As far as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most ardent supporters are concerned, those preparing his political obituary are again wasting their time. If there is one thing we have learned in the last two years, it is that Netanyahu is something of a political magician who is at his best when cornered. The question now is whether the struggle to stay on top is going to obscure the historic nature of all that he’s accomplished.
Netanyahu has been operating on borrowed time since the fall of 2018 when his coalition splintered. During that time, he weathered three election campaigns and then an eight-month fiasco of a coalition government sharing power with his chief rival. The prime minister has indeed outmaneuvered every possible set of opponents and overcome daunting circumstances, including the unexpected disaster posed by a worldwide pandemic, all the while laboring under the burden of corruption indictments.
Nor has the task of political survival gotten any easier.
Israel is about to undergo a third national lockdown aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus, meaning not only a rising toll of cases and deaths, but more economic privation and increased frustration on the part of a population that has had enough of a government taking away their freedom and their livelihoods. While Netanyahu got high marks for his crisis-management skills during the early stages of the pandemic, as is the case with every other government on the planet, he has since stumbled in facing an unprecedented problem that is far from over.
At the same time, the political challenges he must navigate became more complicated.
Netanyahu’s dispatch of the Blue and White Party and its hapless leader, Benny Gantz, was a textbook display of political virtuosity even if the former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff was a political naïf out of his depth when it came to political combat and the business of government. However, the next level of the game the prime minister is playing will be even harder. In elections scheduled for March 23, the prime minister’s chief opponents will be fellow right-wingers who won’t be so easily labeled as weak or as gullible as Gantz.
As things stand now, the next Knesset will likely be composed of as many as 80 or more members associated with parties that are clearly right-wing on defense and security issues, as well as members of the two ultra-Orthodox parties that are Likud’s partners. Yet half of them or more will be pledged to Netanyahu’s fall.
Netanyahu’s efforts to grimly hang on under indictment and use any trick to try and get the Knesset to give him immunity remain a dismal spectacle, even if he deserves to be acquitted.
The political quagmire began two years ago when the right-wing but avowedly secular Yisrael Beiteinu Party led by Avigdor Lieberman defected from Netanyahu’s coalition and pledged not to sit with the prime minister or the religious parties. Lieberman failed to be the kingmaker he aspired to be; still, he has stuck to his vow. He will now be joined by former Likud Cabinet member Gideon Sa’ar and his New Hope Party, which is similarly hard right on the issues yet equally determined to oust the prime minister. Alongside it, competing for right-wing votes will be the pro-settlement Yamina Party led by Naftali Bennett, who was strengthened by being in the opposition and thus able to snipe at Netanyahu’s failures on the handling of COVID-19.
Blue and White has collapsed, the center-left Yesh Atid seems unlikely to pose a threat, and the rest of the left is similarly marginalized. But while the right will dominate the next Knesset, the assumption that this trio of former friends will tamely allow Netanyahu to remain in power seems like wishful thinking.
It’s not just that testimony in Netanyahu’s corruption trial is due to start in February. Even if he is able to claim credit for a successful rollout of vaccines that might end the COVID nightmare, a pandemic-battered country may be wearier of his act than ever. Though it’s always dangerous to bet against the prime minister, it’s now possible to envision a government largely composed of right-wing parties that might be led by someone other than him.
Netanyahu’s current run in office will reach 12 years in the spring. Remembering his term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, and that he first became Likud leader in 1993, it’s hardly surprising that so many are tired of his endless ruthless struggle to stay on top.
The corruption charges that Netanyahu faces have helped tarnish his image. I believe these accusations are largely unfair. The indictments are an attempt to treat as criminal several issues that merely have the appearance of being inappropriate (his acceptance of expensive gifts) or are not illegal either under Israeli or American law (attempting to persuade media companies to give him better coverage). Still, they reflect the sense of entitlement that hovers around the prime minister. Netanyahu’s efforts to grimly hang on under indictment and use any trick to try and get the Knesset to give him immunity remain a dismal spectacle, even if he deserves to be acquitted.
Moreover, the defection of Likudniks under Sa’ar’s leadership to join the other former Netanyahu aides that oppose him at the head of other parties, like Bennett and Lieberman, reminds us that the prime minister has never tried to groom a successor. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to believe in the concept. That “après moi, le deluge” attitude is not only a good argument for term limits. It’s a bad look for any leader in a democracy even if, as is true of Netanyahu, his expertise in diplomacy, security and economic issues may be unrivaled.
What’s sad about all this is that it is overshadowing Netanyahu’s considerable list of historic achievements.
In a very real sense, Netanyahu is a victim of his success.
In addition to a sterling record on economic issues, over the course of the last dozen years, he has demonstrated the folly of the left’s illusions about the Palestinians. He proved, with the help of the Trump administration, that Israel’s acceptance by the rest of the Arab world need not rest on making dangerous concessions to the Palestinians. Israel became not only stronger and more secure on his watch, but also less isolated as the list of countries normalizing relations grows, as do the under-the-table alliances it has with other nations. This, along with Palestinian rejectionism and terror, also led to the utter destruction of Israel’s left-wing parties.
That also means that the peril of a left-wing government dependent on the votes of anti-Zionist Arab parties that might bend to the pressure of a new American administration isn’t as great as it was when he ran in 2009, 2013 and 2015. Israel needs to speak with one voice to the Biden administration; however, the notion that only Netanyahu can stand up to Washington or prevent a security catastrophe has been undermined by what he’s achieved.
His opponents will never admit it, but he is not the limited man only interested in power and unable to make important decisions about the country’s future that they describe. Netanyahu deserves to be mentioned in the same conversation as the country’s greatest leaders.
Nevertheless, the increasingly heavy lift that his hanging on involves obscures these accomplishments. In part because of a hostile press but also because of his tawdry gamesmanship in which everyone knows his word means nothing, his impressive deeds seem forgotten. It might well be until the emergence of a future generation of historians untainted by the prejudices of the country’s left-wing elites, coupled with the bad impression made by the prime minister’s cutthroat political tactics, before Netanyahu will get his due as a great statesman.
None of this necessarily means he’s about to come to the end of the road. And it’s entirely possible that it will take a fifth election later this year to resolve the standoff. But the idea that Netanyahu will go on governing Israel indefinitely, despite his growing list of implacable enemies and all the baggage he’s acquired after being so long in office, is starting to require a leap of faith more than rational analysis.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.