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The fall of “King Bibi”

How Netanyahu’s ouster could change Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a special session of the Knesset where Israeli lawmakers elected a new president.
Ronen Zvulun/AP

Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, having held the job continuously since 2009. Now, finally, the reign of “King Bibi” — a moniker earned by his lengthy stay in office and authoritarian inclinations — has come to an end.

On Sunday, Netanyahu’s opponents in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, voted to replace him with a “change” coalition: a group of diverse parties from across the Israeli political spectrum united only by their interest in pushing Netanyahu out. The new prime minister is Naftali Bennett, from the far-right Yamina party — though Yair Lapid, from the centrist Yesh Atid party, will have a veto over his decisions.

Netanyahu’s downfall is, more than anything else, the result of his own hubris.

Over the past 12 years, Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics. He’s not only successfully implemented a series of right-wing policies, such as entrenching Israel’s presence in the West Bank, but also consolidated a dangerous amount of power in his own hands. He is currently on trial for corruption charges stemming from, among other things, his attempt to buy off media outlets.

Israeli politics has divided into pro- and anti-Bibi camps; the split is so narrow that Israel has been forced to hold four elections in two years, with none delivering a decisive verdict.

It’s this paralysis, and the looming threat of Netanyahu’s anti-democratic behavior, that brought parties from across the political spectrum together to finally get beyond him.

Bennett will serve as prime minister first, for two years, with Lapid taking over from him after that. It’s a power split that partly reflects the internal divisions inside the coalition, which depends on votes from eight different parties on the right, center, and left. One of the eight is Ra’am, an Islamist party and the first Arab party ever to join an Israeli governing coalition.

Naftali Bennett, center, seen during a special session of the Knesset on June 2.
Ronen Zvulun/AFP/Getty Images

Calling this arrangement unstable is an understatement. The members of this coalition agree on almost nothing and thus will be unable to make major policy changes on most issues without collapsing. This is especially true in the conflict with the Palestinians, where the divides among the coalition parties are arguably most severe. A major event, like another flare-up in Hamas rocket fire, could bring them to each others’ throats — forcing yet another round of elections.

But the fact that this new government exists at all speaks to the desire among many Israelis to move on from the Netanyahu era — a desire that led to a seismic change to Israeli politics.

“Simply replacing Netanyahu is a huge deal,” said Michael Koplow, the policy director at the US-based Israel Policy Forum think tank. “And including an Arab party in a government is a huge deal, even if the coalition falls apart after six months.”

How Netanyahu fell

For 10 years, from 2009 to 2019, Netanyahu rode the long-running rightward drift of the Israeli electorate to victory — defeating his opponents on the center and left through a mix of deft political strategy and demagoguery. But things started to fall apart after Israel’s election in April 2019, when the current political crisis began.

In that vote, Netanyahu’s Likud and allied right-wing parties won a majority of seats in the Knesset, seemingly setting them up for another extension of his historic premiership. But one party, the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, refused to join the government — citing a disagreement over special exemptions for mandatory military service given to ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The inability of Netanyahu or his opponents to form a government then led to another election in September of that year, which was supposed to resolve the deadlock. By then, Israeli politics had come to revolve around one big thing: Netanyahu himself and his alleged abuse of power while in office.

Bibi had served as prime minister once before, from 1996 to 1999. His defeat convinced him that he needed to make Israeli society more pliant to him personally — specifically, by bending the press to his will: “I need my own media,” as he put it at the time.

After his return to the top job, he seems to have tried to turn this proposal into action, allegedly attempting to trade political and regulatory favors for favorable coverage in two other outlets, the leading daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth (Latest News) and the popular online portal Walla! News. He seems to have succeeded with Walla, allegedly reaching a secret deal to approve a merger that its parent company wanted in exchange for slanting the news in his direction.

The head of government attempting to suborn the independent media by handing out favors is not only undemocratic, but also quite possibly illegal. Israel’s attorney general, the conservative Avichai Mandelblit, announced in February 2019 that he would seek to indict the prime minister on a series of corruption and bribery-related charges — including ones that carried up to 10 years of jail time.

By the time of the second election in September 2019, Netanyahu’s maneuvering to avoid prosecution had become increasingly dangerous to Israeli democracy. His allies in the Likud party had already proposed a law that would grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution while in office, allowing him to get away with what looks like an assault on democratic institutions.

The September election was inconclusive: Netanyahu did not have enough support to hold office, but the opposition was too internally divided to form any kind of government. A third election, held in March 2020, had similar results. The outcome was a temporary unity government, designed primarily to respond to the coronavirus outbreak while sidelining the issue of Bibi’s prosecution.

Netanyahu blew up this fragile agreement in December, gambling that a fourth election would get him enough votes to form a more stable right-wing government. But he failed: That election, held in March, yielded the current Knesset.

United Arab List party leader Mansour Abbas speaks to reporters after joining a coalition that forced Benjamin Netanyahu out of office on June 2.
Amir Levy/Getty Images

This time around, Netanyahu’s opponents decided enough was enough: Two years of chaos and elections needed to come to an end.

Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party won the most votes of any in the anti-Netanyahu camp, made a series of agreements with parties across the political spectrum to form the new coalition. This included not only Netanyahu’s longstanding opponents on the left and center, but also right-wing leaders who had previously been either ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet or members of his own party.

The thing bringing these factions together is their shared belief that the chaos of the last two years must end. The only way to do that, they reasoned, is to take Netanyahu out of the top job.

