Netanyahu out of ideas and running out of allies
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried every trick in the book in a bid to save his political career and avoid possible prison time. But, for Israel’s longest-serving leader, time is almost up.
An “attempted coup” is how Netanyahu described his indictment on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust by Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Nov. 21. His loyalists agree. A few thousand Likud party supporters last week gathered in Tel Aviv, under the title “Stop the coup,” to express their anger at what they see as a massive conspiracy involving Mandelblit, the media, various state institutions, and “disloyal” Likud party members.
Netanyahu’s main Likud party rival Gideon Sa’ar received much of the verbal abuse. Sa’ar, who almost faded into oblivion after leaving the Knesset in 2014, returned to the Israeli political scene following the April elections. Netanyahu’s failure to form a government following that vote was compounded by a similar failure to cobble together a coalition after the year’s second general election in September.
Since 2014, no one had dared challenge Netanyahu’s reign over the Likud. “There was no need to do so,” wrote Yossi Verter in Haaretz last week. Netanyahu “brought them to power, time after time. But a few things have happened since then.”
It is because of these “few things” that Sa’ar dared to challenge Netanyahu once more. What is significant about Sa’ar’s leadership challenge is not the possibility of him unseating Netanyahu, but the fact that the “king of Israel” no longer commands the type of fear and respect he did during a decade of nearly uncontested rule.
As soon as Sa’ar called for new Likud primaries, Netanyahu’s political minions — such as Foreign Minister Israel Katz and other heavyweight politicians like Nir Barkat and Miri Regev — pounced on Sa’ar, describing him as “disloyal.” The Tel Aviv protesters had far more demeaning words for the rebel Likud member. However, despite the deafening screams and the name-calling, Netanyahu conceded, promising on Nov. 23 that he would set up and face a party leadership challenge within weeks.
The embattled Netanyahu has no other options. Although he may still come out on top should the primaries be held on time, he cannot afford deepening doubts within his party. If he fails to ensure his legitimacy within Likud, he could hardly make the case for being able to lead all of Israel following a possible third general election in March.
However, Sa’ar is not Netanyahu’s biggest problem.
The picture for Netanyahu — in fact, for all of Israel — is getting more complicated by the day. The Israeli leader has successfully managed to coalesce his own political and familial interests with the collective interests of all Israelis. “I’m doing everything required to ensure the government’s and Cabinet’s work is getting done in all the ways required to ensure the safety of Israel’s citizens,” he told a reporter last month, insisting that he is still carrying out his duties as prime minister “in the best possible way, out of supreme devotion to Israel’s security.”
Desperate to hang on to power for as long as possible, Netanyahu still employs the same political discourse that helped him unify many sectors of Israeli society for more than 10 years. But that ploy is no longer producing the intended results. For one, Netanyahu’s main rival in the Blue and White alliance, Benny Gantz, has neutralized the PM’s success in manipulating the term “security,” for he too is an advocate of war, whenever and wherever it is possible.
Netanyahu’s last attack on Gaza last month, when the Israeli army killed 34 Palestinians, including women and children, is a case in point. During the short-lived, destructive conflict, Gantz was busy trying to form a government, as Netanyahu had already failed that task. Resorting to war, Netanyahu tried to send three messages, all intended for Israeli audiences: One to Mandelblit, to postpone the indictment; the second to Gantz, to reconsider his decision to block him from taking part in a future government; and the final one to the Israeli public, to remind them of his own supposed ability to reign in “terror.”
But all of them failed. Gantz announced his inability to form a government on Nov. 20, preferring failure over extending a lifeline to Netanyahu, whose indictment was imminent. The attorney general’s decision arrived the following day — the first time in Israeli history that a prime minister had been indicted while in office. Worse, Blue and White significantly widened its lead over the Likud, according to a public opinion poll commissioned by Israel’s Channel 12 television, which was published on Nov. 26.
It seems that the end of the Netanyahu era is finally upon us, but the final act is likely to be longer and uglier than expected.
But what other language, aside from that of war in the name of security or haphazard accusations of political conspiracies, can Netanyahu possibly employ during this period? Such tactics often worked in the past. In fact, they worked so well that the entire Netanyahu political doctrine was designed around them. Now, the Israeli leader has run out of ideas and is quickly running out of allies too; not only from without, such as his former ally and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, but also from within his own party.
The reason that Netanyahu is still in power after all the setbacks and outright failures is the fact that his rivals are yet to mobilize the necessary votes and public support to oust him for good. It will certainly take more than Gantz alone to dislodge the stubborn PM from office, for Netanyahu has consolidated and entrenched his rule through an intricate system of political patronage that runs deep through many facets of Israeli society.
With this in mind, it seems that the end of the Netanyahu era is finally upon us, but the final act is likely to be longer and uglier than expected. While it remains true that a fundamental change in Israel’s political system will neither deliver peace and justice to Palestinians nor stability to the region, it could potentially constitute the equivalent of a political earthquake within Israel itself, the consequences of which are yet to be seen.
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is “The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story” (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine studies from the University of Exeter. Twitter: @RamzyBaroud