The Decline and Fall of Benjamin Netanyahu, Part I
How Benjamin Netanyahu Went From the Undisputed King of Israeli Politics to Fighting for His Political Life
He was supposed to lose. The exit polls had him down 4 Knesset seats to his rival Isaac Herzog from the Zionist Camp opposition bloc. Herzog wasn’t the one giving victory speeches though. Herzog wasn’t the one addressing a packed house of supporters in near-hysteria. Benjamin Netanyahu had pulled it off. He crushed Herzog, 30 seats to 24.
Where did Netanyahu’s surge in support come from? How did he manage to defy not just the pre-election polls, but the exit polls done on Election Day?
The very simple answer is that many from the far-right bought into Likud for this election. Netanyahu, in effect, poached voters from the territory of parties like Yisrael Beitenu, Jewish Home, and Yachad. He went after Bennett’s core constituency in the settlements, visiting the settlement of Eli and being outspoken in his support of expansion.
After Netanyahu called for new elections, Bennett was polling strongly at as many as 18 seats. By February 15th he was at 11 seats, and in the end he only won eight. In 2013 Netanyahu ran on a joint list with Liberman and Yisrael Beitenu, but this alliance broke up before the new elections were called. Liberman, hit (again) with corruption allegations against him and members of his party, saw Yisrael Beitenu’s poll numbers come crashing down, to the point that it became doubtful whether or not he’d make it over the electoral threshold that he had championed raising.
Netanyahu became the right wing. He became its last bastion, the only refuge against the great danger: a left-wing government. Originally, Netanyahu countered the Zionist Camp’s “It’s Us or Him [Netanyahu]” slogan with “It’s Us or Them,” but that changed later on to “It’s Us or the Left.” He successfully reframed the narrative of the election, from “Netanyahu vs Herzog/Livni” to “Right vs Left.”
By claiming to be the only one who could save the political right of Israel (and, by extension, Israel itself), Netanyahu effectively sidelined the parties on his right flank and bring their voters streaming to him. It was a surgical operation, though; Likud would take enough from his right-wing rivals to become the single biggest party but not enough so that they would disappear entirely and not be able to support his reconfirmation as Prime Minister.
The final results were presented, Herzog conceded, and Netanyahu got the call from President Rivlin. He had 42 days to form a government; certainly there would be one in place by April. Putting together the narrow, right wing government that he wanted would take some hard bargaining; Bennett and Lieberman had already made it clear that they expected some nice incentives for their cooperation. For his new government, Netanyahu was going to try to get the Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ), Sephardi Ultra-Orthodox Shas, national religious Jewish Home, center-right Kulanu, and far right wing nationalist Yisrael Beitenu parties on board.
Tough negotiations would be needed to wrangle them into a governing coalition. Both Bennett and Lieberman were demanding the Defense Ministry; Kahlon was demanding the Finance Ministry and general control over the economic mechanisms of the government. Aryeh Deri, leader of Shas, wanted the Interior Ministry, but his past criminal convictions and jail time made it an unpopular move with the public. UTJ was more interested in rolling back legislation that it viewed as attacking them, namely the draft law that saw increased numbers of Ultra-Orthodox serving in the military. Bennett also was demanding the Education and Religious Affairs ministries.
Netanyahu’s previous government, at the insistence of then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid, had strictly limited the number of ministers to 18. Lapid, among others, saw the almost humorous number of ministers that were being brought into past governments (31 in the Prime Minister’s 2009–2013 coalition) as indicative of the bloated and costly bureaucracy weighing Israel down. No more, demanded Lapid, and so the amount of ministers was capped at 18, and Israelis approved. This reform has proved to be a burden on Netanyahu, though, as well went about building his coalition. Ministries couldn’t be doled out like they used to, they couldn’t be used as their own form of bribery as they used to.
Have a reluctant potential coalition partner? Create a few new ministries and hand them out. Governmental baksheesh. Tradition.
With the new restrictions in place, and the finite number of ministries, deputy minister posts became the new currency. When it looked like Deri and Shas would get the Religious Affairs Ministry, Likud negotiators tried to soothe Bennett’s ruffled feathers by offering Jewish Home the deputy minister position. As time went on, though, it became clear that this would not be enough; the limit on ministers would have to be scrapped. The Likud plan was to get a government in place, have them vote to remove the restriction, and then bring in a second wave of ministers to fulfill the various coalition agreements.
It wouldn’t be easy for Netanyahu. He had a lot of very proud men to please. The fact that he had won 30 seats and the rest of his potential partners less than 10 each proved meaningless. Party leaders like Bennett and Lieberman could not be seen as giving in too easily. Kahlon didn’t need to put on an act; everyone knew what he wanted and knew that he would get it.
Situations like this are exactly why the electoral thresholds have been raised in the past. For the first 40 years of the country’s existence all that was needed was to get 1% of the vote in the legislative elections in order to get a seat in the Knesset. The purpose was to put the “representative” in “representative democracy,”, and not just in terms of support of a particular party. It promoted ideological diversity, with smaller, more single-interest focused parties being able to join the Knesset. Since 1988, that threshold has been raised three times, finally reaching the current 3.25%. Its most recent champion was Avigdor Lieberman, who wanted it raised to 4%, but settled for the lower number.
Proponents of raising the threshold note the many problems that have come up as a result of lower hurdles for entry into the Knesset. Lower thresholds promote party fragmentation, with disgruntled members of the Knesset sometimes splitting off from their party and gaining entry with a paltry 1 or 2 seat delegation. These tiny parties could then move as they wished, becoming ideological mercenaries of sorts, willing to join the government of the highest bidder. What came to be was the rise of the “kingmakers,” smaller parties that could make great demands of the larger parties in order to get their support in a coalition. Why not raise the threshold and shut them out of the Knesset?
Lieberman’s ulterior motives were easy to detect, though; he wanted to shut out the Arab parties, who generally hovered just above electoral oblivion. As the campaign season went on, though, and more scandals related to him and his party came to light, Lieberman found himself perilously close to that threshold. His future was in doubt; his party stood a very good chance of not entering the Knesset. In the end, his demise was postponed.
Those very small parties that were ostensibly the target of raised thresholds have never been the issue, though; it has been the mid-sized parties of the exact sort that Netanyahu now found himself dealing with. Outside of the government they would be of no particular influence, but they could still extort high prices from those trying to gain their favor. Netanyahu also could not forget his own party, giving away all the prized ministerial posts to the other parties and leave the scraps for Likud. He had to balance the demands of those he wished to get into his government with his responsibilities as leader of the party.
It could be done, though. It would be done.
One week turned to two, two to three, three to four. Amusement turned to bemusement. Bennett declared he was making a stand on the Religious Affairs Ministry, saying that they would break off negotiations if Jewish Home wasn’t granted the post. More time passed. Netanyahu’s first 28 days passed and he was forced to get an extension from President Rivlin, granting him two extra weeks with which to work. Soon after he got that extension he got his first two coalition partners: Kahlon and UTJ signed coalition agreements, leaving Shas, Jewish Home, and Yisrael Beitenu.
More time passed. Netanyahu had ten days left. Then a week. Then just 72 hours.
And then came the bombshell.
Lieberman called a press conference on Monday, May 3rd, and announced that he would be entering the opposition. No more negotiations. No more Netanyahu.
It was a surprise ending to the long partnership between Lieberman and Netanyahu. For over two decades, as Netanyahu rose, Lieberman rose with him. Lieberman was in his last two coalitions; they had even run on a joint list in 2013 and some even saw Lieberman as Netanyahu’s heir apparent. Yet there they were, their old alliance split asunder.
Their split was not because of what was being offered to Yisrael Beitenu to join the government. Lieberman made it clear in his statement that they could have retained the Foreign Ministry and Lieberman the portfolio for himself, as well as the Immigration and Absorption Ministry. No, this was a battle of principles, as he declared. “What’s being built is not a national camp,” he said angrily, “but a government that smacks of opportunism.”
