By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
The political life of Israel’s former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu should by now have been confined to history. But desperately, pathetically, and somewhat half-heartedly, he is still clinging to the faint hope of returning to the job he held for over 12 years.
Last week’s passing of a two-year Budget Bill delivered a further body blow to that glimmer of hope, and made another return to the coveted job no more than a distant possibility — although it doesn’t mean that he can’t continue to inflict damage on Israel’s democracy and society as he is dragged kicking and screaming out of politics.
This was the first time a national budget had been passed in the Knesset since 2018, after a three-day marathon and a staggering 780 votes. In the intricacies of Israeli politics the budget bill is usually an opportunity for the opposition to question not only the government’s ideological direction, but also its stamina and staying power. The current government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, is a most unlikely coalition of eight parties that enjoys the slimmest possible 61-59 majority and has little or no ideological commonality or coherence.
Its existence must therefore be regarded as nothing short of a small, or rather not that small, miracle. There is a reason for that, and the reason is called Netanyahu. What keeps it together is the deep concern that the former prime minister, who leads the opposition, will somehow make good on the promise he made on the day the present government was sworn in — that he would be back. With that promise he became the glue that keeps this government together.
To Netanyahu’s surprise, and that of many others, the government is functioning better than expected and has found a way to avoid the landmines scattered all over Israel’s political arena. As long as Netanyahu is still around, the members of this coalition have an interest in overcoming their differences, despite the constant need to paper over these disagreements without resolving them. Since a budget bill in the case of Israel constitutes a vote of confidence in the government, and satisfying all factions within the coalition requires a masterwork of political maneuvering, its passing last week is an indication of the administration’s resilience, at least for now, and a sign that Israel has truly entered the post-Netanyahu era.
At the end of the day, Netanyahu had little interest in the issue of the budget, which is an essential tool of good governance, but was more concerned with unsettling the government. In his world, everything revolves around him, and the current coalition was formed by Bennett’s deception of his supporters, who — according to the defendant in three cases of fraud, bribery and breach of trust — voted for the current prime minister believing that he would form a coalition with Netanyahu.
In reality, Netanyahu abused his position for years by avoiding passing a budget bill, as it gave him controlling power and created a dependency on him among his coalition partners. Netanyahu, with his vast experience in manipulating the political system to prolong his time in power, understands perhaps more than anyone that being away from power, and especially not being in charge of the budget, weakens his position, and the longer he is away from the country’s steering wheel the more this state of affairs is normalized.
Netanyahu is in the twilight of his political career, while at the same time he struggles to avoid conviction and possible imprisonment as a result of his corruption trial. His mannerisms are becoming pitiful, though it is hard to feel pity for someone who has constantly attempted to undermine the very foundations of Israel’s fragile and ailing democracy. He insists on still being called prime minister, although unlike in the US, in Israel former prime ministers or holders of any other high office do not keep their title when they leave their job. He viciouslyincites against a democratically elected government that enjoys the support of the Knesset, and constantlyquestions of its legitimacy, similar to the way in which he attacked the subsequently assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — whose only “crime” was to embark on the path of peace with the Palestinians.
Moreover, despite five years of meticulous police investigations into Netanyahu’s activities, which were painstakingly examined by the general prosecution service before ending in indictment, he and his political groupies, who know that without him they have no future in politics, are hounding those who are in charge of the country’s law enforcement. They are attempting to frighten the legal system off from ensuring that justice is done, and possibly even abandon his corruption trial altogether.
In the mysterious ways of Israeli politics, Netanyahu is the coalition’s best asset, and the longer he stays as leader of Likud, the better the chance for this government to see out its full term, including the rotation of the prime ministerial role from Naftali Bennett to Yair Lapid halfway through that term. After the last election, had Netanyahu left power with any genuine care for any ideology, or for Likud to one day be back in power, he would have left politics immediately and allowed someone else to take his place as leader; but this is not in Netanyahu’s character. He doesn’t believe that anyone else matches his qualities or is worthy of succeeding him. However, there is already one contender within the party, former Knesset chairman Yuri Edelstein, who has challenged Netanyahu’s leadership of Likud; and the fear within the party that the longer they wait to change their leader the more normal it will seem that Likud no longer runs the country and will consequently be confined to a prolonged period in opposition, will encourage more opposition to Netanyahu from within his own ranks.
The passing of the Budget Bill was a first step in this trajectory. This may be the downfall of Netanyahu, because if he doesn’t find within himself a trace of dignity or integrity— and he probably won’t — those who want to replace him may push him out, or he may gradually become irrelevant. Moreover, many in Likud would like him go before he is convicted in court and taints the party’s reputation even further. Whether Netanyahu recognises it or not, the ticking of the clock of his departure from politics is increasingly loud and fast.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg