Anshel Pfeffer

The increasing irrelevance of Benjamin Netanyahu

[Getty Images]


The most tedious question in Israeli politics is: ‘Will this be the end of Benjamin Netanyahu?’ It has come up again in recent weeks as Israel has found itself on the brink of chaos over his coalition government’s attempts to pass laws weakening the independence of the judiciary, including the Supreme Court. And while the civilian unrest is unprecedented in the country’s history, anyone who has spent even a moderate amount of time observing Israel in the past decades should know by now that the answer, as long as Netanyahu is still breathing, is ‘no’.

Netanyahu can’t discipline or sack his ministers. To do so would almost certainly cost him his majority

At 73, and after more than 40 years in public life, his lust for power and sense of destiny remain unquenchable. He is still a far more indefatigable and creative campaigner than any of his rivals. In Likud he has a party that has never deposed its leader. And the coalition he has built of far-right and ultra-religious parties does not have anyone else it believes can lead it to election victories.

Not that Netanyahu wins every election. Despite his self-cultivated magician-winner image, his track record is far from perfect. He has led Likud in eleven general elections, won five, lost three and drawn three. It’s his resilience in coming back from defeat and holding on in stalemate that have made him Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, as much as his victories at the ballot box. I was once present when a non-Israeli journalist told him that David Cameron had promised not to serve more than two terms in Downing Street and asked whether he also had plans to retire at some point. The look of sheer incomprehension on Netanyahu’s face was almost comical. Relinquishing power voluntarily is a foreign concept to him. And if he is forced out, he will keep on trying to return.

But the political turmoil of the past seven months, since he returned after what he called a ‘hiatus’ of 18 months in opposition, has prompted a different question – ‘Is Netanyahu still relevant?’

After failing to win a majority in four consecutive elections between 2019 and 2021, Netanyahu made his comeback in late December on the fifth try by imposing complete discipline on the seven parties supporting him. Meanwhile, the parties of the centre-left opposed to him split. As a result, despite winning just under half the votes, Netanyahu’s coalition emerged with a small yet stable majority in the new Knesset.

To win that majority, Netanyahu had to eke out every last available means of support on the furthest margins of the far-right. It was the only way of returning to power, as the centrist parties which in the past have agreed to join his coalitions are not prepared to serve under a prime minister facing corruption charges.

Netanyahu’s strategy worked but it also meant that he has little control over his government. Many of the powerful ministries (as well as some freshly invented ones) went to the coalition partners, as well as billions of shekels in funding for special interests and promises to pass radical policies. Chief among these is the series of laws and amendments weakening the courts, which also has much support within Likud, but runs counter to previous statements by Netanyahu himself extolling the virtues of Israel’s independent Supreme Court.

A newer but equally tedious question being asked in Israel is whether Netanyahu has changed his mind about the courts, or is he being ‘held hostage’ by his coalition? The answer is that it simply doesn’t matter. He’s not in charge of most of his government’s policies anyway.

Nearly everything his ministers have done in the past seven months has been in contradiction to his long-held beliefs. He is a proponent of small government and fiscal caution whose administration has lavished massive benefits on small religious communities, is appointing hundreds of clerical cronies and whose finance minister said in an interview that his economic approach was to do God’s will. He is a risk-averse leader whose national security minister is a pyromaniac who risks setting the region ablaze by regularly visiting Jerusalem’s contested Temple Mount/Al Aqsa compound. He is a social conservative who has in the past avoided tampering with Israel’s main institutions, but whose justice minister is tearing society apart with his plans to eviscerate the judiciary.

Netanyahu can’t discipline or sack his ministers. To do so would almost certainly cost him his majority. In March, he announced he had fired his defence minister, triggering some of the largest protests seen on Israel’s streets. He rescinded the letter.

Last Monday, as the Knesset voted on one of the laws of its ‘legal reform’, the nation was treated to the sight of the defence and justice ministers arguing on the front bench over whether to postpone the vote and try to reach some form of accommodation with the opposition. A silent Netanyahu sat between them. The hardliners won and that weekend, only 40 per cent of Israelis said in a media survey that Netanyahu was in charge of the government; 45 per cent thought the radical ministers were.

‘Quick! Someone take a blurry photo!’

One minister close to Netanyahu admitted to me that the Prime Minister ‘didn’t want to have to spend his new term on this’. Yet the constitutional controversy that has caused hundreds of thousands of Israelis to come out on the streets, tech companies to threaten to move their business abroad and thousands of veteran reserve officers to suspend their voluntary service has consumed nearly every moment since he returned to office. And that will continue being the case as the coalition intends to bring more such laws, whether Netanyahu likes it or not.

When asked about his far-right coalition partners in interviews with the US media (he rarely ever speaks to Israeli journalists nowadays) he regularly answers: ‘They joined me. I didn’t join them, and I direct policy.’ That facade is increasingly looking hollow. As Norman Lamont said of John Major’s government, Netanyahu now gives ‘the impression of being in office but not in power’.