In the last two years, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to retain a government after each of Israel’s four elections, including the most recent one held in March. The 71-year-old is facing a corruption trial on three separate charges, and, despite pandemic restrictions, has been the target of unprecedentedly popular and consistent protests outside his residence. He has also managed to alienate almost every former protégé and ally over his 12-year tenure, and, within the political system at least, he generates such loathing that a new coalition formed to displace him feels more like a bar brawl than an alliance: Palestinian Islamists, far-right Israeli settlers, radical feminists, the retired general who oversaw the latest Gaza war and the battered remains of Israel’s peace parties.
Just before midnight on Wednesday 2 June, the deadline they were given to form an alternative government, Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, and Naftali Bennett, head of the smaller, right-wing Yamina party, announced that they were the new prime ministers-in-waiting. This means the mandate will not revert once again to Netanyahu (he already tried and failed to form his own coalition, courting some of the same parties).
So is Netanyahu done for? Not by a long way.
In the short term, the pro-Netanyahu speaker of the parliament has already signalled that he may take the maximum time allowed by law – seven days – to hold the parliamentary vote to endorse the new cabinet. Netanyahu specialises in breaking up parties and alliances, and it would take only one elected member of the Knesset to break ranks during that time for the coalition to collapse and for talks to begin anew, or for an election to be called. A week is a very long time in politics.
In the medium term, even if a government is approved by the bitterly divided parliament and sworn in, it will be the smallest, most fractious minority government in Israeli history. The right-wing settler parties, the ones most likely to switch to Netanyahu if their demands aren’t met by the new anti-Netanyahu coalition government, would risk much political capital by sharing a cabinet with the Islamists who, in turn, would have plenty to lose from sharing government benches with their ideological arch-enemies and with the “centrist” Benny Gantz, the minister of defence during the very recent Gaza war. Merav Michaeli’s Labor party, meanwhile, has joined numerous far-right cabinets since its last government fell in 2000, and has always been left battered, bruised and delegitimised; its prime function in such coalitions is to act as a shield against critics from the left and the international community.
And in the long term? If this new coalition doesn’t collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions, it will have plenty of external challenges to face. There is very scant comfort in it for Palestinians. Despite the welcome passing of some actual power to a Palestinian party – Raam – for the first time since Yitzhak Rabin’s minority government formed in 1992, virtually none of the parties in the putative government has prioritised ending the occupation or restarting the peace process; and the parties which have given the fate of the West Bank pride of place in their election campaigns are annexationists.
[see also: Letter from Gaza: The war that cannot be won]
What’s more, unlike Netanyahu’s governments, which for the most part had to prove themselves responsible, a centrist government will likely feel under pressure to prove itself tough, with potentially devastating results when conflict flares up again, as it inevitably will. The only mild consolation is that no one else in Israeli politics appears as fixated on Iran or as willing to risk a regional conflagration as Netanyahu – and although the new coalition is divided on what Israel’s position should be on rebuilding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka the Iran nuclear deal, none are dedicated hawks on that front, in practice or in rhetoric.
Netanyahu, it should be said, mostly favoured rhetoric over large-scale action. Despite his bombastic, apocalyptic speeches; despite waging a low-key attritional war against Iranian assets in Syria; and despite allegedly targeting the Iranian nuclear project with assassinations and sabotage, he always stopped short of going to war with Israel’s geopolitical arch-rival. And while it may be difficult to see behind the rubble and the blood left by his most recent war in Gaza, he was by and large risk-averse on the Palestinian issue as well. He preferred to slowly wear down and splinter the Palestinian national project rather than to start bloodbaths such as Operation “Cast Lead” – unleashed on Gaza by Israel’s last centrist government of 2006-2009. His legacy will be measured in no small part by what comes after him.
Still, even with a successor government in sight, it is too early to write a political obituary for Netanyahu, and his political and personal futures remain unclear. What is more certain is that he has become a walking, talking advertisement for term limits. He has embedded himself in the political system to such a degree that imagining even a week without him at the helm is difficult, never mind four years. He has become irreplaceable; therefore, for the sake of what remains of Israel’s narrow and flawed democracy, he has to be replaced. A call on whether this is for better or for worse remains tantalisingly out of reach.