Just the other day there was still a consensus here. Netanyahu’s opponents were sure he was going to pull a rabbit out of a seemingly empty hat at the last minute. It was a scary and even chilling thought for them. Supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu I spoke to, still believed that the king of the Israeli politics horse-trading would recruit or seduce defectors from right-wing parties who had earlier betrayed him and them.
After 12 years under Bibi rule, and 60 MPs promising to vote against Netanyahu, the mythology was still stronger than any cold mathematical calculation.
Politicians and commentators already knew that Bibi would probably go to the opposition benches on Sunday, and the Lapid-Bennett government would inherit the most powerful Israeli prime minister ever, but the normal people felt that a solid gut feeling is as good as information they hear from political pundits.
Arithmetic overcame intuition, and in the end, the process that began back in 2019 has been materialised. Bibi is no longer the prime minister of Israel, and taking into account Netanyahu’s legal situation, it is not clear whether he will continue to be the leader of the opposition, say, another year from today.
Bibi’s loyal Likud party MPs attacked other right-wing MPs who decided to leave Bibi’s front, with the vituperation they usually reserved for their traditional loathed targets; Arab and left parties. Israeli security chief has even issued a rare warning over of mass violence ahead of Netanyahu departure.
Do not let the close result of 60-59 mislead you, the vote that expelled Bibi from the PMO was not particularly dramatic given the special circumstances, but the long weeks before the vote were tense and full of uncertainty.
In September 2019 I published an article titled “Netanyahu started like Modi but ended up like Trump”. In those pre-coronavirus innocent days, Trump was a leading candidate for a second term, and many failed to see the fundamental difference between professional conservative populist politicians like Modi, operating within a party system, and agents of chaos like Trump.
Bibi of 2015 was a conservative leader who respected all Israeli institutions and especially the Supreme Court. Since his legal entanglement, Netanyahu has adopted at least a tinge of an anti-institutional approach, preferring to appoint unsuitable people to key positions.
For example, one of Israel’s greatest disasters ever is April 2021 Meron crowd crush, that resulted with a death-toll of 45 people. Meron is the largest Jewish yatra in Israel each and every year, and everyone knows that professional management of the event is required to prevent casualties. Amir Ohana, Minister of Internal Security, is considered the ultimate symbol of blind loyalty to Mr. Netanyahu. Ohana has appointed an inexperienced police commissioner with expectation that the later would be as loyal as Ohana to the prime minister.
Netanyahu, who is currently on trial for bribery, has been accused of appointing his loyalists and cronies to the most sensitive positions in the law enforcement system. The disaster on Mount Meron has heightened criticism of Netanyahu who is accused of abandoning human life in favour of amateur appointments, designed to assist him legally. The Ministry of Internal Security is just one example of Netanyahu’s harm to the public service. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Communications were also emptied or politicised in the Bibi Era.
Along with the criticism, Netanyahu also has sound supporters who deny the theory that Netanyahu is working for the destruction of state institutions with the help of inappropriate appointments. Dr. Avishay Ben Haim, a prominent journalist and intellectual, divides Israeli society into two groups. The “first Israel” is the privileged secular European-oriented group that hates Netanyahu, while members of “second Israel” – who live in the periphery and their religious parents immigrated to Israel from Islamic countries – adore Bibi. For Ben Haim, the Netanyahu era is not a corruption of Israeli politics and the public service, but a democratisation and “mandalisation” of Israeli politics. The “first Israel” in his opinion, is simply mourning the reduction of its privileges.
There is a grain of truth in his argument, but even Bibi’s supporters cannot deny that he made very generous proposals in the coalition negotiations, and he still could not find a single competent partner to believe him. The orthodoxy among political pundits was that Netanyahu’s loyalty was no longer to the right-wing camp, nor to The Likud party, but only for himself and his supporting family; the working assumption was that Bibi’s unprecedented promises to his potential coalition partners were worthless.
Ben Haim is not the first to divide Israel into tribes, and the truth is that this division helps explaining Netanyahu’s failure in the past two years.
On June 7, 2015, our President Reuven Rivlin delivered what many would come to consider a defining speech, commonly referred to as the “Four Tribes” speech. Israel – he said- is now composed of four growingly equal-sized “tribes” – secular, national-religious, ultra-orthodox and Arab. For the Indian reader who knows how to decipher the political impact of dozens of castes and jatis in India, the Israeli equation is really a child’s play.
Of our four tribes, Netanyahu had solid support among three of them. national-religious and ultra-orthodox voters were in his pocket. He also had nice support among the secular voters, especially those who immigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel and constitute about 12% of the Israeli electorate. Bibi gave up on the Arab voters, most of whom are Muslims. Officially, Arabs are one-fifth of Israel’s citizens, but Palestinians in Jerusalem are boycotting elections, and voter turnout among other Arabs has always been low, usually, they don’t get more than 12-13 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, our parliament.
Thus, Netanyahu had the solid support of more than half of Israel’s MPs in the 2009, 2013 and 2015 elections.
Netanyahu lost his PM post because he lost two semi-tribes. Russian-speaking immigrants were angry at Netanyahu’s surrender to the dictates of the ultra-Orthodox tribe. This created a united anti-religious front against him. At the same time, the national-religious tribe has split into two in recent years. The conservative half-tribe remained loyal to Netanyahu, and the more liberal half became more critical of the prime minister. Naftali Bennett, Israel’s new prime minister, belongs to the liberal half of the tribe. Although he won only a quarter of the votes Bibi won, Naftali Bennett knew how to leverage his modest achievement in the 2021 election and replace Netanyahu after 12 years.
In the last election, Netanyahu realized that the tribe-arithmetic was working against him, and he came up with a brilliant idea that almost succeeded. Netanyahu recognised that Arab voters – who are always marked by pundits on the left side of the political map in Israel – are actually close in their cultural views to the Jewish religious public. For example, many Arab voters oppose equality for LGBTs, just like most religious Jews.
Netanyahu nurtured and legitimised Mansour Abbas who hails from the Islamic Movement, which was established along the lines of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood group. Netanyahu turned Abbas from pariah to king maker. Abbas eventually kicked the old Bibi king and crowned two new kings. Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, who signed a rotation agreement for the prime minister’s chair.
Will the rotation government of Lapid and Bennett last after two years of instability that also included four unnecessary elections? Will the rotation government succeed in persuading the Biden government to stop the Iranian nuclear program? Will the precedent of an Arab party in a Zionist coalition reduce the economic and social disparities between Arabs and Jews in Israel? Will the deteriorating relations between Israel and Jordan be restored? Will this strange coalition of pro-West Bank annexation hawks along with dovish supporters of a Palestinian state succeed in producing a coherent foreign policy?
These are difficult questions. It is likely that as long as there is a danger that Netanyahu can make a comeback, the glue between the partners will work. And vice versa.
But even if it is difficult to offer good answers to difficult questions, one can at least point to a small change in the international gaze on Israel. Netanyahu was a great strategist, he managed the de-hyphenation of the deadlock in Israel-Palestine relations, from the branding of Israel as a strong sought-after country in the international arena. Most citizens of the world who knew anything about Israel knew only Netanyahu. This created great admiration for Israel, and at the same time, it also fuelled hatred towards us, especially when Israel and Hamas fought in Gaza.
In any case, Netanyahu’s greatness had cast a giant shadow over his fellow ministers and the opposition in Israel. We now have a different style of government. A prime minister who is at best first among equals. The Israeli government will make more than one voice in the international arena, and this is an opportunity that may not return to see the State of Israel as a mosaic of attitudes and opinions, a mosaic that was well hidden in the Netanyahu era.