Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has signed a coalition agreement, after a year of uncertainty and three elections, to create a government that should keep him in power for at least another year and a half. If all goes well with his corruption trial, set to begin on May 24 after a postponement due to the Covid-19 pandemic, he will have outwitted his opponents once again and remained in office more than a decade. How does Israel’s leader keep going when his own party never gets more than 35 seats in the country’s 120-member Knesset and he seems to have alienated parties on the left, right and centre?
Netanyahu has outlasted his rivals by playing them off against each other. In most countries if you failed to win two elections and form a government, it would probably be time to step aside. That’s what happens in Italy or the UK in recent years when political leaders have stumbled. Not in Israel. Because the country’s politics is so balkanized by religious-sectarian factions, it has given Netanyahu an opportunity to portray himself as indispensable to wide swaths of the country. In a sense, he has defeated Israel’s political system of parliamentary democracy, dominating it so completely over a decade that it’s hard to imagine another leader taking his place.
Consider the latest election. Netanyahu warned for months that the centrist Blue and White party, led by former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz would form a left-wing government if Netanyahu wasn’t permitted to lead. Yet when Netanyahu sat for coalition negotiations in April he agreed to a partnership with Gantz that put the right-wing Yamina party in opposition. This was classic Netanyahu: Campaign for right-wing votes and sponge them up on election day, before moving back toward the centre.
Netanyahu’s other tactic that has kept him in power is his weakening of centrist opponents. Israel’s Labor has collapsed in recent decades, from up to 44 seats a quarter century ago to only a handful of seats in the recent Knesset. In response to the collapse of the Left, a series of centrist parties have emerged, including Kadima (which came in first with 28 seats in 2009), Yesh Atid (which won 19 seats in 2013) and Blue and White (which won 33 seats in 2019). Netanyahu successfully understood that the real challenge to his power would come from an Israel that was less tethered to old right-left ideologies and was becoming more coastal, high-tech, secular and centrist. To weaken the centrists he co-opted them, bringing their parties into coalition agreements as junior partners and taking the wind from their sails. Unsurprisingly Gantz, whose Blue and White party was twice tapped by Israel’s President to try to form a government, finally caved to Netanyahu and signed an agreement that has kept Netanyahu at the helm.
The last piece of the Netanyahu masterclass in politics is that he has maneuvered the religious Jewish Orthodox parties to rely only on him. Fearful of centrists who want to reduce Orthodox power over religion-state issues, the two Orthodox parties in Israel pledged themselves to Netanyahu in the last coalition agreements. The opposition in Israel is now hopelessly divided as a result. It is made up of a small right-wing opposition party, the remnants of a centrist party, a tiny far-left party and several parties that appeal to Arab minority voters. All of the opposition elements tend to hate each other more than they hate Netanyahu. This makes Israeli politics look a bit like Turkey, where the opposition is divided against itself.
Netanyahu now appears at the peak of his power. And with a friendly US administration, a powerful army and economy, a defeated Palestinian national movement and a domestic politics that behaves more like a circus than an opposition, it doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere.