we had three amazing daughters), joined Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a foreign service officer, eventually twice became an Israeli ambassador.
I decided to stay, as an idealistic young person, in large part because I believed that I was living in a unique moment in history. After 2,000 years of exile, our people had renewed sovereignty in our ancient homeland, and I had an opportunity to take part in this astounding adventure. And I have done that.
Israel is home. Israel, at its best, is uniquely inspiring, and its achievements over its 73 years of independence are boundless. The potential for our future is boundless.
At the same time, in recent years, when Israel has become stronger economically and regionally than at any time in its history, it seems to be splitting apart at the seams. There are lots of parallels to the United States and perhaps other places, where apparently different tribes are growing further apart as they find less and less in common.
There are many explanations for this phenomenon, ranging from social media to a drop in the existential dangers it faces.
Israel has now had four indecisive elections over the past two years. And they have been centered primarily not on policy differences (war or peace, liberal or conservative visions) but as a Groundhog Day of referendums on the continued rule of longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has won none of those elections, but neither has anyone else.
Netanyahu always has been a polarizing figure in public life in Israel. And Israeli politics has been a blood sport long before Bibi, as he’s called, first was elected prime minister in 1996. But in recent years, Bibi has crossed dangerous barriers to reach new lows, and his continued role has become a greater threat to Israel’s democracy than Hamas, Hezbollah, or even Iran, because Israel has shown an ability to respond creatively to all of those other dangers.
There are many parallels to the post-election actions of former U.S. President Donald Trump, especially in a willingness to burn down the traditions and norms of the society. Some examples include brutal attacks in all directions — on the media, on political rivals (in and out of his party), on communities that make up Israel, on civil servants, on the rule of law, and more. It’s a refusal to see public good beyond his individual interests.
It is a common view that Netanyahu will do anything to stay in power. He has taken Israel to expensive elections again and again, when the results did not offer him the win to which he feels entitled. At the height of the pandemic, last spring, he went on television to plead with Benny Gantz to form a unity government without “tricks or shticks.” And he spent the months after that plea with one ugly, divisive act after another. He signed a coalition agreement calling for a new budget for 2020 and 2021. He quickly refused, and in the end caused the government to fall, by avoiding a national budget.
And for the past month he has left Israel without a justice minister. He also once again abused the law and his own signed agreements in putting forward an ally as that minister, despite warnings from both the attorney general and the Supreme Court that such a maneuver would be illegal. Finally, two hours before another Supreme Court hearing, he gave in to pressure and agreed that Defense Minister Benny Gantz would serve as justice minister until a new government is formed.
And did I mention that Mr. Netanyahu is now on trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust? That’s a first for a sitting prime minister in Israel. He blames the police investigators, the prosecutor’s office, and the attorney general for the indictments.
How can anyone run a country with so many balls in the air? It is not possible. And it shows in too many occasions where it seems that no one is running Israel’s government.
Benjamin Netanyahu deserve credit for many achievements over the years. Most recently, he had two major successes, both making lemonade from the lemons of failures. Last year, when even the Trump administration made clear that it would not support Netanyahu’s attempt to annex parts of the West Bank, Bibi made peace with two Gulf states, reestablished ties with Morocco, and created ties with Sudan. And despite massive problems in managing the pandemic, his persistence with the CEO of Pfizer allowed Israel to cut the global line and become a model of vaccination success.
But the price for these successes is far too high. The divisiveness, allegations of corruption, attacks on the rule of law, endless election cycles, monarchical behavior, and putting his personal legal needs ahead of the national economic and social challenges of coming out of the pandemic make clear that Israel’s largest problem in 2021 is the continued active role in public life of Benjamin Netanyahu.
If he truly were a patriot, he would step aside, make his case in court, and let the people of Israel move forward.
Arthur Lenk was born at Paterson’s Barnard Memorial Hospital, as was his father, and he lived in Teaneck before making aliyah. He was Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan and then to South Africa. Mr. Lenk left public service in 2019 and now assists innovative Israeli companies internationally. Follow him on twitter: @ArthurLenk