It’s not often that a world leader’s greatest weakness is so nakedly displayed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t know how to bind political talent to him. To say he doesn’t command loyalty is putting it gently. He inspires vindictive rage in his former confidantes. The problem is that Netanyahu seems to know only one way to handle potential rivals—suppress them.
It’s a stark contrast to the other longest-serving Israeli prime minister: David Ben-Gurion. Throughout his decades-long leadership of Israel’s Labor movement, he was rarely challenged. In 1965, when he split from Mapai to form the Rafi Party, all the young Turks went with him, among them Moshe Dayan, Chaim Herzog, Teddy Kollek and Shimon Peres (who was not exactly known for steadfast loyalty).
Such an event couldn’t be imagined with Netanyahu, who sends young Turks scattering at great political cost. Two of them—Naftali Bennett, a former chief of staff to Netanyahu, and Moshe Feiglin, a former Likud Party Knesset member—cost him the first election last April, what would be the first of three consecutive elections in a year’s time. The two parties they founded failed to pass the electoral threshold, sending hundreds of thousands of right-wing votes into the trash. Had they passed the threshold, Netanyahu would have had his majority, sparing the country the following elections in September and earlier this month.
At least Bennett and Feiglin don’t hold grudges against Netanyahu (or if they do, they keep them well in check). Bennett has pledged his party’s loyalty to the prime minister and serves as his defense minister. Feiglin joined with Netanyahu ahead of the second election in September, though the partnership didn’t bear fruit.
The greatest threat to Netanyahu now is Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, who had been joined at the hip with Netanyahu during his rise. He built up the “Netanyahu camp” in the Likud in the 1990s and even carried the future prime minister’s starched shirts. It is Lieberman’s steadfast refusal to join a bloc led by Netanyahu that has necessitated an unprecedented three elections within a year.
On March 16, the day the 23rd Knesset was sworn in, Lieberman’s party submitted a “get Bibi” bill that would give the parliament power to oust a prime minister under indictment from leading a transitional government—exactly what Netanyahu is doing at the moment.
The same day, Blue and White, the main opposition party, submitted three bills taking direct aim at Netanyahu. The first limited a prime minister to two terms. The second barred anyone facing indictment from serving as prime minister. The third prohibited a Knesset member under indictment from forming a government.
Two of Blue and White’s four top leaders had worked closely with Netanyahu. Moshe Ya’alon, who served more than three years as Netanyahu’s defense minister, left in 2016 over “difficult disagreements on moral and professional matters.” Though a longtime political foe, Yair Lapid served a year and nine months as Netanyahu’s finance minister before the latter fired him in 2014. Today, they are the two most opposed to entering a unity government with Netanyahu.
Two Knesset members from Ya’alon’s party, Telem, a faction within Blue and White, also formerly worked for Netanyahu. They had grave misgivings about joining with the Joint List, an Arab party with members openly supporting terrorists. That reluctance—reinforced by the sentiments of other party members who are reportedly also unhappy about such a plan—may have scuttled a minority government. But they are still determined to drive Netanyahu from power.
When Netanyahu does try to enforce loyalty, it’s often ham-handed, strange for a politician admired for diplomatic finesse. Last August, he demanded that all Likud Knesset members sign a loyalty pledge promising that none would seek to replace him. Then, following the September election, on Oct. 3, Netanyahu demanded a declaration of loyalty from satellite parties making up his right-wing coalition. It made political sense—as a show of force, if not actual loyalty. But then two weeks later, he demanded a second loyalty pledge from the same group. It was counterproductive. “Enough with these signings,” New Right Party leader Ayelet Shaked said at the time. “Married couples don’t reaffirm their marriage contract every time.”
Nobel Laureate Robert Aumann, who knows a thing or two about numbers, calculates in the Israeli paper Makor Rishon (March 20) that in the new Knesset, “no less than 70 members are on the right side of the political map.” He counts Lieberman’s party, the four members of Telem within Blue and White, certain other individuals of that party, and Orly Levy-Abekasis of the Gesher Party.
Aumann concludes that Netanyahu should step down, even though he thinks the corruption charges brought against the prime minister are nonsense, crediting the prime minister for Israel’s impressive economic and defensive gains.
Those achievements are remarkable. Israel’s economy has blossomed under his hand. He has scored major diplomatic victories. He has turned Israel into an energy exporter—a possibility unfathomable 30 years ago. And yet, this character flaw, this failure of “Leadership 101” and to command loyalty from his most talented lieutenants, may be his undoing.
David Isaac has worked for 25 years in the news business. He has reported for Investor’s Business Daily, the American Enterprise Institute, Newsmax Media, and The Washington Times’ news site Times247. He was awarded a Media Fellowship at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in 2004. He has written, produced and directed a documentary film series on Zionist history which can be seen at ZionismU.com. He is currently managing editor of World Israel News.