In mid-June 2021, a small country facing the eastern Mediterranean experienced a transformative political moment. In mid-August, a small country on the Western shore of the Black Sea may undergo no fewer revolutionary changes. On the one hand, Israeli have witnessed the ousting of Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, who has dominated Israeli politics since 2009. On the other, Bulgarians have mandated a new political elite to replace Boyko Borisov, Prime Minister for 12 years. These two cases offer an interesting opportunity for an exercise in comparative politics and, indeed, to look beyond Europe’s borders. In fact, the Israeli opposition’s successful comeback may hold a few useful lessons to understand Bulgaria’s future.
True, one should acknowledge that this article is only in part about individuals. After all, however magnetic and charismatic their character, people always act within a context that enable them to succeed. Yet, Bibi’s and Borisov’s backgrounds and personalities are so peculiar – and unexpectedly similar – that they must have played a role. Moreover, these marked similarities between the two countries’ politics exist despite striking differences in other areas of social life. Thus, comparing Bibi’s destiny and Borisov’s fate may teach something on the health and the future of Western liberal-democracy.
Rise and demise of Israel’s most popular nationalist-capitalist
Bibi in a nutshell
Netanyahu grew up between Israel and the US. After completing high school, he spent five years in the Sayeret Matkal, an elite unit of Israeli special forces unit. Subsequent to his honourable discharge, he enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, eventually obtaining a BA and an MBA. In 1976, he interrupted his studies while “on his way to a doctorate in political science” to return to Israel.
Actually, Netanyahu felt what politics tastes like for the first time, in the early 1980s, during operation Peace for Galilee. In this period, he became a rising star at the Israeli embassy in the US thanks to his media savviness. As one of his unauthorised biographies reads:
Aware of the importance of the media, [… in 1982–1984 Netanyahu] soon became a popular talking head. […] Within a short time […] The Washington Post fell at his feet; [… as well as] the Associated Press […], and others.
Shortly after, he rose amongst the ranks of the diplomacy becoming Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1984. Thenceforth, his political path set towards an almost unstoppable rise within the ranks of the secular, right-of-the-centre Likud party. By the end of the decade, having overshadowed the ministry of foreign affairs multiple times, he became Deputy Prime Minister. Exploiting the Likud’s defeat at the 1992 general elections, Netanyahu managed to win the party’s ensuing leadership contest. As leader of the opposition during the difficult period encompassing Yitzhak Rabin’s murder and Shimon Peres’s government, he proved ruthless. Ultimately, under the slogan “making a safe peace”, Netanyahu won narrowly over the incumbent: 50.50% against 49.50%. Still, American political strategists and the tragic suicide attacks of 1996 made his fortunes in that years’ snap elections.
The Bibi era
Even though most Israelis, and perhaps Netanyahu himself, were unaware of it, 1996 marked the beginning of a new era. Ever since winning that election, the man has dominated national and regional politics. In power and outside the red-button room, Netanyahu has kept catalysing support; as well as opposition. For over two decades now, it did not really matter whether someone in Israel is politically left or right. Nor did it matter whether one is secular or extremely religious; in favour of one State of two States. At the end of the day, people coalesced around Bibi’s persona — or against him.
Sure, his tenure is stained by a number of failures, both personal and political, which he failed to avoid. Foremost, Netanyahu has opposed the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks vehemently. In his words, the process “has led to failure and is likely to lead to failure again”. By doing so, he has sunk the country in an unresolvable, simmering conflict with its vast Palestinian populace.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu embodied the spirit of the time, or Zeitgeist, imbuing a phase of Israeli collective history and societal development. After all, if so many Israelis have kept voting for him and still do so there must be a reason. Partly, it is because his policies rewarded “initiative, risk, talent, the ability to create new products, new services”. Under his cabinets’ direction, Israel’s economy has flourished, giving birth to innumerable start-ups in almost every sector. Nowadays the country is already ahead of the curve in key fields such as biotechnology and cybersecurity. And this will be a lasting legacy no one can contest.
Why it all ended (has it?)
For better or worse, this articled started with the succinct recalling of Bibi’s fall from grace. Despite tremendous economic growth, enhanced international stature and reinforced security, Israeli electors have eventually voted Netanyahu out. True to the facts, it took the opposition four snap elections in two years to shrink enough the Likud. But Bibi is not the political force he once was.
For a start, he rose as a fresh, young voice calling on Israel to face the challenges of changing times. Today many associate Netanyahu with a regime of political management prone to favouritism, corruption, and nepotism. In the context of their spat, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even defined the Israeli Prime Minister “a tyrant”. And these impressions are not foreign to Israelis themselves. In fact, one of the claymores that blowed up Netanyahu’s career was a triple indictment for bribery and fraud.
Yet, this does not mean that Netanyahu has lost backing amongst the public. On the contrary, his supporters still make up a relative majority of the country’s voters. Moreover, the coalition that displaced his fourth cabinet is extremely heterogenous. Thus, the chances of seeing the new government fall and a fifth round of snap elections is rather high. All in all, given that tensions with the Palestinians are on the rise, Netanyahu may be preparing a great comeback.
–End of the first part–