For the first time in recent memory, Lieberman managed to surprise people. No one was probably more surprised than Netanyahu himself. Instead of having a relatively comfortable 67-seat majority, he was left with a razor-thin 61-seat majority with Naftali Bennett still left to bring into the fold. It would a narrow government, both numbers-wise and ideologically. The coalition would still be very much to the right, even without Lieberman, in what could be characterized as Netanyahu’s most right-wing coalition he has managed.
More importantly, though, 61 seats is not part of the recipe for a stable government. Netanyahu would have to keep every member of every party in the coalition happy all of the time. Considering that he has a poor track record of keeping a few of his past coalition partners happy some of the time (hence the early elections that were held in March), it makes the quick collapse of a government seemingly inevitable. Such a government would be lucky to last a year, let alone a full term. Not exactly what Israelis were hoping for when they went to the polls on March 17th. Elections, after all, certainly are subject to the maxim “everything in moderation.”
Netanyahu had not made things easier for himself with the way he had treated Bennett over the past month and a half.
At the rally on March 15th, Bennett had effectively pledged his loyalty to Netanyahu and bent the knee. He waited upon his call like a vassal, only to be ignored. It wasn’t just that his demand for the Defense Ministry went ignored by Netanyahu, it was that Bennett found himself openly ridiculed for it. He was kept waiting on the sidelines while Netanyahu’s negotiators focused on trying to hammer out a deal with Kahlon and UTJ.
This clearly irked the prideful Bennett; Netanyahu was obviously taking him for granted. Even before the election, Netanyahu had gone after Bennett. He went to Jewish Home territory and poached votes for Likud. He played a major hand in making the party drop from an estimated 18 seats in polls taken around the time elections called to just eight. He forced Bennett to grovel before him that night in Rabin Square, reduced to awkwardly plucking guitar strings to lead a sing-along and assert his relevance. Netanyahu had humiliated Bennett.
No one puts Bennett in a corner.
At 9:00 p.m. on May 6th, many suddenly found themselves in a similar situation to Election Night all those weeks ago. Waiting, snatching up the scraps of information that were coming out. Only a few hours before, Bennett had upped his demands from Netanyahu: he wanted the Justice Ministry, too. At around 8:00 p.m. Netanyahu restarted negotiations with representatives from Jewish Home. The Times of Israel reported at just before 9:00 that he had given in to all of Bennett’s demands.
Bennett himself would become Education Minister (and have a seat in the all-important security cabinet), Ayalet Shaked would get the Justice portfolio, and another Jewish Home member, most like Uri Ariel, would get the Agriculture Ministry.
Almost two months before, at the anti-Netanyahu rally at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, a supporter of the now-opposition party Zionist Camp said that Netanyahu had “ pissed off too many people for too long to make it back in,” he said. He was speaking about the election, but that May night it was hard not to wonder if it might not finally come true. With about 90 minutes left, there was still no deal in place. Would he be able to call President Rivlin at midnight and declare himself the leader of a new government?
Then came 10:30, and Ha’aretz was reporting that it was a done deal. Netanyahu and Bennett had come to an agreement. The waiting was over. An hour later President Rivlin got his call.
In the picture released by Likud media personnel, Netanyahu looks almost hilariously uncomfortable. There’s a bit of relief but, shaking hands with Bennett, it’s the face of a man who knows he’s been worked. Anyone who has ever worked in sales knows the look. He got what he ultimately wanted, a new government, but knows he has paid a tremendous price for it.
Netanyahu now had to move from one headache to another as he turns to the task of handing out assignments to Likud members, who will be given portfolios from among the paltry offerings left after all of the concessions their party leader made to get his 61-seat majority. It was easy to see that Netanyahu would stack the security cabinet with Likud members in an effort to placate them.
The process of handing out portfolios to members of the Likud proved almost as awkward as the negotiations with the other coalition members. Ayoub Kara, Likud’s lone Druze Knesset representative, was demanding that he be given a ministerial position or he would not support the government. Another demand served and, as it would turn out, another demand satisfied by Netanyahu, who made Deputy Minister of Regional Cooperation. With the Prime Minister holding the top job at the ministry himself, Kara would be in charge of day-to-day operations, effectively making him the minister.
