Argument

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

Benjamin Netanyahu Is Fading Away

Unlike Trump, Israel’s former leader never built a personality cult—and doesn’t have enough diehard fans to keep his election fraud myth alive.

Ousted Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu attends a memorial service at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on June 20.
Ousted Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu attends a memorial service at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on June 20. ABIR SULTAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

In the first half of June, as Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett were putting the finishing touches on the unlikely governing coalition that is now in power, Israel looked like it might be going down a U.S.-style rabbit hole of contested elections and delegitimization of the political process. It didn’t happen—or it might be safer to say, it hasn’t yet happened—and the reason is the difference between Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu.

After it became increasingly apparent that he would not be able to form a government or do an end-run around Israel’s political system by calling a one-time direct election for prime minister, Netanyahu seemed keen on mounting a campaign of delegitimization that echoed Trump’s tactics. Raucous demonstrations designed to harass rather than to protest were called in front of the homes of Bennett and lawmakers belonging to his Yamina party. Threats against them and, in many cases, their families, were disseminated over social media.

Unlike Trump, Netanyahu has publicly distanced himself from the campaign’s nastiest aspects, but he did publicly echo the former U.S. president by calling the impending Lapid-Bennett coalition the result of “the greatest election fraud” in the history of democracy. Netanyahu didn’t pursue this line, and his Likud party later explained that he wasn’t calling into question the March 23 vote but rather was denouncing the “fraudulent” promises Bennett made to voters.

In the first half of June, as Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett were putting the finishing touches on the unlikely governing coalition that is now in power, Israel looked like it might be going down a U.S.-style rabbit hole of contested elections and delegitimization of the political process. It didn’t happen—or it might be safer to say, it hasn’t yet happened—and the reason is the difference between Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu.

After it became increasingly apparent that he would not be able to form a government or do an end-run around Israel’s political system by calling a one-time direct election for prime minister, Netanyahu seemed keen on mounting a campaign of delegitimization that echoed Trump’s tactics. Raucous demonstrations designed to harass rather than to protest were called in front of the homes of Bennett and lawmakers belonging to his Yamina party. Threats against them and, in many cases, their families, were disseminated over social media.

Unlike Trump, Netanyahu has publicly distanced himself from the campaign’s nastiest aspects, but he did publicly echo the former U.S. president by calling the impending Lapid-Bennett coalition the result of “the greatest election fraud” in the history of democracy. Netanyahu didn’t pursue this line, and his Likud party later explained that he wasn’t calling into question the March 23 vote but rather was denouncing the “fraudulent” promises Bennett made to voters.

But if Netanyahu retreated on the fraud claim pretty quickly, he more than made up for it with a series of gestures designed to signal that he regards the new government at best as a temporary flux in the natural order of things where he is prime minister and at worst a mortal threat to Israel’s national security. Netanyahu declined to join in the traditional toast marking the change in government, and he gave Bennett, the new prime minister, a transition briefing that lasted less than half an hour.

Netanyahu and his allies still routinely abuse the government in terms that are harsh even by Israeli standards and speak as if the Bennett government is disloyal to the state.

Breaking with tradition, Netanyahu continued to occupy the official prime minister’s residence for nearly a month after the new government was sworn in, finally stealing away in the wee hours of the morning on July 11. Inside his circle of aides and acolytes, he is still called “prime minister” at his request.

A month after his downfall, Netanyahu has continued his campaign of delegitimization, but it’s fallen on deaf ears.

Netanyahu and his allies still routinely abuse the government in terms that are harsh even by Israeli standards and speak as if the Bennett government is disloyal to the state. Netanyahu has referred to it as “the first Palestinian-Israeli government in the country’s history” (because the coalition includes an Arab party) and has called it “fraudulent.” Likud lawmakers in many cases refuse to address Bennett as prime minister.

Yet, the delegitimization campaign seems to have lost steam.

The protests in front of Bennett’s home are now confined to a handful of people who compensate for their small numbers by being loud. They stand in stunning contrast to the huge numbers that had gathered in front of the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence on a regular basis for months, demanding that Netanyahu step down in the face of the criminal indictment he is now fighting.


Trump and Netanyahu have a lot in common. They both want to return to power not through the conventional tactics of calling out the government’s failures and trumpeting their successes but by questioning the right of their successors to hold office in the first place. But there is a critical difference: Trump is admired by many Americans for what he stands for. He is a leader who defies the elites and takes his supporters’ side in America’s bitter culture wars over race and values.

