Netanyahu and the long shadow of an Israeli demagogue

Netanyahu and the long shadow of an Israeli demagogue
6 min read
09 Jun, 2021
Opinion: Netanyahu's 12-year tenure was marked by his ability to ride the political waves of right-wing ethno-nationalism, and his political opportunism at home and abroad, writes Mitchell Plitnick.
Israel’s parliament will vote on the new government on Sunday [Getty]

No one can unite the opposition quite like a demagogue.

Historically, we've often seen the personal excesses of rulers lead to their demise. Recently, we saw Donald Trump unite disparate foes, and now we are seeing a similar process taking shape in Israel, where - like Trump - Benjamin Netanyahu seems about to leave office under a dark cloud of corruption charges, intentionally leaving unprecedented unrest in his wake.

The coalition poised to oust Netanyahu includes, for the first time, an independent, conservative Palestinian party, a left-wing Zionist party, several centrist parties, and three sharply right-wing parties. The only thing uniting them is their passion to drive Netanyahu from office.

It seems likely this coalition will force Netanyahu out after his 12-year reign. But this assemblage is inherently unstable, and its majority is only a single Knesset seat. It will need to stay together at least long enough to ensure that Netanyahu will not run in the next election, whenever that might be.

"His shadow will loom over Israeli politics for some time" 

Experienced observers are not counting Netanyahu out until he actually leaves, and even then, his shadow will loom over Israeli politics for some time. It's a remarkable statement about a man whose time in office was characterised more by his mastery of riding the political waves that were pressing the country ever rightward toward ethno-nationalism, than by his leadership in navigating those tides.

Though undoubtedly right-wing, Netanyahu is driven more by self-interest than ideology. He often co-opted or simply rode the political wave of right-wing ideas and initiatives started by others.

For example, Israel's "Nation-State Law," widely derided by Netanyahu's critics inside Israel and around the world, originated with Avi Dichter, a Knesset member who later did join Likud but was, at the time, a member of the rival Kadima party. By the time the law was passed in 2018, it was inextricably linked to Netanyahu.

While Netanyahu has employed his share of racist dog whistles, his political embrace of extremist parties like Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) - which espouses the ideology of the late Meir Kahane, so racist he was thrown out of the Knesset for it - is more typical of the stealthy way in which he has capitalised on increasing ethnic nationalism and racism in Israel.

During his time in office, Netanyahu has devastated Gaza repeatedly, leading to the recent decision by the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into war crimes since 2014 in the blockaded Gaza Strip, as well as in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu also perfected the art of quiet annexation. While he publicly embraced the Trump administration's audacious plan for annexing large chunks of the West Bank, he promoted it with only a token effort and weathered the inevitable backlash without much concern. He knew that settlement expansion was going to move inexorably forward, that the slow pace would deflect international attention, and that there was little Palestinians could do about it. As a result, the settlers and ultra-orthodox parties remained loyal to him to the bitter end, despite frequently criticizing him. 

That is a legacy that long preceded Netanyahu and is likely to live on well after he leaves. The new governing coalition has already made it clear it intends to maintain the status quo with the Palestinians and on other regional issues as much as it can.

"He leaves behind an Israel that is significantly more right-wing than the one he inherited, with a political alignment that will bear his mark for years to come"

Netanyahu has stoked tensions with Iran but repeatedly stopped short of actions that could lead to protracted, direct confrontations. He has thus cultivated a "comfort zone" for most Jewish Israelis while maintaining enough sense of unease to keep himself in office as "the only one who could provide security."

This left Netanyahu free to pursue his goal of establishing relations with Muslim countries without making any concessions to Palestinians. Ultimately, it was the Trump administration, through lavish arms sales or major political concessions that facilitated normalisation deals, known as the Abraham Accords, with the UAE and Bahrain, and used political incentives to lock down deals with others such as Morocco and Sudan.

Since the 1980s, Netanyahu has been a favourite of right-wing forces in both the US and Israel. An outspoken opponent of the Oslo Accords,  he was justifiably blamed by many for the incitement that led to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. After winning the next election, Netanyahu brought significant economic changes to Israel, reducing social services and bringing the country's economy closer to a US model with de-regulation, increasing private ownership, and globalisation.

Even that first term was marred by scandals and corruption, like those that have dogged him in the past few years. He lost the next election, but after Likud split in 2005, he again became leader of the party. In 2009, Netanyahu brought Likud back to leadership and himself back to the prime minister's chair where he has remained ever since.

When it comes to the issues of the Palestinians and Iran, this new coalition will aim to restore bipartisanship on Israel in Washington, and reverse the trend Netanyahu established of alienating both the Democratic party and the bulk of the American Jewish community. It was this that finally opened the door in Washington to substantive debate over US policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, and the new government will try to put that genie back in the bottle.

If this is Netanyahu's denouement, he will leave as the longest-tenured prime minister in history, despite never having achieved the stature within the country of many of his predecessors. Yet despite his relatively low popularity while in office, Netanyahu did more to shape the political landscape of Israel than anyone other than David Ben-Gurion.

He leaves behind an Israel that is significantly more right-wing than the one he inherited, with a political alignment that will bear his mark for years to come. He leaves the Palestinians in even worse conditions than the desperate ones he found them in, although perhaps so desperate that the unity that has eluded them for years may now be on the horizon.

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.

Follow him on Twitter: @MJPlitnick

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