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How Benjamin Netanyahu’s Former Vassals Dethroned “King Bibi”

The very political figures Israel’s longest-serving prime minister nurtured and elevated conspired to end his reign, not out of ideological resolve but out of exasperation

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How Benjamin Netanyahu’s Former Vassals Dethroned “King Bibi”
Presumptive Prime Minister Naftali Bennett/Ronen Zvulun/pool/AFP via Getty Images

Faced with the likely end of his 12-year reign, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, chose instead to try an unoriginal path for hanging onto power. He floated conspiracy theories regarding the “deep state” controlling the incoming coalition government; slammed social media giants like Facebook for censoring his supporters; attacked the liberal press he said was arrayed against him; and derided as mere political correctness claims he was inciting violence during the fraught transition.

His democratic ouster, he added, was “the greatest election fraud in the history of the country, and in my opinion the history of democracy.”

One could be forgiven wondering which country Netanyahu thinks he’s in — and also why former President Donald Trump’s ignominious last days are the model to emulate. But having failed at the ballot box, Netanyahu’s sole remaining option was to rebrand his former friends as his enemies while trying to recruit his longtime enemies into being his new friends. So far, so bad.

The main target of his febrile attacks was presumptive Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other former right-wing loyalists who were now set to join forces with left-wing and centrist factions (and even one Islamist party) to unseat him.

“A right-winger doesn’t vote for a left-wing government, and if you vote for a left-wing government, you’re not a right-winger,” Netanyahu has declared.

The historical record will show that while it was centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid who engineered the improbable alliance that dethroned “King Bibi,” Netanyahu’s erstwhile vassals from the right provided the coup de grace.

Indeed, over the course of four inconclusive elections in the past two years, and with a fifth looming, several right-wing allies turned against the prime minister. This had less to do with policy differences than with growing concern over Netanyahu’s increasingly divisive rule.

Netanyahu wants to “take the entire country to his own private Masada,” Bennett warned last week, referencing the suicidal last stand by Jewish rebels against the Roman Empire two millennia ago. It was time, he added, “to stop the madness and take responsibility.”

In this, Bennett was only the most recent — albeit crucial — of the right-wing defectors against Netanyahu, allowing an alternative coalition government to be seated this coming Sunday, June 13.

But the first to do so was Avigdor Lieberman, a former senior aide in the prime minister’s office and defense minister under Netanyahu. His break from Netanyahu took place after the country’s April 2019 election, the first of the four subsequent rounds — and the start of the “madness.”

Shocking the country, Lieberman, head of the secular-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, refused to join a coalition with Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies, as he had done repeatedly in the past. Such a potential “Haredi-messianic” coalition — that is, ultra-Orthodox and extremist settler elements — was not the traditional liberal right, Lieberman averred.

With no parliamentary majority absent Lieberman, Netanyahu triggered another election, and then another, and then another — with each subsequent round increasing Lieberman’s personal opposition to Netanyahu’s continued rule.

Machiavelli needs to take private lessons from Netanyahu

“Machiavelli needs to take private lessons from Netanyahu,” Lieberman said last month, blasting the premier for his endless deceptions.

Amid the divisive transition, Lieberman last week raised the specter of a Jan. 6-style event, calling it a “clear and present danger.” He said: “Everything we saw on Capitol Hill we see here. … If there is one thing that Netanyahu caused, the greatest damage to the State of Israel, (it’s) the disintegration of Israeli society.”

The next domino to fall came closer to home, inside Netanyahu’s own Likud party. Last December, ahead of the most recent election, senior party official Gideon Sa’ar defected to build his own right-wing faction, purposefully called New Hope. Sa’ar, a former cabinet secretary and interior minister under Netanyahu, took several other Likud lawmakers with him.

“The (Likud) movement has become a tool for the personal interests of its leader, a personality cult for one man,” Sa’ar charged, alleging that Netanyahu consistently “put his personal interests over the good of the country.” This was especially true in Netanyahu’s desperate attempts to halt his ongoing corruption trial for bribery and fraud. He had to leave, Sa’ar said.

New Hope disappointed, failing to truly compete with the Likud party and winning a handful of seats. But the party drew just enough disaffected voters away from Netanyahu — by analysts’ estimates some 100,000 votes, just over two seats — to stop him from gaining a parliamentary majority.

For that, Netanyahu had to turn to a small Islamist faction called the United Arab List (UAL). UAL broke from decades of convention and indicated it would be willing to engage in the coalition horse-trading of Israeli politics. The party was demanding long-neglected budgetary and infrastructure support for the Arab citizens of Israel, some 20% of the country, but not any dramatic changes in diplomacy or foreign policy (read: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict).

This was nothing short of revolutionary for an Arab-Israeli political party. Almost as revolutionary, Netanyahu — who weeks earlier was still calling UAL “terrorist supporters” and “Muslim Brothers” — was game.

The obstacle to such a government, however, came from Netanyahu’s right, and more specifically the far right: the Religious Zionism party, an amalgamation of extremist settler and hard-line religious factions including one fascist grouping spiritually tied to the late Rabbi Meir Kahane (who was barred from politics in the late 1980s for his anti-Arab racism).

