There is something Shakespearean about Benjamin Netanyahu’s downfall.
As in a scene from “Julius Caesar,” who was assassinated by Roman senators, Netanyahu was deposed by his former underlings, the leaders of the three right-wing parties that have joined the new government – Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Sa’ar, all of whom once worked for Netanyahu.
If two of these men had remained loyal to Netanyahu, as they had been for years, then he would still be in power today.
Instead, Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has finally been dethroned. “King Bibi,” as his devoted supporters hail him, ruled Israel for a total of 15 years, including a short stint in the 1990s. He returned to power in 2009, and for the past 12 years he dominated Israeli politics and came to personify Israel in the eyes of the world.
But while personal grudges and political rivalries largely due to Netanyahu’s preening personality have no doubt played a key role in his ouster, they do not fully account for the unyielding opposition he has engendered.
It is not simply a result of individual grievances and political ambitions that Netanyahu can no longer appease or politically buy off his rivals. Nor is it just because they no longer believe any of his promises. As a scholar of Israeli politics, I think that it is also, even primarily, because Netanyahu has come to be seen as a danger to Israeli democracy itself, just as former President Donald Trump was in the United States.
Becoming a demagogue
In recent years, particularly since he was indicted on corruption charges in several cases involving bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Netanyahu has become increasingly autocratic.
During a period when democracies around the world have been challenged by “authoritarian populists” such as Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Netanyahu has eagerly joined this global club of illiberal strongmen and publicly embraced these controversial leaders.
Domestically, he adopted many of their tactics, trying to undermine the independence of the judiciary, neuter regulators, control or muzzle the media and use the power of patronage to reward loyalists and punish critics.
Netanyahu has also frequently employed populist rhetoric, railing against the supposedly leftist elite, the “deep state” and the “fake news” media, all of whom he has alleged are conspiring against him.
He has portrayed himself as the victim of sinister, shadowy and powerful groups who are the enemies of the “people.” In classic populist fashion, Netanyahu has claimed that only he represents the “people,” specifically, Israeli Jews, since Arab citizens of Israel are cast as dangerous Others. He demonizes his political opponents as threats to the nation, even traitors.
By deftly manipulating the fears and prejudices of the Israeli public, Netanyahu became, essentially, a demagogue.
Personal becomes political
The purpose of Netanyahu’s assault on the pillars of Israeli democracy was simple: for him to remain in power and stay out of jail.
To achieve this, he was willing to delegitimize not only his political opponents, but also state institutions like the Supreme Court, the attorney general’s office and the police.
In a desperate attempt to evade his corruption trial for bribery and fraud and a possible lengthy prison sentence, Netanyahu sought to gain immunity from prosecution as a sitting prime minister while denying he was doing so.
His stubborn refusal to resign, even after his criminal trial began – the first time a sitting Israeli prime minister was in the dock – appeared to be driven by his desire to use his position as prime minister to gain legal immunity or at least intimidate the lawyers and judges he might face, and convince the public that he was being persecuted.
It wasn’t only his political survival and personal freedom, however, that motivated Netanyahu. He seems to sincerely believe that Israel will be endangered without his leadership. His long tenure in power apparently convinced him that only he can steer the ship of state, especially given the treacherous waters it must navigate.
“Try to damage as little as possible of the magnificent economy we are handing over to you, so that we can fix it as fast as possible when we return,” he said as power was handed over to the coalition.
Like other longtime leaders, Netanyahu came to equate his own personal and political interests with those of Israel. What was good for him was good for Israel; what harmed him, harmed Israel. Netanyahu also convinced his supporters of this equation, just as many of his critics became convinced that the opposite was true.
Thus, Netanyahu managed to divide Israelis into two antagonistic camps: pro-Netanyahu versus anti-Netanyahu. This division replaced the traditional left-right ideological divide that had dominated Israeli politics for decades – and which is why the new government spans the ideological spectrum.
[Explore the intersection of faith, politics, arts and culture. Sign up for This Week in Religion.]
Surviving without Netanyahu
It is premature to write Netanyahu’s political obituary – he remains the leader of Likud, by far the largest party in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. He has vowed to bring down the newly installed “change government” and swiftly return to power.
He could well accomplish this task given his Machiavellian political skills and the inherent fragility of Israel’s new governing coalition, which is composed of no fewer than eight different parties ranging across the political spectrum. Since it depends on a razor-thin parliamentary majority of 61 of the 120 Knesset seats, the government will be extremely vulnerable to Netanyahu’s relentless efforts to topple it.
But however short-lived Israel’s fledgling government turns out to be, its mere formation is not only something of a political miracle – bringing together religious and secular ultranationalist right-wingers, liberal centrists, secular leftists and Arab Islamists – but also a stunning repudiation of Netanyahu.
Ultimately, the rule of law and democratic process in Israel have survived Netanyahu’s attacks. A peaceful transition of power has occurred, despite angry protests and violent threats against some of the members of the incoming government.
The mere fact that Israel has a new prime minister will now demonstrate to many Israelis that the country can survive without Netanyahu’s leadership. Even if the new government accomplishes very little, this alone will be an important achievement.
By rejecting Netanyahu’s demagoguery, Prime Minister Bennett can also begin to heal some of the divisiveness that Netanyahu stoked and exploited, even if his government continues many of Netanyahu’s policies, as seems likely. This, if nothing else, will be the “change” it promises.