The Rise and Fall of Netanyahu

Photograph Source: Yaara Di Segni – CC BY 2.0

The rise of Benjamin Netanyahu was very like that of Donald Trump. Both won power as populist nationalist leaders exacerbating and exploiting polarisation within their own countries. Netanyahu inflated the threat from the Palestinians in the eyes of Israeli voters. Trump demonised blacks and immigrants.

Similarly, the stories of how they fell have points in common. Each has lost office by the narrowest of margins – Trump in the presidential election last November; Netanyahu by a single vote in the knesset on Sunday. Their personality cults may be damaged, but they retain a commanding status on the far right – and with it a fighting chance of winning back power.

Any such return to national leadership is likely to be through stirring up antagonism on every side.

“I will lead you in a daily battle against this bad and dangerous left-wing government and bring it down,” Netanyahu told the knesset as he was ousted after twelve years as Israeli prime minister. Trump has continually used the same sort of bellicose rhetoric since he lost the presidential election, most notoriously on the day of the invasion of the Capitol on 6 January.

Netanyahu may well believe that the eight-party coalition that has just replaced him is too fragile to survive, stretching as it does from the far right to the far left. How will it keep on board all its different constituencies? It faces immediate challenges, such as handling Jerusalem’s flag day on Tuesday, when right-wing Israeli groups will parade through Palestinian areas in the old city of Jerusalem.

In the longer term, how will members of the new prime minister Naftali Bennett’s far-right Yamina party react if he does not push forward with settlements on the West Bank or retaliate if a single rocket is fired into Israel from Gaza?

Israeli voters failed to give Netanyahu a majority in four elections spread over two years, but 70 per cent of the Israeli electorate voted for right-wing parties. In other words, Netanyahu is more unpopular than his policies.

The anti-Netanyahu coalition should not be written off automatically, since its leaders will be eager to keep their new ministerial jobs and not return to permanent opposition. Many commentators said that the 11-day Gaza “war” in May would capsize the complex negotiations to form a new government, but they resumed successfully as soon as the bombing stopped.

Palestinians say cynically that, from their point of view, not much is going to change, and certainly not for the better, no matter who is prime minister of Israel. It is easy to understand this point of view, but it ignores the important changes in the political landscape which go well beyond the departure of Netanyahu as prime minster.

The issue is not only the personal political survival of Netanyahu, but the fate of “Netanyahu-ism” as a political formula producing significant advantages for Israel, as it has done in the past.

The most important change here is Joe Biden having replaced Trump, who as president gave Netanyahu all he wanted, including terminating the nuclear deal with Iran and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. Biden, for all his vocal support for Israel, will be very glad to see the end of the Netanyahu era, and will covertly try to make sure that it is permanent.

Equally significant are signs that the automatic support for Israel given by the US (and by the Democratic Party) can no longer be taken for granted, as it once used to be. There is a political price to be paid by Israel for Netanyahu’s embrace of Trump, whom many Americans see as the epitome of political evil.

Another blow to “Netanyahu-ism” was evident in the course of the latest Gaza “war”, which showed that the 7 million Palestinians under complete or partial Israeli control have not been marginalised to the point at which they can be ignored.

The much-trumpeted normalisation of relations between Israel and four Arab countries led by the UAE has turned out not to mean very much.

Instead, the Israel-Palestinian confrontation is erupting on multiple fronts – East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Israel and Gaza – and these outbreaks are cross-infecting each other.

The Palestinians are hobbled by poor and authoritarian leadership, but Netanyahu’s central thesis, which he has sought to prove since he became prime minister for the first time in 1996 – that the Palestinians are a beaten people, and there is no need to reach an accommodation with them – is being shown to be false.

As with Trump in the US, Netanyahu now holds a strange position in Israeli politics. He dominates the right, but he also divides it.

Furthermore, the hatred and fear he evokes provide the glue that bonds together a government made up of his enemies from all political quadrants.

Trump, similarly, gets out the vote for the Republicans, but he also mobilises the vote against them.

Netanyahu failed to win enough seats to form a government in the last four Israeli elections, and – even if the new government collapses – there is no reason to believe that he would do any better in future.

Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).