Netanyahu had personally engineered the party’s creation in order to maximize the right’s vote share and, thereby, his political survival. On the stump, he implored voters to choose either Likud or Religious Zionism. In return for all this largesse, the party rejected Netanyahu’s entreaties to accept the backing of an Arab party in the formation of a government.

Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich, a former transportation minister under Netanyahu, said he would “not lend a hand to the suicide of the Right and the State of Israel” in seating a government “dependent on the support of anti-Zionist terror supporters (who) make all of us their hostages.”

Tellingly, Smotrich indicated that such short-term opportunism would have disastrous long-term consequences: in other words, that Netanyahu’s immediate fate was of less importance than keeping Arab-Israeli parties out of bounds and maintaining the right’s decadeslong parliamentary advantage over the center-left.

Blasphemy under any circumstance, and as one Likud official fired back, sheer “ingratitude” on the part of Smotrich and his party. The anti-Netanyahu opposition, however, was delighted.

“Netanyahu should have known better than to think he could control these extremists,” one opposition source told me, barely concealing his glee.

Religious Zionism’s veto over an Arab-backed Netanyahu government created an opening that the opposition gladly seized. UAL’s eventual coalition agreement with the incoming government was based almost wholly on promises Netanyahu had made to them. Bibi’s loss was Bennett’s gain.

Israel’s next prime minister is a former chief of staff and defense minister under Netanyahu and heads a small pro-settler party called Yamina (“rightward”). Like all other right-wing politicians — save Lieberman — Bennett in successive elections swore fealty to Netanyahu, literally signing loyalty oaths rejecting any alternative prime ministerial options.

Netanyahu rewarded Bennett for such devotion by excluding him from a short-lived unity government formed last year, jettisoning him to the opposition.

“It’s the end of the Bennett era,” the official Likud social media account jeered at the time.

Yet Bennett over the past year rebuilt his public standing by blasting the Netanyahu government for its handling of the health and economic fallout from the pandemic.

“If it doesn’t involve (people’s) livelihood, it doesn’t matter,” Bennett would say, in a bid to soften his hard-line image.

Bennett garnered a mere seven seats, but in Israel’s torturous parliamentary system it was enough to make him a kingmaker

Bennett garnered a mere seven seats, but in Israel’s torturous parliamentary system it was enough to make him a kingmaker — and, through a power-sharing deal with Yair Lapid, prime minister for the first two years of the new government. (Lapid will then rotate into the top spot from the foreign ministry.)

Lapid and Bennett both hold mutual veto power over any decisions emanating from the heterogeneous coalition, consisting as it does of pro-peace, left-wing parties (Labor and Meretz); the Islamist UAL; centrist factions (Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Kahol Lavan, headed by Defense Minister Benny Gantz); and ultranationalist, right-wing factions (Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, Sa’ar’s New Hope, and Bennett’s Yamina).

“No one will be asked to give up their ideology, but everyone will have to postpone the realization of some of their dreams,” Bennett said last week. “We will focus on what can be done, instead of arguing over what is impossible.”

Consensus agenda items are set to include economics, health, education, and infrastructure. Even a fraught foreign policy issue like Iran, a mainstay of Netanyahu’s political career, is not expected to raise undue division.

There is wide consensus in the incoming Israeli cabinet — led by Bennett, Lapid, and Gantz — that a return to the original nuclear agreement, as the Biden administration plans, is the worst option available. Similar to Netanyahu, Israel plans to continue opposing such a move, pushing for a better deal or no deal (and maintaining sanctions on Tehran).

Yet all three Israeli officials have also argued that Netanyahu’s highly confrontational line on this issue has caused damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship and will need to be softened and resolved behind closed doors.

In an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 last week, Bennett referenced his years as a tech entrepreneur in the U.S., saying his approach was “honesty … speaking face-to-face, and telling the truth.”

“We have to try to define (differences) and manage the situation,” Bennett added, “but we have a lot more in common” with the U.S. than differences.

Yet one of the differences both with the U.S. and inside the incoming government will assuredly be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For years, Bennett, a former settler leader, had been pushing for annexation of much of the West Bank before Netanyahu seized on the idea; Sa’ar, for his part, has been even more to the right on the issue than the outgoing prime minister. The new government won’t be able to execute on this right-wing vision, but nor will it have any political room to dismantle settlements with an eye to a two-state agreement.

“This will be a status quo government,” Issawi Freij, an incoming Arab Israeli minister from the left-wing Meretz party, told Israel’s Army Radio last week. “I don’t expect a Palestinian state to be created and we’ll all dance in the streets … but we also won’t go wild in the settlements.”

How the new Israeli government threads this needle, with the competing political needs of all its constituent parts, will likely determine its staying power. And with it, the possible return of Benjamin Netanyahu to what he deems his rightful place in the world.

“It is a deadly combination of irresponsibility and incompetence combined with megalomania,” he told Israel’s Channel 20 on June 6, referring to the politicians who are set to replace him. “It is said that to be Israeli prime minister is the most difficult job in the world. (But) if you’re a prime minister of the left, they will hug you.”

And with that, King Bibi transformed the usurper to the throne, one of the more right-wing political figures in modern Israel, into a leftist. Self-serving, to be sure, but also a stark reminder: He’s not planning on going anywhere.

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