In recent days, he and his lieutenants have launched round after round of attacks against his would-be successors. Chief in their crosshairs is Naftali Bennett — the far-right politician who was once a close ally of Netanyahu, but who is slated to become prime minister for the next two years as part of the anti-Netanyahu coalition’s power-sharing agreement. Netanyahu raged at Bennett’s perceived treachery, insisting his former chief of staff sold out Israel’s right-wing voters in favor of the supposedly “dangerous” and “left-wing” coalition — no matter that the bulk of its members belong to centrist or right-wing parties.
In language redolent of his close friend, former U.S. president Donald Trump, Netanyahu accused his opponents of being the architects of “the fraud of a century” and cast himself as the victim of plots by Israel’s “deep state.” This conspicuous demagoguery has suffused Netanyahu’s political rhetoric in recent years, as he sought to evade corruption charges while plunging the country into a seemingly interminable spiral of four elections in two years. A trial related to allegations of media bribery is ongoing.
The head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, issued a rare warning about “extremely violent and inciting discourse” aimed at lawmakers opposed to Netanyahu. A Shin Bet official told Vice News that the agency, which is usually far more focused on the threats facing Israel from the Palestinian territories, is alarmed by the upheavals within the Israeli right. “We are seeing threats and schisms within radical groups that need to be closely monitored because of fears extremists could act violently,” the official said.
In other words, Netanyahu is laying the groundwork for a scenario not that dissimilar from what transpired in the first week of January in the United States. “With his brother-in-arms Trump out of power, consumed by incoherent ranting and mumbling in Mar-a-Lago about how the election was stolen from him by Democrats and the media, Netanyahu has one last page to copy from Trump’s playbook: creating his own ‘January 6,’ ” Alon Pinkas wrote in the left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz. “As a result of incitement and disinformation, judges, prosecutors and now also the leaders of the opposition are receiving extra protection after Netanyahu’s cultlike supporters threatened their lives.”
Over the weekend, Bennett urged Netanyahu to relent and cease his “scorched earth” campaign. “If Netanyahu decides to ‘burn down the club,’ he will harm the country and harm his legacy,” tweeted Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister and another lead figure in the anti-Netanyahu coalition. “I call on him to accept the democratic results and to respect the democratic process as we have always done, even when it was very difficult for large sections of Israeli society.”
Netanyahu and his loyalists seem undeterred. He has not “specifically condemned the demonstrators outside the homes and offices of Bennett, [centrist leader Yair] Lapid and many others,” reported my colleague Shira Rubin. “The protesters have issued thinly veiled death threats and hoisted signs carrying slogans and images reminiscent of those seen in the lead-up to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Rabin was shot dead by an extremist Jewish settler who said his ‘leftist’ government’s peace agreements with the Palestinians amounted to ‘treason.’”
A similar atmosphere exists now. On Israeli television, May Golan, a parliamentarian from Netanyahu’s Likud party, described Bennett and other leaders of the possible new government as “terrorists” and “suicide bombers.” Netanyahu himself took to Israel’s Channel 20, a network akin to some of the right-wing U.S. channels that repeated Trump’s false claims about the November election, to bemoan the supposed plots against him and rail against other Israeli news outlets. After the social media accounts of the prime minister’s son, Yair Netanyahu, were temporarily suspended when he urged supporters to picket the house of an opposition lawmaker, Likud officials cast themselves as victims of Big Tech “censorship.”
The echoes of Trump’s last weeks in office are, of course, deafening. And, to a certain extent, they ought to give Netanyahu a degree of confidence. No matter Trump’s flagrant disregard for the rule of law and his alleged incitement of the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, a significant portion of the American public believes that he was right and that the election was stolen. Loyal Republicans in the Senate shielded Trump from impeachment, giving him a theoretical path back to power. And Republican legislatures in a number of states are weaponizing Trump’s outrage to push through voting laws that critics say will restrict the franchise in upcoming elections.
“President Trump tells a big lie that elections are rigged,” Yale historian Timothy Snyder wrote. “This authorizes him and others to seek power in extra-democratic ways. The lie is institutionalized by state legislation that suppresses voting, and that gives state legislatures themselves the right to decide how to allocate the electoral vote in presidential elections.”
If Netanyahu’s latest gambit fails and he is unable to peel off right-wing defectors from his opponents’ coalition, he will still remain a prominent political force as Likud’s leader. There’s no guarantee the new coalition — whose sole uniting principle was to oust Netanyahu — will complete its full term, during which Bennett is expected to yield the job of prime minister to centrist leader Yair Lapid.
Even if it does endure, the next Israeli government will probably carry forward much of Netanyahu’s legacy — not least the prime minister’s approach to the Palestinians. But the ire of Likud voters and those of other right-wing factions left out in the cold will linger. Bennett’s chances of “winning enough seats in a future election to return as prime minister are exceedingly slim,” wrote Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer. “A leader of a small party serving as prime minister is a bizarre occurrence that will not repeat itself.”