Trump sends the message to his many working-class and rural supporters that, billionaire or not, he is one of them. Trump isn’t judged by these voters on the effectiveness of his leadership but as the standard-bearer of the kind of America that they aspire to—or more precisely, a standard-bearer for the anger they feel at the state of things.

For most of his 12 years in office, Netanyahu actually was an effective leader. The Israeli economy thrived, terrorism was contained, Israel fought a costless war against Iran in Syria, and if Bibi fumbled in managing the coronavirus for the first several months, he redeemed himself with a highly successful vaccination drive in 2021. His standing with voters fell because of anger and frustration over four back-to-back elections from 2019 to 2021 and the allegations of corruption for which he is now standing trial, but to this day he remains the prime minister of choice for a plurality of polled Israelis.

Netanyahu’s success in office, however, never established the kind of personality cult that arose around Trump. The West Bank settlers and Israel’s ideological right always suspected him of not really being one of their own. Among Mizrahi voters (Israelis who trace their ancestry to the Middle East and North Africa and are generally economically worse-off than those of European origin), Netanyahu enjoyed consistent support, but that was out of loyalty to the Likud party and its leader rather than genuine affection. Netanyahu never tried very hard to speak to them.

The ultra-Orthodox Jews have been the most reliable of Netanyahu’s allies, but that was only because he gave them the things they most wanted, such as money for their schools and other institutions. He certainly made no effort to (falsely) portray himself as a man of religious values.

Inside Likud, Netanyahu’s power has been based on his uncanny ability to win elections and keep the party in power, thereby ensuring jobs and government budgets for its apparatchiks.

Inside Likud, Netanyahu’s power has been based on his uncanny ability to win elections and keep the party in power, thereby ensuring jobs and government budgets for its apparatchiks. But Netanyahu himself never built strong personal relationships with party leaders. Indeed, he alienated so many of his close aides and protégés (including Bennett) that they left and ultimately conspired to topple him from the outside. Out of power, Netanyahu is now struggling to make up for the years of neglect.

Netanyahu does have die-hard supporters, the so-called Bibists. But they are so few in number that the idea they could fill out a large plaza for a rally or stage a raid on the Knesset building is laughable. They are a noisy but marginal phenomenon. One reason that there aren’t more of them is that Netanyahu himself isn’t sufficiently lovable—he is an excellent orator, but he could never connect with the masses the way the inarticulate Trump has.

Making such a connection is harder in Israel than in the United States because the battle lines that have emerged in America over the last two decades—the culture wars, the deep distrust of institutions and expertise, and hyper-partisan politics—have never quite taken hold in Israel. There was never any principled resistance to the mask mandate or to vaccines, which in any case Netanyahu would have struggled to capitalize on since he promoted both measures assiduously.

That said, there are certainly enough controversies that could have created such fissures. The Arab minority increasing its demands for true equality and the ultra-Orthodox community living off the state’s largesse but refusing to accept the responsibilities of citizenship, such as performing army service, are just two of them. These issues swell from time to time, but they haven’t hardened into a basis for rigid political divides.

That this hasn’t happened can to a large extent be ascribed to Israel’s years of uninterrupted economic growth. Prosperity has smoothed over any class resentments and prevented anxieties over economic and job security from emerging; the last big protests over economic issues were 10 years ago.

The coronavirus pandemic, which caused Israel’s first recession in 20 years, severely tested the country’s social and political peace but so far hasn’t overwhelmed it. The newest wave of COVID-19, of the more virulent delta variant, may yet push Israel over the edge if it leads to more restrictions and lockdowns. But it’s much too early to say that will happen.

Every day the Lapid-Bennett government remains in power slowly closes Netanyahu’s window of opportunity by undercutting his repeated assertions of the coalition’s illegitimacy and inability to govern. Already, there is noise inside Likud about replacing him as leader, the most likely candidates being former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, former Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, and perhaps ex-Mossad chief Yossi Cohen.

The party rank-and-file are well aware that Bibi has become too toxic to lead them to an election victory and that the party might well have been able to form a coalition with someone else at the helm. Unlike the U.S. Republican Party, the Likud leaders aren’t scared of offending the party’s base by disposing of their beloved leader. Now that he has shown he can’t always win elections, Netanyahu is more disposable than ever.

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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