*Note: This episode of Big World was recorded with Guy Ziv prior to the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates that was signed on August 13th, 2020.
Over his decades in and out of power, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has redefined what it means for Israel to be a Jewish democratic state. In this episode, Professor Guy Ziv joins Big World to discuss Netanyahu’s outsized role in Israeli politics.
Ziv explains how Netanyahu rose to power (2:17), how his stance toward a two-state solution has shifted (6:04), and his annexation plans for West Bank territory (7:19). He also breaks down how the prime minister has influenced foundational pieces of Israel’s democracy like press freedom (13:34) and rule of law (15:46).
Has the coronavirus pandemic helped Netanyahu stay in power (19:55)? On a democratic scale that includes leaders like Poland’s Andrzej Duda, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and the US’s Donald Trump, where would Netanyahu be placed, and why (22:48)? Ziv answers these questions and discusses the prime minister’s relationship with religion (24:25) as well as if the corrosion of Israel’s democracy can be reversed with Netanyahu still in power (26:10).
At a time in which the upcoming US election looms large, Ziv shares the five practices he would institute to improve the US’s global standing in the world during our Take Five segment (18:06).
0:07 Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington. This is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that really matters. On the big stage that is global affairs, some actors are bit players and some are cast in leading roles, but usually for a short time in the grand scheme of history. And then there are those who seem never to really leave the stage. In Israeli politics, certain names loom large over the past 50 years, Begin, Rabin, Sharon, Peres. But one man has outlasted them all, currently serving a fifth term as prime minister. He has redefined what it means for Israel to be a Jewish democratic state, and, over time, has developed close relationships with leaders like Viktor Orbán, Vladimir Putin, and Jair Bolsonaro. Charges of corruption and indictments of fraud and bribery have trailed him but so far failed to end his political career. The shadow he casts is long and his influence on Israel past, present, and future is undeniable.
1:06 KS: So today we're talking about Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his outsized role in Israeli politics. We're talking about the Netanyahu effect. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Guy Ziv. Guy is a professor in the School of International Service and has worked at the US Department of State, on Capitol Hill, and for nonprofit organizations that promote American involvement in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. He's the author of Why Hawks Become Doves: Shimon Peres and Foreign Policy Change in Israel. Guy, thanks for joining Big World.
1:37 Guy Ziv: My pleasure, thanks for having me.
1:39 KS: Remote and socially distanced continue to be our watch words at this time. So we're recording from afar. So we're going to get right into it. Guy, Benjamin Netanyahu has been Israel's prime minister since 2009. But that wasn't the first time he was elected into the role, obviously. He also served as prime pinister from 1996 to '99 after the assassination of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. For anyone unfamiliar with Netanyahu, can you briefly give some background on him, his party, and how he rose to power? He has quite an interesting background way before he was known globally.
2:17 GZ: Netanyahu grew up in an ideologically right-wing home. It was a very ideological home. And by all accounts, it was his father, Benzion Netanyahu, who was a scholar and an activist, that had a huge impact on his worldview. This family adhered to the greater Israel ideology of the Revisionist Zionist movement, meaning that they rejected the notion of territorial partition and even territorial compromise. And so the idea of creating a Palestinian state, a land that belonged to the Jewish people, was simply unthinkable. And his party, the Likud party, which is long the dominant party in Israel, is based on this ideology even though today it's not quite as ideological.
3:06 GZ: There are tribal loyalties to this party and most Israelis identify as right wing, so naturally they'll vote for Likud in the elections. But back to Netanyahu, the closest person in his life was actually his older brother, Yoni, whom he lost in the famed hostage rescue operation at Entebbe and then decided to dedicate his life and his career to fighting terrorism and to securing Israel.
3:33 GZ: And his family spent many years in the United States, which is why Netanyahu speaks fluent English with an American accent, and it's his media savviness that helped get him into politics. He was discovered by another Israeli politician who was then a diplomat. He was the ambassador to Washington, Moshe Arens, who really recognized Netanyahu's media skills and decided to bring him on as the number two at the embassy. So Netanyahu is the most media savvy politician Israel's ever had. He's the master of the soundbite, and so not coincidentally, he's now the longest serving prime minister in the country's history.
