Dispatch

The Political Wizardry of Benjamin Netanyahu

In one stroke, the Israeli leader has extended his term and weakened an opponent.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivering a speech in Ramat Gan on Dec. 2, 2018. Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—Benjamin Netanyahu just did it again.

The longest-serving leader in Israel’s history appears to have struck a deal with the head of the opposition that would allow him to serve as prime minister for another 18 months, once again demonstrating his total mastery over Israeli politics.

In doing so, Netanyahu managed to force a split in the rival Blue and White party, dramatically weakening the one political force that posed a challenge to his leadership and coopting its erstwhile leader, Benny Gantz.

The agreement, which still needs to be hammered out in detail, was struck shortly before the opposition was to pull off a complex parliamentary maneuver that could have loosened Netanyahu’s grip on power.

But Gantz withdrew his support for the maneuver at the last minute, agreeing instead to provide Netanyahu with the margin for a solid governing majority, one that eluded him in three election cycles over the past year.

“Time after time, Netanyahu proves that he’s the last politician [standing],” wrote Yoav Krakovsky, a political commentator for Israel’s public broadcaster Kan, on its website. “He’s the one that knows how to play the game, to control the narrative—and defeat all his rivals.”

Under the deal, Netanyahu would continue serving as prime minister till late next year and then cede the position to Gantz, who would also serve for an 18-month period. It was not immediately clear what guarantees Gantz received regarding the rotation of power or how it would be enforced.

Gantz said he agreed to join a Netanyahu-led government—after promising voters he would not do so under any circumstances—because of the public health and economic crises spawned by the coronavirus outbreak. Netanyahu is facing trial for corruption charges, which Gantz had previously said made him unfit to govern.

“At this hour, no one has the right to stand idly by,” Gantz said after news of the deal emerged. “Everyone must put Israel before everything else.”

Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud party, has been sharply criticized for his handling of the outbreak and for allowing a deterioration in Israel’s public health system for years. But he has used the crisis to his advantage. Earlier this month, he ordered the closing of most courts, a decision that delayed the start of his own trial from March to May.

After three general elections in less than a year—the last one on March 2—the deal would give Israel its first durable government since December 2018.

Gantz faced severe criticism for the move from his own camp. Just last month, he described Netanyahu as a dangerous autocrat—the Israeli version of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. More than half the members of his Blue and White party, an amalgam of several factions, refused to join a Netanyahu-led government and will remain in opposition.

A political cartoon in the liberal Haaretz newspaper depicted Gantz ejecting from a crashing Blue and White party plane (Gantz’s three-general party leadership was nicknamed “the cockpit”) into a firefighter’s jump net secured by Netanyahu and his coalition partners.

Gantz joins a line of center-left politicians who have challenged Netanyahu and then joined forces with him—only to see their credibility tarnished. The list includes Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni, and Isaac Herzog.

“There’s no debating it. Netanyahu has won big. Even though the elections ended in a tie again, in which there was no possibility for anyone to form a government, Gantz raised a white flag and gave Netanyahu triple victory,” wrote Tal Shalev, the political correspondent for Israel’s Walla News website.

“He violated his promise not to sit with [Netanyahu] and gave him another year and a half in power. He agreed … to share responsibility for the coming corona failures, and the cherry on top: He dismantled the most serious ruling alternative to the Likud in the last decade.”

Netanyahu succeeded, in part, thanks to the yawning gap in political experience between himself and Gantz, the former military chief of staff who entered politics just 18 months ago. At 70, Netanyahu has been in politics for more than three decades. He demonstrated remarkable stamina during the election campaigns, compared to Gantz.

“It’s always premature to eulogize Benjamin Netanyahu. I’ve listened to what political analysts say for years, ‘This is the last year for Netanyahu.’ He is a master politician,” said Michael Oren, a former ambassador to the United States who worked closely with Netanyahu.

“Think of what he has done in the last two years: He has fended off the police, the state prosecutor, the whole judiciary, an attempted coup within his own party, three elections, an intermittent crisis on the Gaza border, and now the coronavirus. And the guy is still standing.”

Netanyahu’s Likud party won a three-seat advantage over Blue and White in the last election, but his coalition of religious and right-wing parties remained three seats short of a 61-vote majority in the Knesset.

Time and again throughout three post-election negotiating stints, Netanyahu was able to rally those allies—his so-called parliamentary bloc—and potential rivals from his own party to prevent defections to Gantz.

“Allies in the bloc behaved like a franchisee of Netanyahu. They showed utter loyalty and devotion, even in the face of cannibalizing themselves. It’s like they agreed to a noncompete clause,” said Mitchell Barak, a pollster and a former Netanyahu staffer.  

But Gantz had a weak political hand to play. Despite receiving a mandate from President Reuven Rivlin to form a government last week, giving him a month’s time for coalition haggling, Gantz faced serious challenges uniting political parties in the center and left of the political spectrum.

“To me this is the best possible outcome,” Oren said. “We have a government that enables us to deal with the crisis better, it will help us interface with the U.S. administration, and the peace plan. It’s a government which, if Iran decides to come to blows with us, will be able to grapple with that challenge.”

Israeli left-wingers and Arab politicians mourned the lost opportunity to form a coalition with the support of the Arab-led Joint List, which represents the country’s one-fifth minority—a potential signal event. Gantz had indicated in recent weeks that an emergency coalition should include “all parts” of the Israeli politic, apparently referring to the Joint List. No Arab-led party has ever taken part in a governing coalition.

“Never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” tweeted Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, sarcastically invoking the mantra used by Israelis to mock the Palestinian leadership. He was referring to Gantz.

Gantz is serving as speaker of the parliament while coalition negotiations with Netanyahu proceed—giving him the some leverage in the talks. As speaker, Gantz could move for the passage of a law banning candidates facing indictment from standing for parliament, dealing a blow to Netanyahu’s long-term political survival.

But Gantz seems unwilling to wage that kind of political warfare as long as Israel reels from the pandemic. The country has gone under lockdown and hospitals are strained, as some 3,000 Israelis have been infected.

Some Netanyahu critics saw an advantage to the deal. With Gantz in the government, Netanyahu would have a hard time pursuing parts of his right-wing and religious agenda, including limiting the powers of the Supreme Court and promoting annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

But many other moderates seemed distraught by the turn of the events.

“You betrayed all of your promises and the people who followed you,” said a disappointed Lior Schleien, the host of a popular political satire show, in a video. “Where are all of your declarations about how Bibi shouldn’t be prime minister?”

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick

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