Netanyahu’s shadow is beginning to fade in Israel
TTHE PARALLEL UNIVERSE The politics that played out in Jerusalem this month were unusual even for a holy city full of surprises. In the real Jerusalem on October 10th, Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Prime Minister (pictured) welcomed Germany’s outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel to a special meeting of his cabinet. In the beyond Jerusalem, Bennett’s predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu, held court with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the son-in-law and daughter of America’s ex-President Donald Trump, and Mike Pompeo, his last foreign secretary. It was like the video had been dragged back to 2020, before voters drove them all from power.
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In office, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Trump hugged. Without power, they still cast shadows over the politics of their countries. Mr. Trump railed against the allegedly “stolen” American elections of 2020. Mr. Netanyahu accepted the result of the Israeli vote this year, but believed that Mr. Bennett was illegal. Believers still refer to Mr. Netanyahu as “Prime Minister”.
His Likud party remains the largest in parliament, while Mr Bennett heads an insane left-to-right coalition of eight parties that includes the Arab-Islamist Ra’am faction. But for all the oddity, the coalition has proven to be more solid than many expected when it took power in June, and has changed the tone of Israeli politics. “I tell the Americans it’s like after Trump. This is decompression, ”says Merav Michaeli, Labor Party leader and Minister of Transport. “The madness is gone. That alone makes a big difference. People are breathing again. “
If Netanyahu poses as proto-Trump, the new coalition could offer an antidote to his polarizing populism. That it represents a broad spectrum of Israeli society can offer a new model of consensus politics.
But first it has to survive. The coalition is soon facing its toughest test, over the budget. Israel hasn’t had one for three years. With a two-seat majority, the government is vulnerable to the whims of any of its members. If the budget is not approved by November 14th, an election will be called. So far, however, there has been surprisingly little brinkmanship. It helps that Mr Bennett has money to distribute: the economy is growing and ultra-Orthodox parties are not in the coalition demanding large subsidies for religious institutions.
With a budget in hand, it will be difficult to replace the coalition before the next budget deadline in 2023. A replacement would require 61 votes for a new prime minister or election, but Netanyahu can only muster 53. Arab holds the rest. Parties who are not on his side. According to the coalition agreement, in two years’ time, Mr Bennett will give way to Yair Lapid, center-left leader Yesh Atid and the government’s architect.
Mr. Bennett has developed from a right-wing brakeman to a centrist problem solver. He has apparently been successfully playing with booster jabs to avoid another lockdown to contain the pandemic. On October 27, the government passed a law to break the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate’s monopoly on issuing kosher certificates. Above all, it tries to improve the situation of Arab citizens after the municipal violence in May. It has passed laws that allow thousands of illegally built homes (mostly Bedouin families) to be plugged into electricity. The budget provides more money for Arab quarters. Abroad, the government is working to improve relations with European countries and the Democratic Party of America, which were broken under Netanyahu. It has opened embassies in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Still, Mr. Netanyahu remains the most capable politician in the country. He has dominated public life for much of the past quarter century, not only as the country’s longest-serving prime minister, but also as a formidable opposition leader.
Mr Bennett’s coalition survives through an act of amnesia: its parties put aside the most divisive issue, the question of the occupation Palestinians. This has proven easier than said. Years of bloodshed and disillusionment have built a consensus. The left admits that there is little support for the creation of a Palestinian state; The Right recognizes that annexation of the entire West Bank is out of reach. The Palestinians are left behind in a patchwork of autonomous zones.
This pact could break. Another war in Gaza could force Ra’am to withdraw. The attempt by the Biden government to reopen an American consulate in Jerusalem to serve the Palestinians could lead to the defection of the right. The military conflict with Iran threatened by Israel is fraught with risks.
On the day he was deposed in June, Mr. Netanyahu confidently promised that “we’ll be back soon.” But lately he seemed to be admitting the government could hold its full term, telling loyalists that the Likud could be back in power “in two weeks or another three and a half years”.
Can Mr. Netanyahu wait that long? At 72 years of age, there is little attraction to being an opposition leader. Well-paid speeches and directorships beckon. But as a member of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), he is forbidden to earn any money other than his parliamentary salary. He faces the high legal costs of defending himself against multiple fraud and bribery charges, which he denies. Giving up his seat, however, would lose his aura as a waiting prime minister, which could undermine the dynamism of his process. Challengers are already emerging within the Likud.
By staying in office, Mr. Netanyahu provides the glue that holds the government together. “We are not satisfied with many measures,” says a coalition member. “But as long as Netanyahu is there, we will stick together. Nobody wants to be held responsible for leaving him behind. ” ■
This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the heading “Bibi’s long bye-bye”