4:13 KS: Often in the US at this point, we hear about how the military has become removed from typical American life because military service is not compulsory and people choose to make it a career, and those who don't, really rarely intersect with that life. Israel obviously has compulsory military service and Netanyahu having lost a brother in a military conflict. This is a different kind of personalization I think then we are used to with US politics for why he would feel as he does about security and why he might be such a hard liner, is that right?
4:49 GZ: Netanyahu's hard-line attitudes stem from the ideology in which he grew up. But Israelis, most of them at least, serve in the army. And Netanyahu and his brother decided that they were going to not only serve but serve in the elite unit, Sayeret Matkal. So both of them served in that elite unit, and what's interesting is, in the future, the commander—Netanyahu's commander, Ehud Barak, and some of the other people who led his units would challenge him in future elections. Barak, of course, defeated Netanyahu in the 1999 elections when he ran for reelection the first time.
5:30 KS: And you mentioned that election he was out of power for about a decade. When Netanyahu came back to power in 2009, he endorsed a two-state solution of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but he did so under the condition that the Palestinian state would be demilitarized and that Palestinians recognized Israel as a state of the Jewish people. So since then, 11 years later, how has his stance toward a two-state solution shifted? And how has this shift impacted Israel and Palestinians specifically?
6:04 GZ: So I published a study on this very question in PSQ, Political Science Quarterly, last year, in which I show that Netanyahu's never truly embraced the two-state solution. He gave a historic speech at Bar-Ilan University in June 2009, but it was really a tactical maneuver. And it was done in response to pressure by President Obama. Netanyahu then adds conditions that would make it very difficult, if not impossible, for the Palestinians to accept. And then later on, he would come up with one excuse after another to ensure that it wasn't—that it wouldn't be realized.
6:41 GZ: Later on, he talked about a Palestinian state that wouldn't be fully sovereign. He talked about partial sovereignty. He talked about a mini state before he disavowed it altogether. And in contrast to his predecessors, he didn't negotiate earnestly in good faith because he never really believed in it. I should note though that nor does he support the so-called one-state solution for that matter either, which is popular in some circles today. Netanyahu doesn't really believe there is a solution. And even after all these years, he lacks a coherent vision. He sees himself as managing the conflict, not resolving it.
7:19 KS: What currently are Netanyahu's annexation plans for West Bank territory? And for those who are unfamiliar with the West Bank, what does that even mean when we talk about annexation of territory in the West Bank?
7:31 GZ: So the traditional idea, when we talk about a two-state solution, we're talking about the original idea that the British came up with in 1937, when they had the mandate in Palestine, which was to split the land and create a Jewish state alongside an Arab state for the Palestinians. That's known as the 1937 Partition Plan. A decade later, when the UN is in charge, or I should say after the British hand back the mandate to the United Nations, the UN comes up with its own partition plan. And this was the idea of preventing war from taking place. It's to have two states—to share the land, to share the territory.
8:17 GZ: This was something that Israel's founding father and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, supported. But it was rejected by the Arab leadership and so it never happened. And then there was a war and subsequent wars as well. For Netanyahu and his father, and by the way, his father, Benzion, who I mentioned earlier, he actually put out an ad, a full page ad in The Times—in The New York Times—opposing the partition, the UN partition idea. So this, again, stems, this goes way back—the opposition to the idea of compromising over territory.
9:00 GZ: So the idea of annexation is Israel won the war in 1967. There's been this occupation of territories, of Palestinian territories. But settlers regard it as their territories because it was biblically Jewish land. And so they disagree over who are the colonists here? Who are the indigenous inhabitants? And who really should be there? And obviously when you of mix religion and politics, invariably, you get tensions.
9:40 GZ: Now, Netanyahu himself has never really been an enthusiastic supporter of this idea of annexation. And frankly, if he was, he would've done it a long time ago, or at least tried to do it a long time ago. But he's actually blocked such moves in the past. So why now? And here's where it's really important to bring in domestic Israeli politics, it's key. Netanyahu's base, and in particular the settlers and their lobby, is adamant about annexation. It's a very high priority for them, even though it's never been a priority for Netanyahu. And he's attuned to his base and he's sensed that when he was in trouble politically and legally, he needed to galvanize that base so that he can remain in power and obtain immunity from prosecution.
