Although his political agility got him out of so many tight spots that even his detractors called him a magician, Netanyahu became dogged by successive corruption investigations, becoming the first serving Israeli leader to face criminal prosecutions while in office.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the man who stormed into Israeli politics in the 1990s and became Israel’s longest serving leader, so admired by his supporters that they likened him to the Biblical King David, has been dethroned. For the first time since 2009, Israel has a new Prime Minister and “King Bibi”, as he was widely known, becomes Israel’s leader of the opposition.
Last Sunday, the narrow 60-59 vote in Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, ended a two-year period of political paralysis during which the country held four deadlocked elections. The new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, a former ally and protégé of Netanyahu, now heads a diverse and fragile coalition comprised of eight parties with deep ideological differences, ranging from a small Islamist party to Jewish ultra-nationalists. Few expect it to last. Nevertheless, world leaders have congratulated Bennett on becoming the 13th holder of the office of Israeli Prime Minister. Narendra Modi, who shared close ties with Netanyahu, congratulated Bennett in a tweet in Hebrew, saying “I look forward to meeting you and deepening the strategic relations between our two countries”. Modi also voiced his “deep recognition” of Netanyahu’s leadership.
The son of a right-wing Zionist scholar, Netanyahu made his name first in Washington, where he had been sent as an Israeli diplomat following his early education in America. He was appointed as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1984 and revealed his “star quality” when he became a regular on a number of popular American TV shows. Returning to Israel, Netanyahu quickly rose through the ranks of the right-wing party, Likud, and at the age of 43 became its leader in 1993.
This was the time of the Oslo peace process, with secret talks between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) leading to the “two states” accord, a result which Netanyahu hated. Once in power, he dashed hopes for any peaceful solution to the Palestinian issue by building the consensus that in determining the future of the Jewish state, the conflict with the Palestinians could be “managed” in perpetuity. While successive Israeli Prime Ministers had at least stayed loyal to the idea of implementing a two-state solution, arguing that it could give Israelis long-term stability and worldwide acceptance, Netanyahu did something different. He sold Israelis the idea that the occupation of millions of unwilling Palestinians could be perceived as an inconvenience rather than an existential threat.
Through it all, in the hope of galvanising right-wing voters, Netanyahu promised to realise the generations-old dream of annexing much of the occupied West Bank that had been captured from Jordan in 1967. He never made good on that promise, instead he used the threat of annexation to achieve the previously unthinkable—a normalisation deal with the United Arab Emirates, quickly followed by treaties with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
After signing these historic agreements, Netanyahu restated the mantra from Hebrew Scriptures that strength attracts and weakness repels. “In the Middle East”, he said, “the strong survive, and with strength one makes peace”. Almost three decades after first announcing his ideology, Netanyahu claimed that it finally smashed the assumption that the Jewish state would remain isolated in the region unless it loosened its hold over the Palestinians. Even though his enemies hated his policies, no-one could charge him with being inconsistent.
As a political strong-man, Netanyahu portrayed himself as the “protector of Israel” and Israelis generally trusted him to keep them safe. However, rivals and former allies accused him of chipping away at Israel’s institutions, including the judiciary, in order to maintain his position. Although his political agility got him out of so many tight spots that even his detractors called him a magician, he became dogged by successive corruption investigations, becoming the first serving Israeli leader to face criminal prosecutions while in office.
Lurid allegations had long swirled around Netanyahu, but it wasn’t until November 2019 that he was officially indicted for breach of trust, deception, fraud and accepting bribes. The trial is still at an early stage and few expect a speedy resolution, as even after the court reaches its conclusions, the appeals process could add years to the case. More than once, Netanyahu’s allies have tried, without success, to force through legislation that would have shielded him from the charges he faces. No doubt they had in mind the fate of one of his predecessors, Ehud Olmert, who served as Prime Minister from 2006 to 2009. Olmert was found guilty of accepting bribes and obstruction of justice, serving two-thirds of a 27-month jail sentence before being released by a parole board.
So could King Bibi magic his way back to the throne? He did it before when as Prime Minister he was booted out by the electorate, returning in 2009 with the most right-wing and religious government in Israel’s history. Towering over Israel’s public life and commanding world attention like no countryman before, Netanyahu has also presided over an extraordinary economic turnaround. Israel now has a strong currency, a globally envied high-tech industry and cutting-edge intelligence and counterterrorism capabilities. He has also built up diplomatic and trade relationships with countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America that seemed unattainable even a year ago. Netanyahu was so popular in the US that some said he could be elected their President. Bibi’s close friendship with former President Donald Trump brought huge dividends for Israel. Not only did America under Trump endorse Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which had been stolen from Syria in 1981, but Trump also gave Israel the huge historical prize of recognising Jerusalem as its capital, when he moved the US embassy there in 2018. Such was the synergy between the two men (like Trump, Netanyahu called his election defeat as “the greatest election fraud in history”) that some began to call Netanyahu “Trump with brains”.
All could come crashing down, however, if the courts find Netanyahu guilty of corruption in a trial that he claims was a coup against his government. Israel’s law is vague on whether a Prime Minister should give up office when in court, and Netanyahu could use this to engineer some way back. He has given no sign that he will go quietly into retirement and knows that Naftali Bennett’s coalition government is extremely fragile, liable to collapse at any moment. If it does, Israel will be facing its fifth election in two years, in a seeming perpetual cycle of instability due in part to its electoral system, one which produces a Prime Minister (Bennett) of a party with 7 seats, and a leader of the opposition (Netanyahu) whose party has 30 seats!
The irony for Netanyahu is that he was brought down by an awkward alliance between men he once described as friends. Four of the eight parties forming the current coalition are run by men he once groomed and then betrayed in one way or another. Many see this as his comeuppance on one of his most enduring flaws: his cultivation of protégés whom he then discards, fearing that they might one day challenge him. “This is truly bizarre”, said a former campaign manager for Likud. “People who Netanyahu used to work with, hate him so much. I know hate is a strong word, but that’s what is happening here.” Another former aide alleged “he has no friends. None.”
But don’t write him off yet, suggests a former head of Likud’s communications team. “Netanyahu has been in power for so many years thanks to his charismatic personality, his propaganda abilities, his understanding of political marketing and the exercise of a fear-based strategy.” She believes that Netanyahu has well memorised a key passage from Machiavelli’s The Prince: “achieving a goal is sacred even if the path is immoral, public love is less important than fear, and ongoing propaganda ensures personal survival.” How many world leaders would concur with this?
King Bibi is certain of his return to the throne, having tweeted his followers: “We’ll be back—and quicker than you think.” So, perhaps rather than Machiavelli, he would prefer a variation of Mark Twain’s famous quote: “rumours of my political death have been greatly exaggerated”.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.