Netanyahu is a symptom, not the cause of Israel’s political crisis
It is convenient to surmise that Israel’s current political crisis is consistent with the country’s unfailing trajectory of short-lived governments and fractious ruling coalitions. While this view is defensible, it is also hasty.
Israel is on the cusp of a fourth general election in less than two years. Even by Israel’s political standards, this phenomenon is unprecedented, not only in terms of the frequency of how often Israelis vote, but also of the constant shifting in possible coalitions and seemingly strange alliances.
It seems that the only constant in the process of forming coalitions after each election is that Arab parties must not, under any circumstances, be allowed into a future government.
Even when the Arab parties’ coalition, the Joint List, imposed itself as a possible kingmaker after the September 2019 elections, the centrist Blue and White list refused to join forces with Arab politicians to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In rejecting the Joint List, however, Benny Gantz committed an act akin to political suicide. On the very day, March 26, that he joined a Netanyahu-led coalition, his own Blue and White alliance collapsed, with Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon of Telem breaking away immediately from the once-dominant coalition.
Worse, Gantz lost not just the respect of his own political constituency, but of the Israeli public as well. According to an opinion poll on Dec. 15, if elections had been held on that day, Blue and White would have won only 6 seats out of 120 in the Knesset. Gantz’s former coalition partner, Yesh Atid, according to the same poll, would have won an impressive 14 seats.
‘With none of Israel’s founding fathers alive or relevant in the political arena, it is hard to imagine what course Israel’s future politics will follow’
While Netanyahu’s Likud Party would remain on top with 27 seats, Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope — Unity for Israel party would come a close second with 21. Sa’ar’s is a new party, which represents the first major split from Likud since Ariel Sharon formed the offshoot Kadima party in 2005.
Netanyahu and Sa’ar have a long history of bad blood, and although anything is possible in the formation of Israel’s political alliances, a future right-wing coalition that brings them both together is a dim possibility. If Sa’ar has learned anything from Gantz’s act of political self-mutilation, it is that any coalition with Netanyahu is a grave and costly mistake.
Ideological differences between Netanyahu and Sa’ar are minimal. In fact, both are fighting to obtain the vote of essentially the same constituency — although Sa’ar is hoping to extend his appeal to the disgruntled and betrayed Blue and White voters, who are eager to see someone, anyone, oust Netanyahu.
Never in the history of Israel, spanning seven decades, had a single individual served as the focal point of the country’s many political currents. While beloved by some, Netanyahu is loathed by many, to the extent that entire parties or whole coalitions are formed simply to remove him from politics. With that in mind, the majority of Israelis agree that the man is corrupt, as he has been indicted in three separate criminal cases.
However, if this is the case, how is a politically controversial and corrupt leader able to remain at the helm of Israeli politics for more than 14 years?
The typical answer often alludes to his unmatched skills of manipulation and backdoor shady dealings. In the words of Yossi Verter, writing in the daily Haaretz, Netanyahu is “a first-class master swindler.”
This analysis alone, however, is not enough to explain Netanyahu’s durability as the longest-serving Israeli premier. There is an alternative reading, however, predicated on the fact that Israel has been, for quite some time, navigating uncharted political territories without a specific destination in mind.
Before the inception of Israel on the ruins of historic Palestine in 1948, Israel’s Jewish political elites clashed often. Their differences, however, largely faded away in 1948, when the newly founded country unified under the banner of Mapai — the predecessor to Israel’s current Labor party — which dominated Israeli politics for decades.
Mapai’s dominance received a major boost after the Israeli occupation of the remainder of Palestine in 1967. The building and expansion of more Jewish colonies in the newly acquired territories breathed life into the mission of Israel’s founding fathers.
It was not until 1977 that the negligible Israeli right formed a government for the first time. That date also ushered in a new age of political instability. Still, Israeli politicians remained largely committed to three main causes in this specific order: The Zionist ideology, the party, and the politicians’ own interests.
The assassination of the Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Israeli zealot in 1995 was a bloody manifestation of the new era of unprecedented fragmentation that followed.
A decade later, when Sharon declared the Disengagement from Gaza plan of 2005, he further upset a barely functioning political balance, leading to the formation of Kadima, which threatened to erase Likud from the political map.
Throughout these turbulent times, Netanyahu was always present. He led the incitement against Rabin and, later, challenged Sharon for the leadership of Likud. On the other hand, he was also responsible for resurrecting Likud and kept it alive despite its many ideological, political, and leadership crises. That explains Likud’s loyalty to Netanyahu. Without Netanyahu’s leadership, the Likud feels it could easily follow the same path of irrelevance or total demise as was the case with the Labor and Kadima parties respectively.
With none of Israel’s founding fathers alive or relevant in the political arena, it is hard to imagine what course Israel’s politics will follow. Certainly, the love affair with the settlement enterprise, security, and war are likely to carry on unhindered, as they are the bread and butter of Israeli politics.
But without a clear ideology, especially when combined with the lack of a written constitution, Israeli politics will remain hostage to the whims of politicians and their personal interests — if not Netanyahu’s, then someone else’s.
*Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books, the latest being “These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons” (Clarity Press, Atlanta). Twitter: @RamzyBaroud