Netanyahu Can’t Catch a Break

The Israeli prime minister is trying to coast on his reputation as a grandmaster of national security, diplomacy, and economics—but it isn’t working.

An art installation including a balloon with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s image on it is seen in Habima Square in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sept. 15.
An art installation including a balloon with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s image on it is seen in Habima Square in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sept. 15. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

On Aug. 23, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would support a bill whose purpose was to prevent the government from falling the next day, Israelis breathed a sigh of relief. For weeks, his coalition government had been teetering on the brink of collapse as a legal mandate to pass the state budget by Aug. 24 drew closer, with no clarity on what kind of budget the government would support. Just three months after the latest Netanyahu government had been formed, it looked like Israelis would be trudging off to the polls for the fourth time in less than two years.

That immediate crisis passed, but what Netanyahu offered was only a temporary reprieve. He extended the budget deadline by 120 days and made clear by his remarks that he was buying time, not making peace with his coalition partners. He called for coalition unity but in the same breath attacked his chief partner, Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party. In fact, he hadn’t even taken the trouble to tell Gantz that he had decided to support the legislation to change the deadline; like everyone else, Gantz learned of it watching the television broadcast. And so the threat of new elections still looms.

The performance was typical of Netanyahu since the government took office in May. Dubbed a “national unity” coalition of Netanyahu’s Likud, Blue and White, and two ultra-Orthodox parties, coalition negotiations were based on mutual distrust and the final agreement was structured on the assumption that each side would try to undercut the other. Designed to ensure stability, it seems to have done the opposite.

The coalition didn’t have to turn out that way. After three inconclusive elections, Israelis wanted a unity government, and there was no overwhelming political reason why they couldn’t get one. Likud and Blue and White are not that far apart ideologically, especially on core issues such as defense and the economy. And there was no fundamental disagreement about coronavirus policy.

Just as the new government was coming into office, it looked as though Israel had defeated COVID-19. With the number of new daily cases near zero, the government lifted its most restrictive measures, and Netanyahu himself urged Israelis to go out and have fun. That turned out to be a huge mistake. Within two weeks, the number of new cases was climbing quickly, and nothing officials have done since has succeeded in reversing the trend. Of late, there have been days when Israel has had the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases per capita in the world. After much dithering, the government realized it had no choice but to order a new general lockdown, which goes into effect this Friday for three weeks.

A resurgent pandemic could have been a catalyst for coalition unity. A successful effort would have been a big political victory for all the coalition partners, and especially for the prime minister. But Netanyahu almost single-handedly prevented the creation of a united front. He repeatedly blocked efforts to give Gantz’s defense ministry more responsibility for crisis management or to appoint a coronavirus czar. With elections in mind, he rejected a plan to impose a lockdown on the mostly ultra-Orthodox cities where the infection rate is highest. Meanwhile, the prime minister is in a bidding war with his finance minister over who can look more generous with handouts to the public. The result has been that the government has been spending very heavily, but not very effectively, to keep the economy afloat.

If that weren’t bad enough, Netanyahu has chosen to keep Israel on edge with the threat of new elections almost since the first day his government was formed. The most common explanation for his behavior is that he has no intention of turning over the premiership to Gantz come November 2021, as is stipulated under the coalition agreement. He is seemingly prepared to do whatever it takes, including dragging the country into a fourth election and even a fifth one, to ensure that he remains in office.

To be sure, those elections would also likely end inconclusively. None of the polls show Netanyahu coming close to forming the religious-right government he aspires to. In the worst case, he might find himself in the opposition. His hated archrival for the votes of the right, Naftali Bennett, has been climbing up the ranks by capitalizing on the government’s coronavirus failures to present himself as the manager of the moment who can accomplish what Netanyahu’s bumbling government has failed to do. But Netanyahu seems convinced the polls are either wrong or that voters will realize before election day that he is the only one capable of leading Israel.

One attempt to demonstrate as much was last month’s much-heralded normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates. It may have been meant to serve as a reminder of Netanyahu’s famed diplomatic skills and vision, but it didn’t. The UAE is not among Israel’s mortal enemies. It is so remote in the Israeli mind that news of normalization was accompanied by articles describing the country in a way that resembled an entry from the World Book Encyclopedia. More importantly, the agreement managed to alienate the far-right by trading normalization of relations for a halt to West Bank annexation. Netanyahu also apparently consented to the UAE’s buying state-of-the-art F-35 fighter jets from the United States, thereby harming Israel’s military edge.

Netanyahu has claimed that annexation is only “suspended” and that he never agreed to the sale of the F-35s. Whether he is being truthful or not, the blame is all his. As is his style, Netanyahu kept Gantz and Blue and White Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi in the dark about the UAE talks until the last minute. If they had been consulted, the result would not have necessarily been better—but, because he didn’t, the blame is only Netanyahu’s.

Although many Israelis are fearful of admitting it, Netanyahu is past his political prime and is coasting on his reputation as the grandmaster of national security, diplomacy, and economics. He is increasingly politically isolated. The list of allies and associates who have turned on him and left the Likud party in frustration is long, including a few like Bennett and Moshe Yaalon, Netanyahu’s former defense minister, who have turned into bitter enemies. These days, Netanyahu seems to rely on his family and a few unquestioning loyalists, such as Public Security Minister Amir Ohana. Just as the coronavirus has threatened Israel with its greatest health and economic crisis ever, the country is under the thumb of a leader who can only stay in power by creating chaos.

David E. Rosenberg is the economics editor and a columnist for the English edition of Haaretz and the author of Israel’s Technology Economy.

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