Israel’s apex predator, finally devoured by his prey
Benjamin Netanyahu’s public appearances in the past few days have ranged from fear mongering to hysterical and pitiful. Israel’s prime minister resembles an aging predator that has lost its power to catch prey, and instead grumbles about being turned into prey himself by those who want to replace him.
After 12 years in power, Netanyahu is truly convinced that no one but himself is qualified to lead the country. And although he has been unable to emulate his idol in Moscow and tweak the constitutional arrangement, he has expertly manipulated Israel’s political system and exploited Israeli relations with the Palestinians, as well as the rivalry with Iran, for far too long.
Now, not completely without justification, he accuses Naftali Bennett, who is edging closer to the coveted job of prime minister, of U-turns and deceit. Bennett learned this foul behavior from none other than his former master during the years when he worked closely with Netanyahu, and was on the receiving end of it when he broke ranks with Likud and set up his own party. Netanyahu’s customary tantrums in which he accuses everyone who doesn’t want to join him in a coalition of betraying their creed and their supporters, and trumpets himself as the great leader and defender of Israel against all enemies, reflects the distorted state of mind of the current prime minister, and underlines the urgent need to bring his time as prime minister to an end with immediate effect.
Netanyahu can only blame only himself for the situation he is in. Had it not been for his thirst for absolute power and his intention to tolerate no successor; had it not been for his obsession with manipulating the political system; had he not been corrupted by power and expected others to foot the bill for his lavish lifestyle; and had he behaved more as a statesman and less as a politician, he could well have presided over a stable right-wing government, and for a longer period. Instead, a younger generation has now out-maneuvered him at his own game and is within reach of the reins of power.
It could be argued that, regardless of Netanyahu’s record after 12 consecutive years in power and 15 years altogether in the top job, it is time for a new leadership with new ideas and new direction. In the paradoxical nature of Israeli politics, which reflects the diversity of Israeli society, the past few weeks of violent clashes between Israel and the Palestinians on almost all fronts almost saved Netanyahu from having to move to the opposition benches.
It is hard to imagine Netanyahu accepting the new coalition agreement with grace.
If anything, the cruel treatment of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, the insensitivity towards East Jerusalemites during Ramadan and the denial of their right to vote, the eruption of violence between Jews and Arabs in mixed cities inside the Green Line, and the 11 days of bloodshed between Israel and Hamas that achieved nothing but death and destruction, all testify to the fact that Netanyahu has passed his sell-by date, and should go. However, in the atmosphere and discourse that evolved during his years in power and was supported and encouraged by his close-knit henchmen, whenever violence erupted the leader would tolerate no questioning of his policies. Which is why, when on the eve of the violent clashes with Hamas the so-called “change” bloc was on the brink of forming a government that for the first time since 2009 would not have included Likud or been led by Netanyahu, the negotiations to attain this were abruptly halted. This was mainly due to Bennett, who was too scared to continue the talks while hostilities with Hamas raged. This was the first of his flip-flops, and he reversed his decision when a ceasefire was declared.
In the meantime it was down to Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, to play the role of responsible adult. Despite winning 17 seats in the general election, 10 more than Bennett’s Yamina, he has agreed to a rotation government with Bennett, in which the latter will serve as prime minister for the first two years. This was a calculated risk by Lapid that paid off, and following the ceasefire he tempted Bennett to return to the table and negotiate for a government without Likud and without the ultra-Orthodox parties.
If this coalition agreement is supported by a majority in the Knesset — and there is always an if, knowing how desperate Netanyahu is at this stage — then Bennet has little to lose. From a narrow electoral base, one that doesn’t guarantee that his party would cross the threshold for entering the Knesset if a new government is not formed and a new election is called as a result, he has the opportunity to present himself as a national leader and his party as one that is capable of leading a government.
It is Lapid who is taking the bigger risk. In Israel’s volatile politics two years are an eternity, and the government in which he is expected to serve as a foreign minister will comprise diametrically opposed views on almost every issue of importance, and may not last long enough for him to become prime minister in two years’ time. He may hope that should the government not survive to run its full course, he will still be rewarded at the ballot box for his responsible, statesmanlike behavior in putting the country above his personal interest.
It is hard to imagine Netanyahu accepting the new coalition agreement with grace. He is now a badly wounded animal who is struggling not only to remain in power but more importantly to disrupt his corruption trial and by that avoid a possible jail sentence. Hence, for now it is all about reaching the finish line and ensuring that, in conditions of appalling incitements, hate speech and panic campaigns orchestrated by Likud and Netanyahu, a vote of confidence in the new government will take place in the Knesset — one that will allow the country to move on from the deliberate, divisive and increasingly disruptive Netanyahu era.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.