10:25 GZ: He announced his intention to annex unilaterally parts of the West Bank on the eve of the elections. He made all these dramatic statements on the eve of each of the three rounds of elections that took place last year. And he concluded that Trump and only Trump would really give him the go-ahead, which would enable him to deliver this gift to the settlers, and this would be solidifying his legacy. This would be the legacy that he would leave. But he miscalculated because he was met with, well, he was also met with bad luck in terms of timing because of the coronavirus. But there was also a huge international outcry. There was a major pressure campaign to stop it.
11:08 GZ: Jordan and other friendly Arab allies made it crystal clear to the Trump administration and to the Netanyahu government that they were not going to be supportive of it. This could actually wreck the relationship and the peace treaty that Israel has with Jordan. And then the Trump administration started to get cold feet and decided to hold out for a while. And meanwhile, Israel has been hit really hard with a second wave of COVID, of the coronavirus. So the last thing on the minds of most Israelis is annexation. So for now it's off the table, but it's still on Netanyahu's agenda. And he understands that he won't be able to make these annexation moves if Biden defeats Trump. So there's a very narrow window in which he can do this.
11:57 KS: And I had read that there was even some internal resistance to this from the settlers themselves.
12:03 GZ: The settlers themselves have no internal resistance to the idea of annexation. They're all for it. What they don't like is the parts of the Trump plan that call for the creation of a Palestinian state. And so the idea here was you accept the Trump plan in its totality. You can't just accept parts of it that you like and discard the rest of it. Of course, the Trump plan isn't really much of a plan, and the Palestinians have rejected it, and it wouldn't really leave them with much of a state. It certainly wouldn't be a contiguous state or a sovereign state. And a big percentage of what would be their state would be turned over to the settlers. So it's really not much of a—I would say it's a nonstarter, the Trump plan, but that's why some settlers have opposed it. Others have supported it. And right now, as I said, it's off the table for the time being.
12:59 KS: And Guy, Israel has long been known as one of the strongest democracies, particularly in the Middle East, in their neighborhood of the world, as they like to say. And some of the base things that you need for a functioning democracy are a free press and rule of law, which we'll talk about in the next question. But first with the free press, Netanyahu has been known for his obsession with the press and aiming to control Israel's media. Two of the corruption charges he was indicted on are related to the media. How do you think Netanyahu, overall, has impacted Israel's press freedom?
13:34 GZ: When he lost the elections back in 1999, his reelection bid, he blamed it on what he felt was unfavorable media coverage—biased media coverage that had it out for him. And he reportedly told his associates that he needed his own media. And so he turned to the cosmetics billionaire Ron Lauder to buy a majority stake in what was then Channel 10. And years later, he turned to an even wealthier individual, the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who funded and founded Israel Hayom, which is the most widely read daily because it's free. And its growing impact actually led Freedom House to downgrade Israel's press to partly free in its 2015 report because it really has destroyed some of the competition.
14:31 GZ: And in the meantime, there have been additional media outlets that have been created to further Netanyahu's political agenda. For example, there's Channel 20, which is called The Heritage Channel, which is very supportive of Netanyahu and his policies and the right wing in general. And he's been so obsessed with the media that that obsession led him to keep the Communications Ministry for himself. He appointed himself as the Communications Minister and only in the wake of the criminal investigations was he forced to relinquish it. And even then, he gave it to his loyalists. So he still more or less controlled it even though he was no longer officially the minister.
15:16 GZ: And so two of the corruption cases involve offers that he gave, formal favors that he gave to these media tycoons in exchange for favorable news coverage. And so what's interesting here is that his obsession with the media hasn't just had a decidedly negative impact on Israel's democracy. It's this obsession that ironically may end his career and possibly land him in prison, depending on how the trial goes.
15:46 KS: And another one of those foundational pieces of democracy is rule of law. As we said, under Netanyahu, trust in Israel's Supreme Court has dropped, why has this happened? And what does that mean for Israel's democracy going forward?
