The past decade is littered with political obituaries announcing Benjamin Netanyahu’s imminent departure from office — and each has ended up looking more absurd than the last. Here in Israel, predictions of his downfall have become a fixture of daily political life; so much so that he is often greeted with cheers of “he is a wizard, he is a wizard” at his Likud Party’s events whenever he sees off another challenge. To put it simply, when Netanyahu is on the ropes, you can usually be sure he won’t stay there for long.
This time, however, it feels different. Yes, Netanyahu is the same skilled politician. And yes, despite the political turmoil of recent times — resulting in four elections in half as many years — he has overseen a number of major triumphs: from Israel’s world-leading Covid-19 vaccination roll-out to its normalisation of relations with four Arab countries to his cool-headed manner in the country’s latest conflict with Hamas.
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But even a political genius can make mistakes, and it looks like Netanyahu is about to get his comeuppance on one of his most enduring flaws: his cultivation of protégés who he then discards, fearing that they might one day challenge him. For years, it seemed like this was just politics; Netanyahu didn’t want to promote someone only for that person to take him down, so he pre-emptively saw off any potential competitors.
Little did he know that there could one day be consequences. Israeli politicians are currently involved in coalition negotiations after another inconclusive parliamentary election. There are, of course, a number of reasons for Netanyahu’s inability to form a government in three of the past four elections. But the most important has been the Right’s majority in the Knesset after each one, and their refusal to be part of a coalition led by Netanyahu.
And the leaders of the three main Right-wing parties who have declined to be in Netanyahu’s coalition all have one thing in common: they all used to work closely with him — until they were no longer useful.
First, there is Avigdor Liberman, leader of Yisrael Beytenu. Liberman was Netanyahu’s chief of staff when he was prime minister in the 1990s, but after that, decided to form a new party that appealed to immigrants from the former Soviet Union. That wasn’t the end of their relationship; in the 22 years since Yisrael Beytenu’s founding, Liberman has served as both foreign minister and defence minister under Netanyahu. Their parties even ran together in 2013, as part of a joint parliamentary slate called Likud Beytenu.
But as Defence Minister, the hawkish Liberman felt that Netanyahu was preventing him from implementing the policies on which he was elected, including a harsher response to Hamas terrorists shooting rockets into Israel. So he resigned in late 2018, which was one of the early triggers for the first vote of this four-election cycle.
After the first election, Liberman would have been the key to Netanyahu getting a parliamentary majority coalition, but he simply refused; defence is one of the issues he cited, but so is Netanyahu’s close partnership with orthodox religious parties. Their past relationship forgotten, Netanyahu’s former right hand man doesn’t want anything to do with him.
Next, there is Gideon Sa’ar, who for years was viewed as Netanyahu’s anointed successor as the leader of Likud. He repeatedly came second on Likud’s candidate list, which is elected through a vote by the party’s 100,000-plus members. Over the past decade, Sa’ar had successful turns as education minister and interior minister, but then he supported President Reuven Rivlin’s run for the presidency, which Netanyahu opposed; despite Rivlin being the candidate from Likud, the Prime Minister feared he would be too independent.
From that moment, Netanyahu became hostile to Sa’ar and obstructed every policy that he proposed. Sa’ar responded by deciding to take a break from politics for a few years — he claimed that he wanted to spend time with his family — but returned and ran in the Likud primary ahead of the first 2019 election. He did not, however, return to his number-two slot, though he did remain in the top ten. He was, in effect, still a threat.
Indeed, after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition the first time, Sa’ar challenged Netanyahu in a Likud leadership race, but ended up with only about a quarter of the vote. Then, when Netanyahu formed a short-lived government after the third election in March last year, he passed Sa’ar up for a cabinet post, despite Sa’ar’s relative success in the party primary.
So, when the fourth election came along a year later, Sa’ar broke off from Likud with four of its legislators, and formed his own party, New Hope. Its policy proposals are mostly indistinguishable from Likud’s, apart from their refusal to form a government led by Netanyahu — not because of Sa’ar’s personal issues, they claim, but because Netanyahu is motivated purely by self-interest. In the most recent election, Likud lost seven seats; Sa’ar won five.
The third and final protégé-turned-enemy is the man who may be Israel’s next prime minister: Naftali Bennett, leader of the Yamina party. Back in 2005, Bennett, a major admirer of Netanyahu, sold his cyber-fraud detection software company Cyota for $130 million. A year later, he became the leader of a protest movement concerned with the Government’s unpreparedness for war, which is how he ended up meeting Netanyahu, the opposition leader at the time. After Bennett fought in the second Lebanon War that year, Netanyahu appointed him his chief of staff.
The cause of Bennett’s sudden rift with Netanyahu in 2008 remains a mystery. I’ve spent hours interviewing Bennett, who refuses to get into specifics, and the closest thing to an answer I’ve managed to extract centres around Bennet’s decision to block Sarah Netanyahu’s access to her husband’s official funds and perks as opposition leader.
Whatever the truth, suffice it to say that he left Netanyahu’s office on bad terms. In 2012, Bennett returned to politics and successfully ran a campaign to lead Bayit Yehudi, a mostly religious party to the Right of Likud. At first, Netanyahu didn’t want anything to do with his former ally, but ended up having to turn to Bayit Yehudi in his attempt to form a majority coalition. After subsequent elections, Netanyahu was again willing to sign with just about anyone else before offering to talk with Bennett. Bennett, for his part, would take what he could get; for all their differences, his voter base liked Netanyahu.
After election number four, though, Bennett didn’t promise to support Netanyahu. He didn’t promise not to sit with Netanyahu, either. This, along with the inconclusive result, put him in the position of becoming the kingmaker — despite only winning seven seats.
And, most importantly, it looks like Netanyahu won’t be that King. Negotiations are set to continue until tonight, but the opposition leader Yair Lapid, of the centrist Yesh Atid Party, looks to have enticed Bennett to support him by sharing the office of Prime Minister with him — with Bennett serving as the country’s leader for two years.
If that were to happen, if King Bibi were to be toppled by three of his protégés, it would undoubtedly be a messy, fractious end to his reign. But in many ways, it would be entirely fitting. They did, after all, learn from the best.