As you’ve certainly seen, Israel got a new government yesterday and the Prime Minister is not Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time in a dozen years. He went out ugly. No storming the Knesset but a lot of heckling from Bibi’s dead-enders, a hot and wild speech from the man himself denouncing the new government as a danger to Israel, invoking the Holocaust, insisting no one can stand up to Biden like him. And then it was done.
I wanted to note two dimensions of the moment that stuck out to me.
To a great degree Netanyahu was ousted by his erstwhile proteges. Definitely Bennett and perhaps even more Avigdor Liberman and to a lesser extent Gideon Sa’ar. These are all guys who were reared in Netanyahu’s Likud. None of them were from the old guard that preceded Netanyahu or connected to it. Each at one point had some idea that he might be his successor. But each were finally hoodwinked or outmaneuvered or lied to so many times they not only started their own parties but became something like sworn enemies. We only got to this most recent election because Liberman refused to join a Netanyahu government basically under any circumstances just before the Pandemic.
Yair Lapid’s role bringing about this government cannot be overstated – the finesse, self-abnegation and deftness it required. And Labor and Meretz and Gantz’s party and Ra’am. But to a great degree what made it possible was a dozen years of Netanyahu’s trickery, backstabbing and lying. We’ve commented many times about how Netanyahu was just indestructible. He always had some new angle, some gambit to stay on top. Well, that meant using and double-crossing and just wearing out the patience of a lot of people. Eventually it caught up with him. And eventually was yesterday.
More than anything else Netanyahu’s tenure has been about stasis and the status quo. In the early 1990s you had the late lamented ‘Peace Process’ era. That was slowed down but not halted during Netanyahu’s first government from 1996 to 1999. Then Ehud Barak became Prime Minister and tried to revive the Oslo model. That fell apart and led to the election of arch-hawk Ariel Sharon. Eventually Sharon bolted his own party to create Kadima. He withdrew settlements from Gaza amidst a Gaza disengagement plan. But in the midst of all that Sharon was felled by a stroke which left him in a coma for the remaining eight years of his life.
Sharon’s policy was highly unilateral. And I’m not presenting him as a peacemaker per se. But what ended up uniting him with the Labor governments which preceded him was the premise that the status quo was not sustainable. Before his stroke Sharon seemed to be planning some kind of retrenchment in the West Bank in which Israel annexed the areas of intensive Israeli settlement and left most of the West Bank. In other words, sort of a Gaza model for the West Bank. After his stroke Sharon was succeeded by Ehud Olmert who simply lacked the security credentials and charisma to pull that plan off, whether or not Sharon would have been able to. The aftermath of the Gaza withdrawal ended up discrediting peace-making or unilateral withdrawals for most Israelis.
Netanyahu’s government – really for the whole of his twelve years in power – was premised on the idea that there’s nothing that needs to be solved or resolved. There’s Israel proper. There’s the blockade of Gaza. There’s the West Bank with the settlements. And that’s it. There’s no issue to solve. That just perpetuates into the future. There are Israelis who think there should be partition and two states. There are others who want to annex most or all of the West Bank. There are various combinations of those things. Netanyahu was always deliberately vague about what his actual preference or policy was because he didn’t have one, at least not one that could be stated openly in an international context. It was just that’s how it is and it’s fine.
We know the repeated wars with the Gaza mini-state for the brutality of the aerial attacks on the enclave. But Netanyahu never tried either to reoccupy Gaza or seek some kind of settlement. His policy was basically that every few years there would be a war for a few weeks and that was just how it was. Indeed, in many ways Netanyahu sought to build up Hamas because discrediting the Fatah leadership in the West Bank made it easier to perpetuate the status quo. If the revisionist Hamas was more popular among Palestinians than the partition oriented Fatah that was a plus because there was less pressure to negotiate or appear to be doing so.
To a great degree Netanyahu was successful. Israel paid little international price for the status quo. It enjoyed a period of sustained prosperity, albeit with deepening inequality. But basically, from the point of view of Israel, it worked. Israel didn’t seem to pay a clear price for a policy of perpetually kicking the can down the road, as much as two-state advocates (including me) insisted that it one day would. If anything Netanyahu was able to build new relationships with a growing list of countries, albeit mostly rising autocracies.
Now he’s gone. So it will be interesting to see whether the kicking the can down the road policy will be possible without him. The most recent Gaza conflict combined with an outbreak of inter-communal violence inside Israel proper gave some sense that maybe the status quo isn’t sustainable. Indeed, in many ways it was evidence that Netanyahu’s policy of the status quo combined with incitement of divisions within Israel to sustain himself in office is not.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean anyone should be expecting some new Peace Process. At least as we’ve understood it that process is totally discredited within the Israeli political system. The Knesset which just created this new government has a big majority of parties that are more or less opposed to any territorial settlement. Most of the rest are in favor of two states in principle but not focused on doing anything concrete to bring that about.
So don’t expect any moves toward peace negotiations or two states. But Netanyahu was fundamentally about maintaining the status quo. That was his promise. I’ll keep the Palestinians down; I’ll keep the Americans at bay. And we can just keep being a prosperous country and not worry about that stuff – as long as you keep me in power.
Now that he’s out of power we’ll see what comes next.