Nothing seems to be working for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has tried every trick in the book to save his political career and avoid a possible prison sentence. Nevertheless, for Israel’s longest-serving leader, the end is almost certainly nigh.
Netanyahu described his indictment on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust by Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on 21 November as an “attempted coup”. His loyalists agree. On 26 November, a few thousand Likud party supporters gathered in Tel Aviv, under the banner “Stop the coup” to express their anger at what they see as a massive conspiracy involving Mandelblit, the media, various state institutions and “disloyal” Likud members.
The Prime Minister’s main Likud rival, Gideon Sa’ar, received much of the verbal abuse that was going. Sa’ar, who almost faded into oblivion after leaving the Knesset in 2014, emerged once more on Israel’s political scene following the inconclusive General Election in April this year. Netanyahu’s failure to form a government then was compounded by a similar failure to cobble up a government coalition after the second General Election held in September.
Since 2014, no one has dared to challenge Netanyahu’s reign over Likud. “There was no need to do so,” wrote Yossi Verter in Haaretz on 29 November. Netanyahu “brought them to power, time after time. But [a] few things [have] happened since then.”
It is because of these “few things” that Sa’ar dared to challenge Netanyahu once more. What is significant about his leadership challenge is not the possibility of him unseating Netanyahu, but the fact that the “king of Israel” no longer commands the type of fear and respect that he has painstakingly espoused over a decade of nearly uncontested rule.
As soon as Sa’ar called for new Likud leadership primaries, Netanyahu’s political minions, such as Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz, as well as heavyweight politicians — Nir Barkat, and Miri Regev among others — pounced on Sa’ar, describing him as “disloyal”. The Tel Aviv protesters had far more demeaning words for the rebel Likud member. However, despite the deafening screams and the name-calling, Netanyahu conceded, promising on 23 November that he would set up and face a party leadership challenge within weeks.
Embattled Netanyahu has no other choice. Although he may still come out in the lead should the primaries be held on time, he cannot afford to deepen the doubts within Likud. If he fails to ensure his legitimacy within his own party, he could hardly make the case that he is the one to lead Israel following a possible third General Election next March.
However, Sa’ar is not Netanyahu’s biggest problem. The picture for Netanyahu — in fact, for all of Israel — is getting more complicated by the day. The Israeli leader has managed successfully to coalesce his own political and family interests within the collective interests of all Israelis. “I’m doing everything required to ensure the government’s and cabinet’s work is getting done in all the ways required to ensure the safety of Israel’s citizens,” he told a reporter on 23 November, insisting that he is still carrying out his duties as a Prime Minister “in the best possible way, out of supreme devotion to Israel’s security.”
Desperate to hang on to power for as long as possible, Netanyahu still employs the same political discourse that helped him unify many sectors of Israeli society for over ten years. That ploy, though, is no longer reaping the intended result. Netanyahu’s main rival Benny Gantz of the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) Party, has neutralised the Prime Minister’s success in manipulating the term “security”, for he, too, is an advocate of war, whenever and wherever war is possible.
Netanyahu’s last war against the Gaza Strip, on 12 November, when the Israeli army killed 34 Palestinians, including women and children, is a case in point. During the short but destructive offensive, Gantz was busy trying to form a government, following Netanyahu’s failure to do so. Resorting to war, Netanyahu tried to send three messages, all intended for Israeli audiences: one to Mandelblit, to postpone the indictment; the second to Gantz, to reconsider his decision to block him from taking part in a future government; and the final one to the Israeli public, to remind them of his own supposed ability to rein-in “terror”.
But all of that has failed: Gantz announced his inability to form a government on 20 November, preferring failure over extending a lifeline to Netanyahu, whose indictment was imminent. Indeed, the Attorney General’s decision arrived on the following day, making it the first time in the history of the country that a Prime Minister has been indicted while in office. Worse, Blue and White widened its lead significantly over Likud, according to a public opinion poll commissioned by Israel’s Channel 12 television, which was published on 26 November.
What other language, aside from that of war in the name of “security” and haphazard accusations of political conspiracies, can Netanyahu possibly employ during this period? Such tactics often worked in the past. In fact, they worked so well that his entire political doctrine was built around them. Now the Israeli leader has run out of ideas, and is quickly running out of allies as well, not only from without, such as his former ally and the head of Yisrael Beiteinu Avigdor Lieberman, but also from within his own party.
The reason that Netanyahu is still in power after all the setbacks and outright failures is the fact that his rivals are yet to mobilise the necessary votes and public support to oust him for good. It will certainly take more than Gantz on his own to dislodge stubborn Netanyahu from office, for the latter has consolidated and entrenched his rule through an intricate system of political patronage that runs deep across many facets of Israeli society.
With this in mind, it seems that the end of the Netanyahu era is finally upon us, but it is likely to be a longer and uglier ending than expected. While it remains true that a fundamental change in Israel’s political system will neither deliver peace nor justice to the Palestinians — or stability to the region — it could potentially constitute the equivalent of a political earthquake lying in wait within Israel itself. The consequences of this are yet to be seen, but are unlikely to be pretty.