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31 May 2021

Is Binyamin Netanyahu’s long reign finally over?

If the Israeli prime minister is ousted, it will not be because the country voted left but because he fractured the right.

By Ido Vock

The anti-Binyamin Netanyahu bloc of parties in the Israeli Knesset have reached an agreement to oust Israel’s longest-serving prime minister from office, which would end his 12-year stretch in office, at least for now. If the agreement holds, Naftali Bennett, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Yamina party and a former tech entrepreneur, will replace Netanyahu as prime minister, despite his faction only having seven members of parliament (MKs) in the 120-seat Knesset.

Under the terms of the agreement, which is not yet a formal coalition deal, Bennett will serve two years as prime minister before being replaced by Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the larger Yesh Atid party, which has 17 MKs. Netanyahu’s Likud is the largest party in the Knesset, with 30 MKs, but was unable to find enough allies to form a government after the general election in March. 

Netanyahu has vowed to fight the agreement, describing Bennett – who supports annexing swathes of the Palestinian West Bank – as a “leftist”. Yet if enough MKs from the parties concerned uphold the agreement, he could be forced from office by the end of the week. The new governing majority would span eight heterogenous parties, including ultra-nationalists, centrists and the left. It would also rely on the votes of Ra’am, a small Arab Israeli party, though the faction is not expected to formally join the coalition. Excluding one Yamina MK who defected to the pro-Netanyahu camp, the grouping comprises 61 MKs, enough for the slimmest of majorities.

The departure of Netanyahu from office would put a partial end to over two years of political deadlock, which has seen Israel go to the polls four times since April 2019, never producing a conclusive enough result for either the pro or anti-Netanyahu blocs to form a government.

It would also represent a new epoch in Israel’s history. Netanyahu is the country’s longest-serving prime minister and one of its most consequential. Combined with a first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu has been in office a total of 15 years. He is a famously adaptable politician, whose terms in office were defined by a flexibility and ruthlessness which allowed him to defeat multiple challengers, all while weathering a changing diplomatic landscape and corruption charges, for which he is currently on trial.

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Under pressure from then-US president Barack Obama’s administration, Netanyahu initially committed to a two-state solution in a speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009 and agreed to a ten-month freeze on building new settlements in the occupied West Bank. Yet it quickly became apparent that Netanyahu would never agree to the creation of a Palestinian state – despite his later protestations – and diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians floundered.

Instead, Netanyahu pursued a policy of entrenching Israeli control over the West Bank. Settlements grew faster than ever: there were 442,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank (excluding east Jerusalem) in 2019, a roughly 50 per cent increase on a decade earlier, according to statistics compiled by Peace Now, an advocacy group. That process culminated in a serious – though ultimately abortive – effort by Netanyahu to formally annex parts of the West Bank last year.

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Netanyahu’s hardline nationalism led to the erosion of Israel’s liberal democracy, typified by the 2018 “Nation State law”, which stated that only Jews have “national rights” in Israel and demoted Arabic as an official state language. Many Arab Israelis at the time viewed the law as consigning them to second-class citizenship. Repeated wars in Gaza, which killed thousands of Palestinians, contained the threat posted to Israeli civilians by Hamas – the Islamist group which rules the enclave – but came no closer to resolving the conflict.

At the same time, Netanyahu normalised relations with several Arab states even as negotiations with the Palestinians remained moribund, upending traditional wisdom that the creation of a Palestinian state was a prerequisite to Israel making peace with its neighbours. His strategy of courting the American right paid dividends when Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a longstanding Israeli objective.

Throughout, Netanyahu showed a remarkable capacity for political survival. His fluent, almost unaccented English – learned growing up in Philadelphia – helped sell his cause to the world. He frequently referred to his older brother Yonatan Netanyahu, a commando killed during a 1976 hostage rescue mission in Uganda and a national hero in Israel.

The unseating of Netanyahu would almost certainly not represent a leftwards shift in Israeli politics. Bennett and Netanyahu share much of the same ideology, in particular support for settlement building, staunch opposition to a Palestinian state, and support for annexation of at least parts of the West Bank. Bennett himself began his political career as Netanyahu’s chief of staff. The appointment of other anti-Netanyahu right-wingers to government, such as Gideon Sa’ar, who would become justice minister under the agreement, led Bennett to insist that his would be “a government which will not give up land nor be afraid to launch a military operation if required”.

Moreover, Netanyahu as leader of the opposition will create headaches for the government, which will be accused of leftism and selling out the country to Arabs. He may be right that prime minister Bennett’s policy will be constrained by his parliamentary coalition. Yet if Netanyahu is ousted, it will not be because the country voted for the left, but because his determination to stay in office at all costs fractured the right into pro and anti-Netanyahu camps, giving Bennett the narrow opening he hopes to exploit to form a government. 

[See also: Letter from Gaza: The war that cannot be won]