What will Israeli politics after Netanyahu hold for the Palestinians?

Disrupting Israel’s insular political discourse will require fully activating the Palestinian leadership in Israel, grassroots and civil society organizations, and foreign governments and institutions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo: Kobi Gideon / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo: Kobi Gideon / GPO)

In August 2017, three thousand Israelis greeted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a rally in Tel Aviv organized by the Likud party. A few days earlier, media outlets reported that the Israeli police were close to recommending criminal indictments against Netanyahu regarding various corruption scandals after several of his close aides agreed to plea bargains in exchange for their cooperation with the authorities.

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Speaking to the crowd, Netanyahu accused the media and the political left of pursuing “an obsessive, unprecedented hunting trip against me and my family with a goal to carry out a government coup.” He claimed that corruption allegations – what he called “fake news” – were also used to target Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1992 and himself as Prime Minister in 1999, which led to Likud’s election losses and resulted in “the Oslo disaster,” “exploding buses,” and “more than 1,000 dead Israelis.” The Israeli people, he said, should not allow it to happen a third time.

The speech was a classic display of Netanyahu’s knack for rhetorical manipulation. But whatever he had hoped to achieve with his performance, it certainly did not stop the police’s preparations of their charges. In February 2018, Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh handed his recommendations to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, and in the following weeks, more key witnesses gave themselves up to the police.

Although no indictments have been issued yet, and despite surviving the latest coalition crisis, Israelis are speculating whether the corruption scandals finally mark the beginning of Netanyahu’s political demise. The second-longest serving prime minister after David Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu has had a profound impact on Israel’s political scene since the 1990s. It is therefore troubling, especially to Palestinians, that if these corruption cases are the harbinger of Netanyahu’s downfall, it will have had nothing to do with the more egregious crimes for which he is responsible, and for which he – and future Israeli leaders – have yet to be held accountable.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Muni Expo 2018 conference at the Tel Aviv Convention Center, February 14, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Muni Expo 2018 conference at the Tel Aviv Convention Center, February 14, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Israel under “King Bibi”

Throughout his premierships, analysts predicted that Netanyahu would be brought down by any one of the allies holding up his fragile rule, from the ultra-orthodox Jewish parties to his personal rivals within Likud. “King Bibi,” however, survived them all. A skilled politician, he has been adept at managing Israel’s notoriously volatile coalition system and has remained in power with three consecutive governments over nine years – each more right wing than the last.

Netanyahu directly influenced the country’s media landscape by shaping the editorial stance of Israel Hayom (the nation’s gratis, most-read newspaper, funded by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson), and used the Communications Ministry to threaten and harass media outlets that were critical of him. Despite crises and condemnations throughout his career – including mass Israeli protests for socioeconomic justice in 2011 and, more recently, weekly protests against widespread government corruption – Netanyahu has withstood public pressures to step down. Ironically, the impending corruption charges show that the most fatal threat to Bibi’s rule is himself.

Netanyahu was never a particularly popular prime minister, but he succeeded in persuading many Israelis to tolerate his leadership, even if begrudgingly. Since the trauma of the Second Intifada, Israeli society shed much of its support for the politics of the traditional left, which in their eyes exposed Israel to waves of Palestinian suicide bombings after the Oslo Accords and rocket fire after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. The implosion of neighboring states like Syria, the rise of militant groups like ISIS, and the fear of a potentially nuclear Iran further reduced any belief in idealistic visions of peace. Public opinion shifted instead toward right wing and centrist parties, whose hard-line principles were seen as better guarantors of Israeli security and prosperity.

These conditions allowed leaders like Netanyahu to gradually overhaul the political establishment and infuse their hawkish policies into the national mainstream – and for the average Israeli, their approach seemed to work. The Palestinian bombings of the 1990s and early 2000s vanished, and military operations and “flashes” of violence since have incurred relatively few Israeli casualties. The economy withstood the global recession, international business ties increased, and the high-tech industry boosted the country’s image as a “start-up nation.” Fears that foreign allies would ramp up pressure over settlement expansion in the West Bank failed to materialize beyond repetitive statements about the threat to the peace process – which, for the first time in years, was no longer at the forefront of the Israeli public’s agenda.