16:00 GZ: So, Netanyahu's resorted to these populist devices to polarize society in order to ensure that he remains in power. And we are living in an era of populist nationalism, where there's a lot of anger at the elite. And as in many other countries that are experiencing this phenomenon, in Israel, the elite is seen as the left. And so the state's major institutions, what we might consider the gatekeepers of democracy, like the media, the courts, and the police, and even the army to some extent, they're all perceived as part of the elite. And what populist nationalists do is they downplay minority rights because they have this majoritarian conception—this idea that we should allow the public to decide. Let the people determine our future, not the judges who are not elected, not the media, nobody elects them, but the people. That's this majority, majoritarian idea of democracy.
17:04 GZ: And Netanyahu and his allies have stepped up these attacks on the courts now that his corruption trial is underway. So, for example, he's referred to his trial as a coup, an attempt to remove him from office since he couldn't be removed at the ballot box. And what we're seeing is Netanyahu and his supporters attempting to essentially delegitimize the courts and those other gatekeepers of democracy, similar to what Viktor Orbán and other populist nationalists in Europe and elsewhere have been doing.
17:42 KS: Guy Ziv, it's time to take five. This is when you, our guest, get to daydream out loud and reorder the world as you'd like it be by single-handedly instituting five policies or practices that would change the world for the better. We've been talking about Israel, but we're at a time where the upcoming US election looms large, what five practices would you institute to improve the US's global standing in the world?
18:06 GZ: First, we must abandon the president's America First mantra, which has sent the wrong message to the world and embrace instead a collaborative foreign policy approach. We're all in this together. Second, we must reaffirm our commitment to NATO and reassure our allies that they can rely on us. Third, we can begin to rebuild our global standing by renewing our leadership in tackling global issues, starting with climate change, which the Pentagon identifies as a national security threat. Fourth, we must take a forceful stance against egregious human rights violations and lead the effort to end genocide, beginning with China's genocide against the Uyghurs. And fifth, we should return to our traditional role of an honest broker in the Middle East by resuming US mediated peace talks between Israelis and the Palestinians, prodding both sides as needed to help realize the two-state solution before it's too late.
19:05 KS: Thank you. Since April of 2019, Israel has had three inconclusive elections, which sounds like a nightmare for the people who live there. Though Netanyahu has been indicted on corruption charges, he's still managed to strike a coalition deal with his opponent, Benny Gantz, after the third. And they now share power under a unity government. So Benny Gantz ran against Netanyahu during the elections vowing that he would never serve under Netanyahu as the prime minister, but there he is. He ended up agreeing to share power. How much of this move was spurred by the coronavirus crisis versus other political forces, and do you think that COVID-19 and the crisis—pandemic has in any way served as a way to help Netanyahu stay in power? Even though his response has been criticized.
19:55 GZ: The coronavirus was the pretext for this government, what they call a national unity emergency government. What Netanyahu really had in mind was his own political survival. He's been involved in this ongoing effort to get immunity from prosecution, which he still hasn't gotten because he just doesn't have the number of votes he needs. Which, by the way, has as fueled speculation that he may even call for a fourth election in the near future if he doesn't get anywhere with Gantz. Now, Gantz, Benny Gantz, he's a new politician and a relatively naive one. So I believe that his intentions were less cynical, but he was gullible because he enters this government, again, thinking that they're going to make some big difference here in the fight against coronavirus. And maybe he also thought that he could have more influence from within the government than in the opposition.
20:51 GZ: But I say he was gullible because they created this rotation agreement that would, in theory, enable him to become prime minister in a year and a half replacing Netanyahu. But this is a commitment that Netanyahu has no intention whatsoever to keep. And I think maybe even Gantz is beginning to realize that as well. Nevertheless, for Netanyahu, this was a big political victory because he managed to not only form this government, but he managed to split the Blue and White party, which was the chief opposition, the party that finally threatened to destroy many years of Likud rule under his leadership. But this is a government that is bloated. There are 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers. So that's unprecedented. Israel is now experiencing a second wave of the coronavirus, which is far worse than the original one. And so, not surprisingly, the government is at the moment very unpopular.
21:50 KS: The parallels with what we've seen in other countries, including and especially the US, are almost so obvious that it's just shocking. You include things like trying to have your own media and you could make a parallel with the US with Fox Media, or Fox News, which for better or for worse, the president appears to consider a media outlet that's in his court. Even some of the names are the same, Sheldon Adelson, obviously, a figure in US politics. And you talk about this shift towards populist nationalism worldwide. So where in your mind does Netanyahu fit in with this trend of world leaders edging away from traditional democratic norms? And if we're thinking about perhaps a democratic scale, that includes people like Poland's Duda and Russia's Putin, and Viktor Orbán, and Trump, where would you place Netanyahu and why?