It was a sign of things to come. Yisrael Katz, the Minister of Transportation, was demanding a higher position as a reward for his long service to the party. In addition to getting the Transportation portfolio again he was given the Ministry of Intelligence, gaining him the widely-coveted access to the security cabinet. Silvan Shalom, Miri Regev, Tzipi Hotovely, Yuval Steinitz, and Yariv Levin all made their demands after their steadfast loyalty to Netanayahu during the past year.
Being number 2 in the Likud seems to be a cursed position to be in. Netanyahu has long tried to cut down the person behind him on the party’s lists. From David Levy in the 1990s, to now-coalition partner Moshe Kahlon more recently, he has never been kind to his heirs apparent. It proved no different for the current holder of the spot, Gilad Erdan.
Popular within the party ranks, Erdan has for the past six years been working his way up the ministerial ladder, most recently being Interior Minister in Netanyahu’s last government. When Liberman jumped ship, Erdan demanded the Foreign Ministry for himself, the rightful position for a man who had always been supportive of his boss. Netanyahu offered him his old ministry back, but with a much smaller jurisdication that it had previous possessed, as the Planning Authority had been split off and given to Moshe Kahlon and the Finance Ministry.
In the end, Erdan rejected Netanyahu’s final offer of the Public Security Ministry. Instead he will be a regular backbencher, and Netanyahu loses another ally. Meanwhile Gideon Sa’ar, Erdan’s predecessor at the second Likud spot, is waiting out the storm. Like Kahlon, he will most likely make a comeback and challenge Netanyahu.
Netanyahu was finally able to shepherd his quarrelsome Likud into order and get his government sworn in. 61 seats for, the entire 59-seat opposition against. Breaking out of his shell, Isaac Herzog blasted Netanyahu and everything about his government.
“You did not form a government, you formed a circus,” Herzog shot at Netanyahu, “you created a government at any price. Everything just so you would stay in your position, for longer, and longer and longer.”
It’s easy to look powerful when your opposition is disunited, Roman history taught the world that. When he had a bigger coalition and the opposition lacked a leader, Netanyahu appeared unbeatable. Shelly Yachimovich was never a real threat during her time as opposition rally, and neither had Livni. Herzog, though, is gaining on the Prime Minister. With the smallest possible majority, any slip-up by Netanyahu can be a boon for Herzog.
For the first time in years, a real opposition was taking shape. At his government’s swearing in, Netanyahu looked remarkably weak while his chief rival was asserting his leadership of the opposition. While much of his time will be spent trying to keep his fractious coalition together, Herzog on the other hand is going to be spending his time continuing to build himself into a truly viable alternative to Netanyahu. Not that Herzog has what can be called an easy task, as he will have to fend off Yair Lapid’s attempt to become de fact head of the opposition while also trying to keep the various parties working in some sort of harmony.
When the campaign season started, Netanyahu looked like he was going to cruise to victory. In the end, he only won by cannibilizing the other right-wing parties, and then found them exacting vengeance when he went to bring them into the government. Netanyahu now finds himself at his weakest point in almost a decade. He looks increasingly as he did in 1999 when his first government was collapsing: unconcealable nervousness. He knows how fragile his coalition is. He knows how much work is going to have to go into passing any sort of meaningful legislation. He know how much Israel’s allies dissaprove of the members of his cabinet.
Netanyahu cannot afford to make any mistakes. This looks to be it for him. His government collapsing would be the end of him, especially if it happens relatively quickly. He threw down everything he had to win another election and become Prime Minister again, but it may just end up costing him his career.
Garrett Khoury, a graduate of The George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs and an MA Candidate at Tel Aviv University, is the Director of Research and Content for The Eastern Project. Garrett has previously worked with The Israel Project in Jerusalem and The American Task Force on the Western Sahara in Washington, DC. Contact at: firstname.lastname@example.org