“Netanyahu will not be able to get a majority [in a fifth election] and then we will go to a sixth election,” Bennett, the leader of Yamina, said during coalition discussions. “The country can’t continue like that.”

And now, as a result, Netanyahu has lost the top job — and will be forced to deal with his currently ongoing criminal trial without the power of the premiership.

What will the “change coalition” actually change?

Now, Bennett will serve as prime minister — a job he’ll keep for two years while Lapid serves as foreign minister. After two years, they will rotate, with Lapid taking the top position and Bennett in the cabinet. During the whole period, both of them will have veto power over policy — so even while Bennett is nominally Lapid’s boss, the latter will be able to block the former’s moves at will.

This complex power-sharing agreement is necessary to address the disagreements between these two men in particular and the coalition parties in general. In most of the key policy areas facing Israel, this government will be unable to agree on significant changes.

Take what’s arguably the country’s most important issue: the conflict with the Palestinians. On this, Bennett and Lapid have divergent views. Bennett supports annexing much of the West Bank and opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, while Lapid supports a two-state solution negotiated with the Palestinian leadership. The broader coalition is similarly divided, containing both hawkish factions like Yisrael Beiteinu and dovish ones like Meretz.

Any major actions on the Palestinians, in either an aggressive or conciliatory direction, would divide the change coalition bitterly. The most likely result is that, as long as this government is in power, the conflict will basically remain stuck in its abysmal status quo.

“If [the coalition] stays together, then it will necessarily mean inertia on the issues that affect Palestinians,” says Khaled Elgindy, director of the program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute. “Occupation, settlements, evictions, demolitions, [and the] Gaza blockade continue as they are.”

This is the case on a series of key issues that divide the Israeli left and right, like whether Israel’s courts have gone too far in protecting individual rights. Such controversial topics will, in general, remain untouched by the change coalition — tinkered with at the edges, perhaps, but unaffected in any large way.

“The limits on any contentious action are real. In some ways their mandate will be to just govern,” says Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Israel’s newest prime minister, Naftali Bennett, left, and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid seen speaking during a session of the Knesset on June 2.
Ronen Zvulun/AFP/Getty Images

Nonetheless, there are some exceptions to this rule — areas where the new government could actually make a difference.

First, there’s the area that prompted Yisrael Beiteinu to break with Netanyahu all the way back in April 2019: the relationship between synagogue and state.

In the past, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties have been willing to throw their lot in with governments on both the left and the right so long as the government preserves their privileged status in Israeli law. But in the current standoff, the ultra-Orthodox parties chose to back Netanyahu — and now, as a result, are locked out of power. The right-wing parties in the current coalition are, by the standards of the Israeli right, relatively secular.

Judy Maltz, a reporter at the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, suggests there are still constraints in this area: Both Yamina and Ra’am, the Islamist party, will block some moves toward a more secular society. But at the same time, there are some areas — including reductions in special funding for the ultra-Orthodox, support for public transit on Shabbat, and non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall — where policy change is possible.

Second, there might also be some ability to improve the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel (also known as Arab Israelis). The very fact that one of this group’s leaders is in government for the first time — sharing power with right-wing politicians with a history of anti-Arab agitation — is a testament to the rising influence and growing legitimacy that Arab Israelis have in the Jewish-dominated political mainstream.

To keep Ra’am happy, the new coalition will need to provide concrete accomplishments that its members can show to its long-marginalized constituents. The party’s leader, Mansour Abbas, has already demanded more funding for infrastructure in Arab communities and an end to building codes that disadvantage Arabs — but there’s much more the coalition could do.

One of the top issues for Arab Israelis is a surge in Arab organized crime that has led to a murder epidemic; in 2019, 71 percent of Israeli murder victims were Arab, despite Palestinian citizens making up only 21 percent of the Israeli population. The Netanyahu government failed to adequately address this problem with police resources; perhaps, the new one will.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the change in government opens up prospects for political change.

For 20 years, the political right has dominated Israeli politics. Right-wing dominance empowered Netanyahu to both deepen the occupation of the West Bank and assault democracy inside Israel’s borders — two trends that are closely related.

Dethroning Netanyahu won’t put a stop to the occupation, nor will it entirely stop Israel’s slide away from democracy. But by ending Netanyahu’s chokehold on Israeli politics, it will create the possibilities for a move beyond the political status quo. Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli political strategist and fellow at the Century Foundation, puts the point well in a piece for the Guardian:

Part of Netanyahu’s staying power has been the snowball effect of consolidating power. Voters cannot imagine anyone else governing, hence the oft-heard refrain “There’s no one else but him”. A new government would demonstrate that there is. If the rotation for prime minister goes as planned, from Bennett to Lapid, citizens will see that there are even two someone elses. That’s healthy for democracy.

Of course, it’s also possible that things go the other way. Once Netanyahu is out of the picture, perhaps even in jail, his Likud party will be free to join with the right-wing members of the coalition and the religious parties in a far-right coalition.

But that’s the nature of change: It’s unpredictable. Whether it ends up being for better or for worse in the long run is hard to say, but what’s clear is that some kind of change is finally coming to Israeli politics.

“I’m not optimistic about Israel, ever,” says Hadas Aron, a professor at New York University who studies Israeli politics. “But I do think it’s not meaningless that someone else will be in government, that something else could at least have the potential to rise.”

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