22:48 GZ: Netanyahu himself has evolved, I would say, in this issue, so he's become much more of a populist nationalist in recent years. He wasn't quite this bad early on, although he was always a divisive figure, but the populist legislation and rhetoric is something that we didn't quite see up until maybe five years ago. And so I would say he preceded people like Trump and Bolsonaro. At the same time, he's been adopting the same kind of rhetoric that some of these leaders are using. I mean, he never used to use the phrase fake news until he saw Trump using it. He never used to use the word witch-hunt until president Trump started using it. So he's definitely picking up things that he thinks could help him with his base.
23:42 GZ: And so that's why democracy activists and advocates are very concerned that Israel has been moving in a very illiberal direction in recent years with a slew of bills that are essentially anti-democratic, certainly anti-liberal, and not to mention the rhetoric, which is the kind of rhetoric that we hear from Duda, that we hear from Bolsonaro, and Duterte, and Erdoğan in Turkey, and others.
24:14 KS: Guy, you mentioned earlier that in Israel, religion and politics tend to intersect pretty frequently. And I wonder, is Netanyahu a particularly religious person?
24:25 GZ: No, not at all. But his base tends to be more religious. Clearly there are a lot of secular people who support him as well. But if you're looking at the ideologues, the people who are behind the settler lobby for example, most of them are religious, and Netanyahu's well aware of it and very sensitive to that. More importantly, politically, he doesn't only need his base, he needs to make sure that the religious parties are unified in supporting him because you know you need a coalition government in Israel and he would have a very difficult time piecing together coalition without his "natural allies." Now who are the natural allies? They are the ultra-Orthodox parties, they're the settler party, which is currently called Yamina, they've changed their name a few times. They're right now sitting in the opposition, but they very well might join a coalition in the future. And so Netanyahu's very sensitive to this notion that he can't offend the religious, he can't afford to lose them in terms of political support that he needs from them.
25:41 KS: Guy, this will be the last question. We talked a little bit about how Netanyahu is and isn't ideologically driven in some of the policy choices he makes. But regardless, this shift has been slightly away from what we would consider democratic norms. Do you think that there's a way for the corrosion of Israel's democracy to be reversed with Netanyahu still in power? Or do you think that is something that can only take place with a new prime minister?
26:10 GZ: I think that, well, first of all, I think it would have to take place with a new prime minister. There's no way that this is going to be reversed at this point, given how desperate Netanyahu is to stay out of prison really, and try to avoid this trial. He's clearly not interested in preserving democracy at this point. He's interested in preserving his job, his career. What's problematic is that the opposition in Israel has traditionally been very weak for many years now. And so, unfortunately, and one might even say the same thing about Trump in the United States, he's a symptom of a larger problem. And the question is whether the "Democratic Camp" is going to be able to win this fight for Israeli democracy. And right now it's an uphill battle because there hasn't really been a strong leader who has emerged, who can take Netanyahu on.
27:16 GZ: So while you have these opposition politicians that accuse Netanyahu of corruption and say he needs to go and he needs to go to retirement. There are wider issues here that they haven't fully addressed that I think are problematic. So it may take years to rebuild and strengthen Israeli democracy. And my hope is that some of the centrist leaders who might have some influence in the near future, and I'm thinking Yair Lapid is one and maybe even Benny Gantz, will put democracy at the forefront of national priorities and will stop the corrosion of these attacks on the gatekeepers of democracy.
28:06 KS: Guy Ziv, thank you for joining Big World to discuss Benjamin Netanyahu. It's been a treat to speak with you.
28:12 GZ: Thank you so much.
28:13 KS: Just a note that we recorded this episode with Guy Ziv prior to the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates that was signed on August 13th, 2020 in case you're wondering why we didn't mention it in our discussion. Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you'll leave us a good rating or a review, it'll be like finding that the release date for that new book you want to read is actually tomorrow. Our theme music is “It Was Just Cold,” by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.