The “stability” Netanyahu has offered, however, is an illusion built upon the oppression of Palestinian lives. The ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip has choked the territory’s 1.8 million residents, creating a humanitarian disaster. Operation Protective Edge in 2014 – the third such operation in five years – destroyed vast tracts of Gaza’s cities and killed 2,251 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians. Military repression and settler violence in the West Bank have imprisoned, injured and killed scores of Palestinians every month. Home demolitions have displaced hundreds of Palestinians every year in Area C, East Jerusalem, and the Naqab (Negev). Israeli officials have threatened and demonized human rights organizations and dissident voices, including Jewish citizens, as threats to the state. New discriminatory and anti-democratic laws passed by the Knesset and condoned by the Supreme Court have deepened the racial inequality of Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The international community has been complicit in preserving Netanyahu’s illusion. The US and EU have deepened their ties with Israel while pretending that the prime minister was committed to the peace process following his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech. This was despite the fact that Netanyahu continued to vocally oppose the two-state solution, sanctioned the construction of thousands of new settlement units, accused EU-funded human rights groups of being “foreign agents,” and declared to the Israeli public that he would never divide Jerusalem or give up “Judea and Samaria.” When diplomatic crises did occur – particularly over settlement expansion – the US and EU failed to impose tangible consequences on the Israeli government’s belligerence, reverting instead to “strongly-worded” language to express their disapproval. Netanyahu thus proved that Israel could actively undermine the US’s and EU’s efforts to make peace, and still enjoy its relations with impunity.

These experiences from the Netanyahu era – together with decades of ethno-nationalism, settler colonialism, and unaccountability – are shaping the future of Israeli politics in relation to the Palestinians. Any Israeli interest in altering the conflict’s so-called status quo has withered, as has the civic space to oppose it. Parties are primarily distinguishing their platforms around domestic issues while mirroring each other’s external policies. The insulation of Jewish life from Palestinian suffering, and the hardening of the Jewish-Israeli political consensus, has made it easier for the Israeli public to either openly embrace or turn a blind eye to the worsening methods used by the state to preserve their colonial bubble. It is therefore telling that Netanyahu’s political survival is more endangered by his acceptance of bribes like champagne and cigars than by his bombardment of Rafah in 2014 or his claim that Arab voters were “coming out in droves” in 2015.

A Palestinian woman walks past the rubble of a home that was destroyed by Israel during the 2014 war, Rafah, Gaza Strip, July 30, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash 90)
A Palestinian woman walks past the rubble of a home that was destroyed by Israel during the 2014 war, Rafah, Gaza Strip, July 30, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash 90)

Who’s next?

Despite the looming criminal indictments, which could take months or years to reach a conviction, if at all, it is unclear if Netanyahu will be forced to step down or if his charges will severely affect Likud’s electoral support. Various polls suggest that Likud could lose some seats in the next election (currently set for 2019), but will remain the leading party. This is partly attributed to the failure of the other factions to establish themselves as distinct alternatives to Likud. Since it broke the Labor party’s hegemony in 1977, Likud has not only compelled the Israeli left to court right wing voters, but has almost single-handedly generated today’s Israeli leaders across the political spectrum: Naftali Bennett (Habayet Hayehudi), Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beiteinu), Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah), and Avi Gabbay (Labor), among others, are all former members or supporters of the party.

For now, Likud has pushed party colleagues to stand behind Netanyahu against his charges, and has even encouraged a new law that would shield sitting prime ministers from police investigations into suspected crimes of corruption. This has not stopped political maneuvering within the party to prepare for a “post-Bibi” future. Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, and Culture Minister Miri Regev have been mentioned as…

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