The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The era of Netanyahu is over — or is it?

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For more than a quarter of a century, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has loomed over his nation’s politics. He spent much of that time as premier, including a spell that stretched over the past 12 years and made him the country’s longest-serving ruler. A wily operator and strident nationalist, he bent Israeli politics around his quest to remain in power. Netanyahu plunged Israel through four election cycles during the past two years as his allies and opponents failed to establish a stable ruling government.

Now, Netanyahu’s time may be up. On Wednesday, a motley coalition of parties arrayed against the prime minister agreed to a deal to form a government that would boot Netanyahu and his ruling Likud party out of power. Far-right leader Naftali Bennett, who entered politics as Netanyahu’s chief of staff, is slated to replace his former boss for two years, after which the role of prime minister would rotate to centrist leader Yair Lapid as part of the coalition’s power-sharing agreement.

But Netanyahu is not done fighting. The anti-Netanyahu coalition only has a razor-thin 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, or Israeli parliament. The embattled prime minister is waging a last-ditch campaign against his adversaries in hopes of undermining the procedural parliamentary votes that enable a new government to take office in the coming days. He called on right-wing lawmakers to oppose this “dangerous left-wing government” and resorted to his customary racial incitements, accusing Bennett of caving to Arab interests.

It’s unclear if such tactics will work. The new coalition is united solely in its interest to remove Netanyahu from power. It is made up of former Netanyahu lieutenants and confidants, including the religious nationalist Bennett and right-wing secularist Avigdor Liberman, secular centrists, the tattered remnants of Israel’s shrunken left and a conservative Arab party that Netanyahu himself had courted in an earlier stage of parliamentary maneuvering.

That their party leaders are willing to look past their vast political differences is a reflection of the personal exasperation many feel with the long-ruling prime minister. “Netanyahu, who was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in 2019 and has been on trial for a year, has waged a scorched-earth campaign against prosecutors and judges,” my colleagues reported. “He dissolved parliament in 2018 rather than let rivals have a chance to form a government. He has railed against lawmakers wanting to replace him as leftist radicals, raising fears of political violence harking back to the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Jewish nationalist.”

In recent days, attention has fallen on Bennett, whose politics are arguably further to the right than Netanyahu’s. A champion of the settler movement, he has boasted about killing Palestinians during his tenure in the military and is openly opposed to the idea of a two-state solution — that is, the emergence of a separate, sovereign Palestinian state. (Despite paying lip service to “two states,” Netanyahu has spent much of his political career undermining this stated policy goal of successive U.S. administrations.)

Analysts contend, though, that the factions to Bennett’s left will have veto power over his policies and that the new government will be unable to pursue measures like the long-mooted annexation of parts of the West Bank. That stands in contrast to an alternate scenario in which Netanyahu had managed to stay in office and, beholden to forces even further to his right, opted to cement Israeli domination over nominally Palestinian lands.

“Netanyahu’s preference was to form a government with genuine racist neofascists, whereas Bennett will be helming a government that includes Israel’s peace camp and an Israeli Arab party,” Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum wrote in an emailed memo. “Any discussion of extremism that does not recognize that Netanyahu in June 2021 is far more of a dangerous extremist than Bennett has ever been is not looking at the full picture.”

Prominent members of the Washington foreign policy establishment see the developments as a chance to reinforce flagging bipartisan U.S. support for Israel. “You can’t deny that America is better off with Trump out of the Oval Office,” tweeted Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and lead negotiator for a failed round of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians under the Obama administration. “And so it will be for Israel if the Netanyahus have to vacate Balfour Street.”

In a Wednesday evening webinar, Indyk said the evolving conversation within the United States on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — in which left-leaning activists and lawmakers are now prioritizing equal rights for Palestinians — is a “big problem” for Israel, and one “which has been mightily exacerbated by Netanyahu’s policy of playing partisan politics” and allying himself with the right-wing movement in the United States.

But U.S. Democrats and Republicans are both complicit in underwriting one of the key legacies of Netanyahu’s time in power: Israel’s jettisoning of the peace process in favor of a system of pervasive control that maintains a military occupation over millions of Palestinians, while steadily expanding Jewish settlements and neighborhoods in areas that were once demarcated for a Palestinian state and where Palestinians are fighting to keep their homes.

“The Israelis have abandoned the peace process. They have turned their back on it,” Indyk acknowledged, while adding that the “corrupt” and “sclerotic” Palestinian leadership had also failed. Now, possibly with President Biden’s support, the Israelis “are going to have to come forward with some initiative toward Palestinians in the occupied territories,” he said.

Observers of the Palestinian scene aren’t holding their breath. “I am not viewing Netanyahu’s departure with a sigh of relief,” said Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization, at a panel Thursday hosted by the Arab Center Washington D.C.

Despite their political loathing of Netanyahu, she added, there’s little daylight between the coalition’s major leaders and the prime minister on Palestinian policy. “There is long-standing agreement on one thing — which is how much to crush Palestinians,” Buttu said. “The centrist parties are extremely right-wing.”

The anti-Netanyahu government would preside over the same one-state reality that Netanyahu cultivated under his watch — which Israeli and international rights groups describe as tantamount to apartheid.

“Even sustaining the ‘status quo’ vis-à-vis Palestinians still means perpetuating an oppressive apparatus that has been carefully constructed over decades,” wrote Haggai Matar in the left-leaning +972 Magazine. “With the right holding onto both the most powerful ministries and the ability to shoot down significant legislation, this could be a very dangerous government.”

And then there may still be Netanyahu, in command of the largest bloc of seats in parliament and leader of the opposition, striving to work his way back into power.

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