The tragedy of Benjamin Netanyahu – analysis

The reason why Netanyahu has failed to form a majority coalition of his own is the stuff of Greek tragedy.

By Jonathan S. Tobin, JNS

It didn’t have to end this way. In what may be only a matter of days, Benjamin Netanyahu’s unprecedented 12-year-run as prime minister of Israel looks to be coming to an end. Though he is coming off a year in which he added new luster to a record of great achievements in office, a bizarre coalition of left-wingers, centrists and right-wingers is about to unceremoniously toss him out of office.

Unless Netanyahu and his increasingly desperate and angry supporters are somehow able to sabotage the creation of a “government of change” or the potential partners allow disputes over cabinet posts to blow up the arrangement, Yamina Party leader Naftali Bennett may soon be sworn in as the country’s new prime minister.

If so, he will be at the head of a collection of politicians who agree on one thing: Netanyahu has to go. Bennett, who would have gladly served in another Netanyahu-led government had one been possible, was essentially forced to choose between dooming Israel to a fifth election in two-plus years or agreeing to be part of a government that would end the country’s electoral madness. His choice seems to reflect what most Israelis wanted, although it was contrary to the will of most of his own right-wing voters.

That means that as soon as he and Yair Lapid—the head of the nation’s second-largest party, Yesh Atid—finish divvying up the patronage with the other small parties joining them, as well as finalize a deal with Mansour Abbas of the Islamist Ra’am Party, the Netanyahu era will be over. After that happens, the Knesset is likely to pass legislation putting in place term limits for the office of prime minister. It’s also almost certain to enact a bill that will force any prime minister under criminal indictment to resign. That will effectively ensure that Netanyahu will never be able to return to the official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street.

Netanyahu is still the man that pollsters say is the one most Israelis think is the most qualified to lead their country. He also still commands the devotion of the overwhelming majority of members of his Likud Party. Many of them are, like their leader, sounding slightly hysterical about a scenario in which a coalition that will be made up in part by people whose views on security issues are out of sync with the national consensus on both the peace process and the need to stop the threat from Iran.

But rather than raging at Bennett and his Yamina colleague, Ayelet Shaked, they should be blaming the object of their veneration for this. The creation of the so-called unity government was made possible by one man and one man only. And his name is Benjamin Netanyahu.

The reason why Netanyahu has failed to form a majority coalition of his own is the stuff of Greek tragedy.

Fresh off his triumphant handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the establishment of the Abraham Accords, Netanyahu is entitled to say that he’s going out at the top of his game. Those accomplishments could have been reasons for keeping him at his post, especially with challenges such as the perils facing Israel from Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, and the Biden administration’s efforts to shift the geostrategic balance in the region further against the Jewish state and its new Arab allies.

But rather than policy differences, such a coalition was rendered impossible by Netanyahu’s personal untrustworthiness.

It is possible to argue that Netanyahu’s skills as a leader outweigh the shortcomings in his character. But his problems go deeper than the fact that most of the Israeli media and the intellectual, legal and bureaucratic establishments are biased against him. The flimsy corruption charges that he is seeking to refute in court can be seen as a product of that bias.

The baggage of all these years in power would be heavy enough for anyone to carry around under the best of circumstances. But he spent the last decade driving most of his possible successors out of the Likud. He also has convinced just about everyone who did a coalition deal with him that they had been swindled. Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz, who signed a power-sharing agreement last year that Netanyahu reneged on as everyone had predicted, is just one example. As such, Netanyahu’s credibility is shot.

It’s also true that the person who sank Netanyahu’s hopes for a coalition that, like his would-be successors, would have depended on the goodwill of Ra’am’s Abbas wasn’t Bennett. Though he has concentrated all of his fire on Bennett—his former aide and admirer—it was Bezalel Smotrich, the head of the rightist Religious Zionist Party, whose opposition rendered that scenario impossible. Smotrich is more or less Netanyahu’s creation and someone he has sought to strengthen so as to weaken Bennett and Shaked, who are more credible partners. But instead of pressuring Smotrich, Netanyahu has continued to demonize the Yamina leaders because of his personal animus against them.

Will the new government be the disaster that Netanyahu’s supporters claim? Maybe. But then again, it’s also possible that they are grossly exaggerating its potential faults. In order to function, assuming it can survive for long despite its contradictions, it will have to put aside the ideological goals of its left- and right-wing components, and concentrate on administering a country that has been without a budget for years as a result of the stalemate over Netanyahu’s fate. They will have plenty of reasons to pull together lest they plunge the country into yet another election in which a post-Netanyahu Likud (which some of those in the new government would want to join) may dominate.

Still, the presence of leftists in cabinet posts (though not apparently in the security cabinet) will cause many of those who support Netanyahu to worry about whether the new government will fail to adequately defend Israel’s interests.

Netanyahu could have easily averted this outcome. A right-wing government with a strong majority would have been a certainty had he chosen to step aside, either by going into temporary retirement or seeking election as Israel’s ceremonial president. Indeed, some in the Likud, including Minister of Finance Yisrael Katz, asked him to do so. Rather than giving up his grip on power, Netanyahu’s belief in his own indispensability prevailed. It speaks volumes about him that he would rather see a coalition with left-wingers in power than a Likud-led government led by someone not named Netanyahu.

This points to the fact that, like the protagonist of a classic Greek play, Netanyahu is not so much being brought down by the actions of malevolent rivals or outside factors but by the flaws in his own personality.

While he may go down in history as one of his country’s greatest leaders, such a person deserves a better or at least a more dignified end to his political career than what appears to be in store for him.

Yet some of the same singular qualities that made him a great leader, including a sense that he alone could solve the country’s problems, contained the seeds of his downfall. Traits such as his refusal to treat other politicians with lesser talents as colleagues to be listened to or trusted, and regarding himself as not bound by the same rules as everyone else, helped him get where he is and sustained him in power. But his hamartia—as the Greeks labeled the weaknesses of the heroes of their myths—has also led him to this moment when they have bound both ideological friends and foes together against him. Love him or hate him, that is a tragedy. Still, it’s one largely of his own making.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.