Many said, understandably enough, that they would not believe it until it actually happened. Benjamin Netanyahu has had narrow escapes before, but this time his luck finally ran out. Yesterday morning the Israeli parliament confirmed his replacement, Naftali Bennett, in office, leaving Netanyahu and his Likud party in opposition for the first time since 2009.
The new governing coalition embraces eight parties, ranging across the political spectrum. Between them they have 62 of the 120 seats in parliament, but one defector and one abstention reduced that to the bare minimum, with Bennett winning 60 to 59. Two MPs from the Joint List, who voted against, indicated that they would have abstained to help Bennett if necessary, so his underlying margin is a little better than that, but it’s still wafer-thin.
No-one expects that the change will produce any radical shift in Israeli policy. A substantial part of the new government consists of politicians – including Bennett himself – whose difference with Netanyahu is personal rather than ideological. They have no desire to shift their country’s narrative towards the left.
But the fact that Bennett’s coalition is held together by hostility to Netanyahu rather than by any shared political values is not necessarily a source of weakness. Coalitions that seem ideologically compatible often fracture due to personality clashes; this one, by contrast, may hold together precisely because its one point of common ground, the determination to block Netanyahu’s return, is at the forefront of political life.
And in the longer term, the breadth of the coalition may help bring a degree of normality to Israeli politics. At least someone outside the usual run of far-right parties will get some governing experience: the centre-left Meretz is in the government for the first time since last century, and the Islamist Ra’am, or United Arab List, for the first time ever (albeit only with a deputy ministry).
The coalition agreement provides for rotation at the top, with Bennett to yield to centrist leader Yair Lapid in August 2023. A lot could happen before then; if Netanyahu goes to jail, his opponents may feel less of a pressing need to stick together. But Likud has become so much a vehicle for its leader’s ambitions that its return to relevance will not be easy.
An obvious comparison is with Donald Trump and his apparently unshakeable control of the Republican Party. The difference, however, is the rigid two-party nature of the American system; Trump’s opponents within his party have nowhere else to go, so most of them will stay and fight – although so far they are making a bad job of it. But most of Netanyahu’s opponents in Likud have already left, leaving behind a party that is unlikely to be fazed even by a criminal conviction.
The Trump parallel is of more than domestic political interest. To a large extent, as I have been arguing for some years now, Netanyahu pioneered the road that Trump and others followed. Yet most commentators in the west, even when they have no qualms about calling out the threat to democracy posed by the likes of Viktor Orbán or Narendra Modi, shy away from including Netanyahu in the same group.
One exception is Peter Beinart, who in a post yesterday is admirably clear about the way Netanyahu has “helped to father our illiberal age.” He notes the various elements of Netanyahu’s strategy – the chronic lies, the racial bigotry, the crony capitalism, and so on – that have now become familiar in much of the world. While I doubt that other autocrats have consciously used him as a model, he has certainly helped to normalise authoritarian politics.
Israel’s self-image as “the only democracy” in its region is often delusional, but there is a core of real strength there as well. By turning its back on Netanyahu it may again be able to serve as a positive example and help to lead the world back from the edge of the anti-democratic cliff.