I’m not prone to quoting Winston Churchill. His politics were not mine. But since Bibi Netanyahu feigns a fondness for Churchill, it’s apt to quote his stirring D-Day speech:
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Actually, we are now in the beginning of the end to Bibi Netanyahu’s political career. Maybe even the middle of the end.
The beginning of the end were the daily marches and protests by thousands of Israelis against his long-time rule and its endemic corruption. Unlike other peace protests by left-wing or social justice activists, which always fizzled for one reason or another, these protests were about issues that resonated with all Israelis. There comes a time in every nation’s history when the sins and foibles of a long-serving ruler become too much to bear. That’s where Israelis are now.
This latest episode happened because of yet another looming deadline, which forced Netanyahu’s government either to compromise and survive, and fail to do so and fall. His awkward coalition partner, Benny Gantz, refused to approve a budget by the designated date and the government automatically was dissolved. This coalition died not with a bang, but with a feeble whimper. And with it died the political career of former IDF chief of staff and Blue and White party leader, Gantz.
Gantz had founded his Party little more than a year ago on a center-right platform (no successful government in Israel can contain liberal or, God forbid, left-wing ideas). Strong on defense, strong on social welfare. Weak on Occupation. Weak on Palestinians. But it was somehow to distinguish itself by being a kindlier, gentler version of Likud. It worked for three elections in which Gantz came ever so close to becoming prime minister. But in the end, it fell apart.
After swearing before the last election he would never sit in a government with Netanyahu, the results offered Gantz a choice of going into coalition with Netanyahu and sharing power; or remaining out in the cold. Israeli politicians rarely refuse the offer of the perquisites of power. They would much rather be a minister with all the trappings they offer in terms of doling out favors to your constituency; than sitting outside government in deference to principle. Principles don’t count in Israel’s electoral system. Patronage counts. Friends count. Favors count. Making your friends happy counts.
So Gantz betrayed his principles and become defense minister with the vague promise Netanyahu would stand down in 18 months and hand over the premiership to him. Bibi never did and never would have. And everyone knew that. Which is what makes this mess all the more pathetic. Not to mention, that Netanyahu ignored Gantz completely. The biggest military-intelligence achievements of this government were those ordered not by Gantz, but by the PM himself. He ran the show. Gantz went along for the ride. Now the ride is coming to a stop. And he won’t be on board when it starts again.
Saar’s Rising Star
With exquisite timing, Gideon Saar, one of Netanyahu’s chief Likud rivals, announced two weeks ago that he was quitting the Party to go out on his own. He did this deftly, cultivating recruits to his new enterprise quietly. When the end came, Saar was perfectly poised to take advantage. Stalwarts of the Likud and MKs from Blue and White started to see the handwriting on the wall and announced their departure from the only political home most of them (in Likud at least) had ever known.
Today, came the coup de grace: a former Netanyahu confidant, Zeev Elkin, whom Haaretz called his “consigliere,” bolted from the Party and joined Saar’s new endeavor. Those closest to the PM always become rivals, and then enemies. Elkin betrayed his former patron in the most dramatic way possible: an address to the full Knesset in which he lambasted his former patron in bitter, unforgiving terms.
Polls show that Saar’s New Hope Party will become the second largest in the Knesset. That, in turn means that it will have to form a coalition with another smaller party to govern; or else it will have to join Likud to do so. Which would bring Saar back into power shared with Netanyahu. Which threatens to turn the former into exactly what Gantz–and Ehud Barak and Amir Peretz before him became–coalition partners who were easily bested and then shunted aside.
Or Saar’s career arc could mirror that of Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, who struck out on his own politically, sat uneasily in a coalition with him, and then at the crucial moment when he could have joined a Likud coalition and returned to power, refused to be Bibi’s kingmaker and stood outside government. There is a scenario in which every former protégé or ally of Netanyahu’s (Saar, Lieberman, Bennett, Elkin) could join together to form a government and thus end their former mentor’s political career.
The election will be in March. It will be an entirely different election than the three previous ones over the past two years. Those were a battle between the far-right Likud and the center-right Blue and White. The left, including the Joint List and Meretz had strong showings. Under some scenarios either one might have joined Blue and White in government. Alas, it was not to be.
With the cratering of the latter, along with the increasing irrelevance of center-left parties like Labor and Meretz, the last ones standing will be the far- and the farthest-right. It will be a battle to see who can be the most racist, the most violent, the most anti-democratic, the most extreme. It will be Israel rapidly descending the slippery slope; the triumph of the will of Judeo-fascism.
Netanyahu set the current course in his fifteen years of autocratic, kleptocratic rule. Over time, he increasingly abandoned democracy and rule of law in favor of cronyism. His rivals learned much of what they know at his knee. They may be fresh[er] new faces on the political scene. But they will largely follow his path politically. Palestinians will have nothing to hope for. They will be irrelevant. They will be managed to ensure no major upheavals or intifadas. But that is all.
If a new government wins in March, there may be less bitterness and rancor with the incoming Biden administration. Saar, or whoever becomes prime minister will not have the history that his ex-boss had with Democratic presidents. But neither will he share much in common with Biden. They each want very different things. The only thing they share is that neither wants to totally burn bridges with the other. A rupture would be against the interests of each. So they will pretend to be friends and go through the motions.
One major caveat: Netanyahu is a political cat with nine lives (or more). He may escape conviction on the three corruption counts he faces, which could force his resignation. He may pull this election out of the fire and win a new term. He’s done it before. But it’s increasingly looking like Bibi’s days are numbered and the end is in sight.