Is Netanyahu Finished? Maybe So

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, June 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty, Pool)
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A couple weeks ago I asked, Is Netanyahu Finished? At the time it seemed almost possible but still an all but incredible idea. Netanyahu has stood atop the Israeli political scene for more than half a decade and that after his first term as Prime Minister starting almost twenty years ago. No single leader has so dominated Israeli politics since ben Gurion. The upcoming election in March 2015 is one he himself engineered well in advance of what was required under law, thinking that it would strengthen his hand. And yet, two weeks later, Netanyahu’s position seems to deteriorate by the day.

Caveats, caveats. It’s far too soon to count Netanyahu out. He is simply a master of manipulating Israel’s weak and pliable parliamentary structure. First by numbers and then judged against expectations, Netanyahu actually lost the last two elections. And yet he remained PM. But as I noted a couple weeks ago, almost immediately after he maneuvered the country into new elections, a series of discontents and enmities which had been apparent but held in check by Netanyahu’s hold on power suddenly broke out and then began building on themselves.

The first part and clearest part of the equation is the continuing strength of the Labor Party in alliance with Tzipi Livni, herself a former Likudnik who is now a convinced two-stater. Both historic Israeli parties, Labor and Likud, are greatly diminished from the vote totals they got two or three decades ago. But polls continue to show Isaac Herzog’s Labor getting 23 Knesset seats to Likud’s 21. That would only get Labor a third of the way to forming a government. But it would give Herzog the critical first shot at trying to form one.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman

Then yesterday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman made this startling statement, breaking even more clearly with Netanyahu. Lieberman says Netanyahu’s ‘status quo’ approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a failure and that Israel faces a diplomatic “tsunami” if it doesn’t achieve a diplomatic settlement with the Palestinians and also a regional settlement with its Arab neighbors.

For those of you not deeply familiar with Israeli politics, Lieberman is the guy many American Jews and a lot of Israeli Jews were shocked and embarrassed to see elected to anything – before that position was taken over by Naftali Bennett. But Lieberman has always been more a nationalist – and a fairly nasty one – than a ideologue. And there’s a significant difference. Lieberman’s politics are most defined by his hostility to any Israeli Arabs who don’t explicitly commit to the full Zionist project. But he’s also been open to a territorial division and ditching the occupied territories, even going so far as wanting to get rid of some contiguous and majority Arab parts of Israel proper – which is a whole different problem.

“We must reach a diplomatic agreement — not because of the Palestinians or the Arabs, but because of the Jews,” Lieberman said, according to Haaretz. “This is important for our relations with the European Union and the United States. For anyone who doesn’t know, our largest market is the EU, in both exports and imports. I’m pleased with what we’ve done with the Chinese; there’s been growth in our trade with them. But in the end, our biggest market is the EU. It doesn’t work, and we must internalize this. When diplomatic relations deteriorate, you see what happens to the economy. I can cite the example closest to me, that of Russia.”

There are two points to draw from Lieberman’s statement. The first is that his argument is pretty much the same in its essentials as what centrist two-staters have been arguing for going on two decades – that whatever you think about the ideology of land or the rights of Palestinians, Israel cannot permanently hold on to the West Bank in any way the world (let alone its own democratic principles) will ultimately accept. Doing so places Israel on a road to creeping diplomatic isolation, delegitimization and finally economic strangulation. You can be the archest anti-Arab racist, and this reality should be no less clear. Which is to say, you can be Avigdor Lieberman.

The second point is about Lieberman himself. I don’t think for a moment that Lieberman has changed his spots or that he’s suddenly seen the light on peace and two states. Lieberman is about power and opportunism, both personally and in his fundamental political outlook. What I think we can draw from his statement is that he senses where the wind is blowing politically in Israel. I do not think the ‘wind’ is blowing toward peace. But it is blowing against Netanyahu. Lieberman clearly thinks so. And his speech also suggests that the Israeli public is increasingly nervous – perhaps crossing a critical threshold of concern – about troubled relations with the US and the prospect of economic sanctions from the EU and realize that both pose severe perhaps even existential threats to the future. The status quo, he says (and what he says we can perforce assume he believes the Israeli public is ready to hear because, remember, opportunist) is not sustainable.

There’s a long road between realizing that the status quo is not sustainable and the Israeli body politics getting its collective head around the idea of the changes required to alter that status quo. But it’s a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for doing so.

When I first noted Netanyahu’s potential political demise, I thought and made clear that this did not mean or even suggest a move away from his policies or a move away from the right’s dominance of Israeli politics. It simply meant that Netanyahu himself had – perhaps – worn out his welcome with just too many people. But Lieberman’s move suggests that the decline in Netanyahu’s fortunes may be coinciding with or catalyzing a broader change. Regardless of whether or not that is the case, Lieberman’s opportunism and calculation at least provides clarity: he’s betting against Netanyahu’s political future.

Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren

Next is Michael Oren. Oren is a US born Israeli whom Netanyahu appointed Israeli Ambassador to the US when he returned to power in 2009. Oren is also a historian of genuine merit, in addition to his role in Israeli politics. Today he made official what had been rumored for days: he is joining the new party of former Likud MK Moshe Kahlon, in essence abandoning Netanyahu.

“Today I stand here to take responsibility,” Oren said in an appearance with Kahlon. “In my view, Israel is in the midst of a raging international battle. We must navigate, responsibly and bravely, the dangers and threats to reach our purpose, which is a strong, prosperous Jewish democratic state that is valued around the world. Israel is at a critical juncture. I cannot look on from the sidelines and not do anything when we find ourselves under diplomatic attack…. We must take our fate in our hands. I understand how critical our relationship with the United States is. It has enormous, almost existential, significance for us and we cannot lose that. There is no replacement for the U.S. as Israel’s most important ally. The U.S. is not just the source of aid for our security,such as Iron Dome, the U.S. is our partner when it comes to democratic principles and the willingness to protect our freedom. Today, more than ever, it is clear to everyone that Israel-U.S. relations are the foundation of any economic, security and diplomatic approach. It is our responsibility to strengthen those ties immediately.”

For more on Kahlon’s role in this election, see my post from earlier in the month. Suffice it to say he is Israeli politics’ new new thing, center-y, ambiguously positioned flavor of the month and he’ll likely get as many as ten Knesset seats, perhaps even more. The key with Oren – a very significant Netanyahu ally, though of a very different sort from Lieberman – is his rationale for joining Kahlon and how fundamentally similar it is to Lieberman’s argument noted above. Call it the thinking man’s version of the argument to what we might call Lieberman’s grunting man’s version. Still it is the same: Israel faces of crisis of diplomatic isolation.

In someone like Oren I think we see both a reasoned response to what is the poverty and failure of Netanyahu’s status quo policy as well as a considered political calculation about Netanyahu’s future. Again, the fundamental similarity to where Lieberman is positioning himself is the key to understand the evolving political situation.

Israeli Economics Minister Naftali Bennett

Then there’s this, something on a more … almost comical note. Today Shai Galili, comptroller of the Likud party, disqualified Natenyahu for standing in the party’s primaries as punishment for using party resources for his own personal political needs. Now, let me be clear: there’s no way Netanyahu doesn’t get this judgment overturned either within party or within the Knesset oversight committees. I add it because this is the kind of thing that happens when a party leader is deeply wounded and people sense they will not be punished for defying him.

As I said before, there’s no leftward rush in Israeli politics, to put mildly. Netanyahu’s demise may catalyze a small but critical realignment towards the center. But it’s Netanyahu’s deteriorating fortunes which are clear. One of these problems is that to Netanyahu’s right there is his former aide and now very uneasy ally Naftali Bennet of the Jewish Home party. Bennet doesn’t pussy-foot around with notional support of two states. He says no two states and no to basically everything else. His solution is for Israel to annex all the land in the West Bank that has few or no Arabs and let the rest just exist forever as an ‘autonomous’ region under Israeli security control. For rightist nationalist and religious nationalist Israelis, Bennett is complete and coherent. He also comes off as more likable and cool, especially if you are extremely illiberal and fairly out of touch with reality. The most recent polls show his party getting 16 Knesset seats – the third highest after Labor and Likud. There’s a non-trivial chance that a further deterioration of Netanyahu/Likud fortunes could have Bennett vaulting way ahead and becoming the major party of the right.

JJ Goldberg noted a couple weeks ago that the logical path for Netanyahu is to form a joint list with Bennett’s Jewish Home party. The combined list would almost certainly get well into the 30s in Knesset seats. That would give him the first chance to form a government and probably remain Prime Minister. But Bennett appears to be ruling this out.

I cannot conclude without noting what I can only call Netanyahu’s uncanny resilience. I would not be surprised if for all I say above he somehow manages to be Prime Minister yet again. The balance of Israeli political parties now lean heavily to the right. And the fact that the right and the center-left (there’s really hardly an Israeli left as a political force) have both had it with Netanyahu but want to replace him with totally different things leaves open for him the path of being despised and yet necessary. In many respects this is what got Netanyahu the premiership after the last two elections – especially the most recent. But all the things we see happening are the things that happen when a leader loses his grip on power. At some point we need to believe what our eyes tell us.

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