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Netanyahu Is Down, but Is He Out for Good?

Then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 24, 2020. (Abir Sultan/Reuters )
Israel’s new governing coalition may not hold, and Bibi could reemerge amid the chaos.

After frantic negotiations, on Sunday the so-called change coalition succeeded in forming a government in Israel, replacing the country’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with his one-time protégé Naftali Bennett. The race is now on for “the end of Bibi” editorializing — mostly by individuals who have opposed Netanyahu and who are euphoric about his purported fall. Certainly Netanyahu’s polarizing personality and his tendency to alienate many of his closest associates have played a significant role in his current predicament. Although for a politician over 70 this can hardly be characterized as “the end of the beginning,” it is almost certainly not Netanyahu’s last act. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of his demise may be greatly exaggerated.

One significant advantage for Netanyahu as he leaves office is the makeup of the government that is replacing him. The internal contradictions and incoherence of the change coalition were on full display last week as the group blew through a deadline when they could not come to an agreement on managing the roads in West Bank; this was an excellent example of the sort of contentious issue that will bedevil a coalition that includes both an Islamist Arab party and a far-right party, which tend to see such things very differently. But the new government now in power indeed marks a momentous change for the Jewish state, with the right-wing Bennett slated to lead the country for two years, followed by a two-year term for center-left Yair Lapid.

If the new coalition is simply about change, the question then becomes: With Netanyahu out of office and cooler heads prevailing, do most Israelis really want change? Israel is increasingly a center-right country, with the once-powerful Labor party reduced to a shadow of its former self. Netanyahu’s Likud party still overwhelmingly supports him because of the strategic vision he brought to governing, driven by his disciplined focus on the two issues broadly supported by the electorate: Iran and the economy.

The signature foreign-policy issue with which Netanyahu is most closely identified is opposition to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s blatantly genocidal intentions toward Israel, which it refers to as “the Little Satan.” Over the course of Netanyahu’s premierships — his first from 1996 to 1999, his second beginning in 2009 — Israel’s regional threats shifted from the Arab nations that had been at war with the Jewish state since its inception to Iran, which had been a friend until the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The first major shift had come in 1994, with the peace treaty with Jordan. Four years later, during Netanyahu’s first tenure, then-president Bill Clinton received the report from the bipartisan Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States (the so-called Rumsfeld Commission) documenting the Islamic Republic’s pursuit of ballistic-missile capability.

Netanyahu’s growing concerns about Iran’s burgeoning ability to threaten Israel ranged from Iran’s funding and training of proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which have repeatedly attacked Israel, to the existential danger Iran would pose if it possessed both nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. For years, Netanyahu has relentlessly emphasized the Iranian regime’s hostile and hegemonic intentions, a focus that has almost unanimous support in Israel. Given the Biden administration’s renewal of President Obama’s attempts to achieve a rapprochement with Tehran and the recent outbreak of hostilities with Hamas, Israeli concerns about Iran will only grow in coming months.

In addition, as a former finance minister, Netanyahu shepherded the remarkable progress of the Israeli economy over the past two decades, as the “start-up nation” emerged as one of the great regional, and indeed global, economic powerhouses. As with opposition to Iran, support for preserving and nurturing this economic strength is pretty much unanimous in Israel. And post-COVID, the potential for additional growth is enormous, in part owing to some momentous developments that took place during the pandemic.

One such development was the deal reached last summer for U.S. energy giant Chevron to purchase the relatively minor Houston firm Noble Energy for $4 billion; Noble had been one of the few energy companies willing to work in Israel despite a general fear of being frozen out of more lucrative deals with the oil-rich Gulf countries. While the Chevron deal of course bodes well for Israel’s energy sector, it also opens up a broader spectrum of foreign investment in the country, which can now afford to be choosy about whom it allows to invest, particularly in critical infrastructure projects and sensitive technology.

Another major development was the historic Abraham Accords between Israel and Arab nations, including the UAE and Bahrain. As the accords, a Netanyahu achievement, mature, there is significant potential for (previously unimaginable) growth in the partnership between Israel and its neighbors on everything from energy to water and food security to biotech to cybersecurity. And there is still much to do to free Israel from the lingering vestiges of its socialist-leaning 1970s regulatory architecture, as Netanyahu pointed out in his Davos speech earlier this year, to ensure Israel’s ongoing prosperity.

So it remains to be seen if the change coalition can deliver on Iran and the economy, or if its only raison d’être is not being Netanyahu. The only thing for certain in Israel this summer is going to be uncertainty. One wild card is the outcome of Netanyahu’s various corruption trials. While largely ignored by the media, recent developments have been favorable to him, and if he can get his legal situation resolved, it will significantly strengthen his hand — and remove a burdensome distraction. Being in the opposition could be similarly liberating: Relieved of the day-to-day responsibilities of governing, as the leader of the opposition Netanyahu can force votes on legislation pertaining to just the sort of Palestinian-related thorny issues that will be so difficult for the governing coalition to manage.

And then there will be the behavior of the coalition itself, which will have to choose between focusing on devising laws dedicated solely to keeping Netanyahu out of the premiership in perpetuity, or focusing on the national-security and economic issues that kept him in it for so long. If the coalition members choose the former, it will not endear them to voters concerned about a possible U.S. accommodation with Iran and eager to recover economically from the pandemic, and it may well increase sympathy for Netanyahu.

Israel is a democracy, and one hallmark of democracies is that they have no indispensable men. So perhaps Netanyahu’s ouster was simply inevitable. If he is out for good, there will be plenty of time to assess his legacy, a process in which Netanyahu, as the son of an eminent historian, will no doubt play a central role. But such assessments may well prove premature. Netanyahu may be down at the moment, but I, for one, would be cautious about betting against him in the long term.

Victoria Coates is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and a principal member of Vi et Arte Solutions, LLC. She served as deputy national-security adviser for Middle Eastern and North African affairs in the Trump administration. @VictoriaCoates

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