The end of the Netanyahu era
Israeli premier will leave behind a deeply fractured society
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. When he leaves office, he will bequeath an occupation of Palestinian territories that is as entrenched, as morally indefensible as it was when he came to power. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA
Israel is entering the post-Netanyahu era. The man nicknamed “the magician” for his knack for pulling off unlikely electoral feats may yet return with one final trick to buy himself another year or two in office, but it’s now clear that the end is approaching for the man who has dominated Israeli politics for 25 years.
Tuesday’s election, the country’s second in five months, again produced an inconclusive result. The Blue and White party led by former military chief Benny Gantz pushed Netanyahu’s Likud into second place, but neither has a clear route to a majority in the Knesset. The potential kingmaker is Avigdor Lieberman, the right-wing security hawk and staunch secularist whose refusal to prop up a Netanyahu government earlier this year in a dispute over privileges accorded to the ultraorthodox – an important part of Binyamin Netanyahu’s support base – sealed the current stalemate. Lieberman has called for a secular unity government, but Blue and White are adamant they will not coalesce with Likud while Netanyahu remains as leader.
Bibi, as he is known in Israel, could perform his now-traditional Houdini act if Lieberman can be persuaded to change his mind, if Gantz agrees to a rotating premiership or if a third election produces a different result. But something has changed; Netanyahu, who for so long radiated an aura of invincibility, increasingly looks like a liability. His failure to secure a majority will deny him the opportunity to introduce a law to give himself immunity from prosecution. The attorney general is due to announce on October 3rd whether he is to be indicted on corruption charges; if that happens, Netanyahu will be precluded from holding high office. Extricating himself from his legal troubles is unlikely to save him, however. As he fought desperately to cling to power in recent weeks, launching increasingly shrill attacks on his own citizens and darkly implying that anyone who was against him was against Israel, Netanyahu’s act looked tired. The voters seem to have thought so. A clear majority voted for parties that were opposed to Netanyahu.
To the 69-year-old’s advocates, his legacy is secure. Israel has a strong economy, its international alliances are stable and its citizens live in relative security. Israel’s military has suffered fewer casualties on his watch than under any other leader. But Netanyahu will leave the country weakened in other ways. A man who never had a feel for the country’s poor has presided over a widening social inequality. Some of the strains in Israeli politics are a direct result of his divisive approach, which pitted sections of society against each other and helped spur the growth of the far-right with a populist playbook whose themes – right-wing nationalism, hostility to minorities (notably Arabs), vilification of the media, and so on – he adopted long before Donald Trump came along. As a result he normalised the extreme right, not only by swerving his own party to the hard right, and forcing it to rely on smaller theocratic outfits to govern, but by encouraging the rise of parties such as the openly racist Jewish Power.
Netanyahu, who neutered the foreign ministry and assumed the role of chief diplomat himself, sees the widening of Israel’s foreign relationships as one of his greatest achievements. The US remains a steadfast ally and a vital cash donor. He has developed political and trading ties across Asia and Africa, and established discreet but friendly contacts with Sunni despots, with whom he found common cause in opposition to Iran. But under Netanyahu, Israel’s bipartisanship in US politics has fallen away. He had a tense relationship with Bill Clinton, rowed with and derided Barack Obama and never seriously concealed his support of Republican presidential candidates such as George W Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Donald Trump. That leaves Israel vulnerable to future shifts in American politics.
But Netanyahu’s biggest failure was on the most important issue. He came to power in 1996, when the recently concluded Oslo accords presented arguably the best opportunity for a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Netanyahu never believed in Oslo. He was slow to openly repudiate the accords, but he played a big part in slow-walking the process out of existence. At different times, all of his interlocutors – everyone from Clinton to Bush to Obama and even Shimon Peres – allowed themselves to believe that at heart Netanyahu was a pragmatist who could take the steps required to seek a peace deal. But it’s clear that, while at times careful not to disown the idea, he never believed in a two-state solution and came to the conclusion that the status quo suited Israel just fine. When the moment demanded courage, he was risk-averse. When he had the leverage to tack to the centre, his instinct was always to revert to the right, to the comforting embrace of his tribe. Eventually, the centre had all but disappeared. When he leaves office, he will bequeath an occupation of Palestinian territories that is as entrenched, as morally indefensible – and, ultimately, as damaging to Israel – as it was when he came to power. On the day after Netanyahu steps down, his biographer Anshel Pfeffer writes, “his ultimate legacy will not be a more secure nation, but a deeply fractured Israeli society, living behind walls”.