Netanyahu’s shadow begins to recede in Israel
TIT PARALLEL-UNIVERSE the politics that unfolded in Jerusalem this month were unusual, even for a holy city full of surprises. In real Jerusalem on October 10, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (pictured) made a big gesture to outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel by welcoming her to a special cabinet session. In another-worldly Jerusalem, Mr. Bennett’s predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu, was in court with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, son-in-law and daughter of former US President Donald Trump, and Mike Pompeo, his last secretary of ‘State. It was as if the video had been cut back to 2020, before voters kicked them all out of power.
At the office, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Trump kissed. Out of power, they still cast shadows on the politics of their countries. Mr. Trump protests against the allegedly “stolen” US elections of 2020. Mr. Netanyahu accepts the result of the Israeli vote this year, but considers Mr. Bennett to be illegitimate. Worshipers still refer to Mr. Netanyahu as “prime minister.”
His Likud party remains the largest in parliament, while Mr. Bennett chairs a crazy eight-party coalition, stretching from left to right and including an Arab Islamist faction, Ra’am. But, for all its quirk, the coalition has proven to be stronger than many imagined when it took power in June, and has changed the tone of Israeli politics. âI tell Americans it’s like after Trump. It’s decompression, âsays Merav Michaeli, leader of the Labor Party and Minister of Transport. âThe madness is gone. That in itself makes a huge difference. People are breathing again.
If Mr. Netanyahu presents himself as proto-Trump, then the new coalition could offer an antidote to his polarizing populism. The fact that he represents a wide range of Israeli society may offer a new model of consensual politics.
But first he must survive. The coalition will soon face its toughest test, on the budget. Israel hasn’t had one in three years. With a two-seat majority, the government is vulnerable to the whims of any of its members. If the budget is not adopted by November 14, an election will be called. So far, there has been surprisingly little team spirit, however. It helps that Mr. Bennett has money to distribute: the economy is growing and the ultra-Orthodox parties are not in the coalition to demand large grants for religious institutions.
With a budget in hand, the coalition will be difficult to overthrow before the next budget deadline in 2023. Removing it would require 61 votes for a new prime minister or an election, but Mr. Netanyahu can only muster 53. The balance is held by the Arabs. parties that will probably not side with him. As part of the coalition deal, Bennett is expected to give way in two years to Yair Lapid, leader of the center-left Yesh Atid party and architect of the government.
Mr. Bennett has gone from a right-wing gadfly to a centrist problem solver. He played, apparently successfully, on recall shots 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 seeks to improve the lot of Arab citizens after the community violence in May. It passed legislation allowing thousands of illegally built homes (mostly Bedouin families) to be connected to the electricity grid. The budget allocates more money to Arab neighborhoods. Abroad, the government is working to strengthen relations with European countries and the American Democratic Party that have frayed under Mr. Netanyahu. It has opened embassies in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Nonetheless, 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 leader of the opposition.
Mr. Bennett’s coalition survives on an act of amnesia: his parties put aside the most controversial issue, the issue of Palestinians living under occupation. It turned out to be easier to do than say. Years of bloodshed and disenchantment have created a consensus. The left concedes 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 therefore find themselves in a mosaic of autonomous zones.
This pact could break. Another war in Gaza could force Ra’am to withdraw. The Biden administration’s attempt to reopen an American consulate in Jerusalem to serve the Palestinians could lead to the defection of the right. The military conflict with Iran, which Israel threatens, is fraught with risks.
On the day of his ouster in June, Mr. Netanyahu confidently promised that “we will be back soon.” But lately he appeared to admit the government could last its entire term, telling loyalists Likud could be back in power “in two weeks or three and a half years.”
Can Mr. Netanyahu wait that long? At 72, being leader of the opposition has little appeal. Well-paid speeches and mandates await you. But as a member of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), he is prohibited from earning any money other than his parliamentary salary. He faces the high legal cost of defending against multiple fraud and corruption charges, which he denies. Still, giving up his seat would take away his aura as a pending prime minister, which could affect the dynamics of his trial. Already challengers are emerging within Likud.
By staying, Mr. Netanyahu provides the glue that holds the government together. âWe are not happy with a lot of policies,â says a coalition member. âBut as long as Netanyahu is there, we will stay together. No one wants to be blamed for letting it come back. â
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the title “Bibi’s long bye-bye”