An expert's point of view on a current event.

Bibi Is No Houdini

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a political magician who has run out of tricks—and his stubbornness is stopping the Israeli right from winning convincingly and governing the country.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks over his glasses as he and Education Minister Gidon Saar chat at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting October 18, 2009 in Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks over his glasses as he and Education Minister Gidon Saar chat at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting October 18, 2009 in Jerusalem. David Silverman/Getty Images

Fog still hangs over Israel’s political future in the wake of the country’s March 2 election. The Likud party, under the leadership of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, won the largest number of seats in the next Knesset, but neither Netanyahu nor his chief rival, Benny Gantz, is a shoo-in to form a new government. What administrative construct will emerge to run Israel after more exasperating horse-trading between various parties remains unknown.

One thing has been taken as a foregone conclusion amid the uncertainty. Netanyahu, a consensus of pundits proclaimed, is a magician. He’s not.

That’s not to say he isn’t politically talented. Netanyahu’s acumen for politics is undeniable. After two previous ballots ended in deadlock and with little expectation of a different result this past time around, he managed—through a combination of skill, grit and dirty tricks—to bring out the vote and deliver Likud its best showing in 17 years.

He lined up his electoral ducks masterfully, prompting his right-wing allies to pledge, in writing, that they would champion his candidacy exclusively. He cultivated U.S. President Donald Trump expertly, extracting from him a series of unprecedented concessions to Israel’s policy positions; the so-called deal of the century is only the latest manifestation of this feat. And then, last week, he pulled a rabbit out of a hat at the polls, maneuvering back into striking range of a renewed mandate as premier.

If Israel’s longest-serving prime minister does possess any superpowers, however, their scope has been greatly exaggerated.

His efforts contributed surely and significantly to the robust exploits of the nation’s right, which now comprises 58 of the 120 representatives to the incoming Knesset. (The other 62 representatives are a more disparate, heterogenous lot.) 

But Jewish citizens of today’s State of Israel—where they comprise 74 percent of the populationare predominantly conservative, and thus were naturally predisposed to Netanyahu’s views. This demographic has despaired largely of hopes for peace with the Palestinians since the failure of the Camp David negotiations in 2000 and the subsequent wave of terrorism that has left more than 1,000 Israelis dead.

Orthodox Jews, a core component of this community, are the fastest-growing sector by far within Israeli society. Netanyahu catered to the fears and passions of these hawkish and religiously observant voters, stoking their feelings of disenfranchisement from civil institutions, but he marched essentially through an open door that is not of his own particular making. Another Likud leader could have cleaned up, rather than just winning a convincing plurality for the right.

Indeed, those who depict Netanyahu as some sort of Harry Houdini fail to grasp how much better Likud could have performed. While Netanyahu bolstered the specific fortunes of his Likud faction, the capacity of the party and its satellites to field a new coalition would have been enhanced—and better positioned to close the deal—under alternative management.

Netanyahu wanted desperately for Likud to capture the most seats, demonstrating no qualms about pillaging supporters from his erstwhile partners. Having succeeded in this mission, he has celebrated this achievement as a vindication of his controversial tenure. (Netanyahu is slated to stand trial starting next week on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.) But in an election that amounted to a referendum on his personal performance, Netanyahu, it is becoming increasingly clear, got the short end of the stick.

Another steward of Likud could have better capitalized on widespread public sympathy for the party’s platform. If Netanyahu had been replaced by a different, less selfish principal, two trend lines would have likely taken shape. The first would reflect the return of disaffected Likud enthusiasts who couldn’t stomach Netanyahu’s behavior and, in many cases, escaped to find shelter in Blue and White; for this group, Likud remains the genuine article—and they’d be back home in a heartbeat if Netanyahu left the throne.

The second would be the flight of Likudniks uncomfortable with Netanyahu’s departure to other right-leaning parties. In this scenario, Likud might have earned fewer Knesset seats, but its bloc would have sailed easily to victory—and a new Likud leader would become Israel’s next prime minister atop a large and stable right-wing coalition.

The contrast between these two alternate realities will become more vivid once Netanyahu begins spending his days in court and being photographed daily in the dock. His sheen of invincibility will lose some of its luster. Circumstances may then provide an impetus for Likud to switch stallions and move toward some resolution of the current political confusion.

Once Netanyahu begins spending his days in court, his sheen of invincibility will lose some of its luster, providing an impetus for Likud to switch stallions.

In the interim, chaos reigns. Netanyahu’s Likud is demanding a vote recount and petitioning for final results not to be presented to Israel’s president, after which they will be rendered official. And law enforcement officials are working overtime to sort through the mud that Israeli politicians are continuing to heave at each other. Pending, among other complaints, are a Likud bid for Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to open a probe into alleged corruption by Yisrael Beiteinu chief Avigdor Liberman—who has aligned himself with Gantz against Netanyahu—and a parallel accusation that Likud itself hired sleuths to dig up dirt surreptitiously on Gantz.

On election night, when Likud and its fellow travelers seemed closer to a 61-seat majority, talk had concentrated on “incentivizing” defectors to join a Netanyahu coalition. That option disappeared when the right wing’s triumph proved underwhelming and has given way since to a consideration of a Gantz-led minority government—counting only 40 participants, and with outside support from Yisrael Beiteinu and the 15-member Joint List. (Difficulties on this road include the resistance of some Blue and White deputies to relying upon the patronage of the mostly Arab Joint List.)

Netanyahu, railing against this possibility, has assailed Gantz for subverting the public will and attempting to “steal the election.” The threat to Netanyahu is compounded palpably by this group’s stated intent to pass two pieces of legislation whose effect would be to bar him from ever returning as prime minister—a measure that may be the only thing on which Gantz’s Blue and White party, Yisrael Beiteinu, and the Joint List can agree.

Once Blue and White’s raison d’être of toppling Netanyahu becomes superfluous, the party—a balancing act between members who sport differences of opinion on other issues—could disintegrate.

The post-Netanyahu future is unclear. Once Blue and White’s raison d’être of toppling Netanyahu becomes superfluous, the party—a balancing act between members who sport differences of opinion on other issues—could disintegrate and disappear from the stage. Absent the Netanyahu brand, Likud too could shrink significantly in size, buoying the prospects of parties who share its agenda. 

But if Israel’s three elections of the past 12 months offer any clue, it’s that Netanyahu’s dubious wizardry is holding his right-wing camp back from asserting power and prolonging the country’s nightmare of instability.

After a period of consolidation during which splinter groups merged together in larger frameworks, Israelis could find themselves once again with a fragmented and even more unruly political landscape. And with the possibility of a fourth election—dreaded, to be sure, but not impossible—around the corner, that reality may come to pass sooner than anyone had ever imagined.

Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow of the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive Israeli premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Twitter: @ShalomLipner